5 December 2009

Tittle-tattle and minority government...

To round up a week of important developments in Scottish criminal justice and instructive social research, just a couple more references for you. This week saw the Scottish Law Commission publish its pushmipullyu Report on Double Jeopardy, available here. It is a heavy document – much of it expressed in technical language and addressing lawyerly considerations which cannot but put your average, sensible citizen off. Generously, however, a summary of recommendations is available in part six of the document, shorn of reasoning, but pithier. At least, a smidgeon pithier.

Also of interest, in the category of narcissism and political science, is the Making Minority Government Work Report, published on the third, and produced by the Institute for Government and University College London’s Constitution Unit. Operating in contemplation of the House of Commons emerging from the next general election with no party constituting a majority of MPs, the report glances about in an attempt to anticipate how such a House might operate. In particular, would a cross-party coalition be formed? In the alternative, how might a minority Tory or Labour or Liberal Democrat government fare? If either option is sustainable – at least in the short to medium term – which is preferable? For Scots political obsessives, pages 54 to 66 will be of particular interest. Akash Paun’s contribution is entitled “Learning from Scotland’s Parliament of Minorities”. While noting various important differences, including proportional representation, fixed electoral cycles, it is assumed that:

“much else about the Scottish political system – including the fundamental relationships between executive and legislature, government and opposition, and ministers and civil servants – remains sufficiently similar to that of Westminster that cross-jurisdictional lesson-drawing can be a worthwhile exercise.” (2009, 55).

Is this a fair assumption? How do we discern between fundamental aspects of relationships, and those that are contingent? In particular, what about the ghostly, diffuse presence of political cultures inside these institutions? While certainly, I’d agree that counter-examples can refute political claims about unavoidable iron laws of causality – in particular that minority governments must collapse – I’m not convinced that it is helpful to reconstruct your own conceptual, deterministic vision either. In fairness, I don’t think that Paun is doing this in any radical way. However, an analytical focus on roles and forms and institutional norms can actually conceal the other, immaterial influences that cause things to be done in one way rather than another. The shaping forces which don’t make it into the official account of parliament’s operations - its tittle-tattle, the hidden transcripts of its operating culture – must be taken into account. Political philosophy is all very well – but our ideas are incarnated, and other, sneaky notions creep in alongside, far too often being treated as beneath the analytical dignity of scholars.

Its at this level, rather than the conceptual potentialities of political philosophy, that I'd suggest that many of the pressures on such a government can best be understood. Its the unscribed particularities and understandings in Westminster which we'll have to attend to, in assessing the survivability of any government of the minority.


  1. On double jeopardy, here's a thing. The Magna Carta doesn't apply in Scotland and therefore the citizen's right to trial by jury if requested doesn't apply either. I'm for keeping double jeopardy at least until a Scottish Bill of Rights is enacted (not those European rights that are given away free in cornflake packets)

    Probably the EU will abolish juries (by decree) in the meantime.

    As for minority government, the SNP have made a pretty good fist of it n'est pas?

  2. On which point, bigrab, I've moaned several times.


    There was a particularly insane article in the Herald a while back suggesting that jury trial is some fundamental right - still, apparently, unfazed that only a tiny, tiny slice of the total criminal trials are heard by juries, in Scotland or in England. Or what is perhaps even stranger, doesn't take this information as a springboard for reform to 'realise' whatever fundamental rights they imagine we citizens ought to have. Mostly onion squeezing then, and superficial good conscience.

    On the minority government point - an interesting thought. I have a post loosely in mind on that very question as I rattle this off. Perhaps I'll coax the little thought into full expression later!