22 June 2009

Scotland's "Speaker" problem...

The spinning Speaker churn in Westminster has got me thinking. Now we know that John Bercow has ultimately won out, and has earned the right to squeeze himself into black robe and pantaloons in public. One thing is obvious, however. Whether the Liberal Democrats had lost Alan Beith*, or the Tories George Young, or Labour Margaret Beckett*, none of the parties would have been particularly befuddled by the depletion. The divided parliamentary arithmetic will be sustained either way by the brute numbers generated by “first-past-the-post” voting system, any change being readily soaked up by the Government’s stonking majority.

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 PO has a different range of set piece commitments, in particular, delivering a speech at the opening of Parliament and at other large scale ceremonial. Heretofore, we’ve had David Steel – to my mind, much overrated, too grovelling and grateful at being spattered by regal attention – and George Reid, whose splendid speech at the Opening of the Parliamentary building in 2004 did him much credit.

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 PO by Members shall be by secret ballot. Succeeding is relatively simple. Where there are two candidates in a round of voting, a simple majority suffices. Where there are more than two, “the number of votes for one candidate exceeds the total number of votes for all the other candidates, that candidate shall be elected”. If this doesn’t happen, and one candidate does not produce such a majority, the candidate with the smallest number is eliminated, and another round of voting ensues.

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 PO’s chair. For similar reasons, and with an eye to the numbers, Labour weren’t keen. The Greens reasonably wanted to keep their brace of surviving members politically engaged, influencing policies. After much wrangling, and one suspects, a bit of arm-bending, the current Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson was induced to stand. To the surprise of many, Margo MacDonald sprang from the bushes at the last minute, but the ex-President of the Blackface Sheep Breeders' Association triumphed over the Lothians trumpet, 108 votes to 20.

Interestingly, Fergusson didn’t have to feign unwillingness as he mounted the PO’s dais, saying “I will, like my predecessors, reluctantly suspend my party allegiance for as long as I serve in this office.” All of which is most picturesque, showing our advanced Scottish democracy at its most warm and fluffy.

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 PO becomes an intensely political calculation. The unrepresentativeness of Westminster makes achieving impartiality relatively straightforward. As 2007 almost showed, where a result is close in a proportional system, finding the willing soul content to sacrifice their political say can be almost impossible, leading to needless brinksmanship. I imagine both the Nationalists and Labour tribunes breathed a satisfied wheeze of relief once Fergusson submitted to the collective goadings of the chamber and took up the gavel.

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.


  1. How about the outgoing Scottish Parliament electing the next session's PO from amongst their number? We already trust the former Presiding Officer, even though not an MSP, to preside over the election of a new one, and to chair Parliament. Rather than creating a directly-elected post, with all the baggage and 'legitimacy' that creates, the 129 MSPs could elect the next PO at dissolution. It would give an elder statesman effect, as well as guaranteeing that the MSPs had a bit of an idea who they were electing, and the position they were electing them to. If the new Parliament really wanted rid of the PO there would still be in extremis the facility to no confidence them.

  2. Absolutely. If the goal is primarily to achieve representativeness among elected members, a number of expedients could be pursued - including the one you suggest, Anonymous. Of course there might be other questions - from what pool would the MSPs choose, would it have to be a former fellow tribune, or just some chap or chapess off the street?