The only real losers will be the voters unfortunate enough to have the duly elected speaker foisted on them, finding their right to a free and sensible and political parliamentary election in their constituency instantly and potentially lengthily curbed by convention. At least insofar as the scented fetishes of Westminster flummery succeed in warding off electioneering rivals and contrive to keep Mr Speaker contentedly ensconced in place.
Contrast the Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer. If you ask me, in terms of the “invented traditions” of Holyrood, and the ritual transplants which it has slyly snagged from the Westminster Parliamentary tradition, one of the most interesting developments has been the stature and role of the Presiding Officer. In contrast to the Speaker, the
This aside, the question I want to ask is: how appropriate is the arrangement currently provided for in the Scotland Act 1998? Since Calman has put the Act on the reforming agenda, I think there may be principled reasons to rethink the approach.
But first, the arrangements at present. The Scotland Act provides that The Parliament shall at its first meeting following a general election, elect from its members a Presiding Officer and two deputies. The former Presiding Officer retains his or her office “until the conclusion of the next election for Presiding Officer”. Thus, there is a relatively rapid turn over of the Scots “Speakers”, with the real possibility of discontented punters booting the character out if he or she is a constituency member. Holyrood’s standing orders provide that the election of the
All of which seems broadly sane. My question returns us to my theme at the beginning: the wider numerical repercussions of a member being elected Presiding Officer. If I may gently nudge your minds back to May 2007, the whole situation seemed jammed, precisely because of Holyrood’s proportionality. Due to the SNP’s narrowest of narrow margins lead on Labour, and their expectation of forming the new government, there was never any question that one of their new Members would thrust themselves into the
Interestingly, Fergusson didn’t have to feign unwillingness as he mounted the
The problem? Arguably, electing a presiding officer and forcing them to shed their political scales in this fashion screws up the overriding aim of the Parliament to be proportional. Why go to all the trouble of feeding all of our votes into D’Hondt’s magic bingo machine, only to stir the fly in with the ointment, and disproportionately deny one party its full politically engaged whack of members? There is certainly a bit of internal tension here.
Precisely because of the keen pressures generated by a system aiming for finely balanced political representativeness, nominating the
Is this wise? Could it be improved in any case? Could a Presiding Officer be directly elected by a whole country plebiscite concurrent with four-year general elections? Would we want this sort of approach anyway? While the idea of the Presiding Officer as representative and servant of the Parliament is certainly much less prevalent in Holyrood than its Wesminster equivalent, some might still prefer candidates to emerge “from the parliament”. Even if this is not the case, the current system clearly infringes the aim of proportionality. A separate election might avoid this problem. Alternatively, a Presiding Officer might be appointed by rather than from parliament. Finally, while the present arrangement may pose conceptual problems from a perspective of proportion, perhaps we are willing to concede to this, given the perceived ancillary benefits.
Do share any thoughts you may have. I’d be curious.
*As this is published, both of these characters have fallen on their black rods, flung in their order papers, and given up their bid to wear the black tights. I've now updated to reflect John Bercow's 322 to 271 victory over George Young.