Should Holyrood introduce a system to sack MSPs? – Opinion

Just as 2016 will be remembered as the year we lost so many influential figures, perhaps 2017 will go down as the period in which we faced up to a screed of difficult allegations, culminating in the #MeToo campaign.

The movement rumbles on into 2018, with an overtly political Oscars ceremony acting as evidence that this isn’t about to go away.


The Scottish Government Chamber, Holyrood   Image Credit:Paul Buckingham

In the UK, the ardent BBC Women continue their fight to scrap the gender pay gap at the corporation. It seems to be that, no matter the sector, there is an undercurrent of unrest regarding our attitudes to equality and fairness.

But what of the political sphere? Just last week, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Willie Rennie, wrote to fellow party leaders at Holyrood calling for a system of recall to be introduced, whereby the public would effectively have the right to sack their MSP. Mr Rennie, who received backing from the Co-Convener of the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie, put the argument as the Scottish Parliament is still reeling from an internal survey which found one in five staff – including one in three women – had experienced some form of harassment in the workplace.

Another story running parallel to this ugly revelation is the ongoing saga surrounding former SNP minister, Mark McDonald – who returned to parliament yesterday. It was reported on Monday that the MSP for Aberdeen Donside has been moved out of his office in the SNP corridor at Holyrood, and will instead be given a room in the basement. Mr McDonald’s former party leader, Nicola Sturgeon has publicly called for him to stand down but he says he is “morally justified” in returning to parliament as an independent.

What Willie Rennie and Patrick Harvie want is a system designed exactly for this kind of situation. In short, one which would enable the public to say whether the likes of Mr McDonald is allowed to return or not. But what would such a protocol do to our democracy?

Way back in 2010, the Coalition Agreement included a commitment to bring forward the power of recall to the House of Commons. By 2015, as the Tory-Lib Dem government was beginning to take on water, the Recall of MPs Act was passed. The legislation saw a huge shift in accountability for MPs. Suddenly the public could petition for their constituency representative to be chucked out of Westminster, providing there was sufficient evidence of wrongdoing agreed to by the speaker.


Willie Rennie: Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats Image Credit: The Scottish Parliament Youtube channel

But MPs began to argue back. Some said members would simply become “lobby fodder”, implying politicians would no longer vote with a conscience but instead they would be constantly trying to please the electorate.

The 19th century political thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville warned against a focus on individualism when he introduced the notion of the ‘tyranny of the majority’. What Tocqueville was wary of was an over-reliance on a reactive public. There must be a balance between encouraging engagement in the democratic process and holding back from putting everything to the public. A functioning representative democracy should not have to rely on referenda and petitions – parliament should have the skill base to act on behalf of constituents.

Of course, the matter of harassment is a serious one. Last week’s Newsnight special on allegations of widespread misconduct at Westminster and Whitehall has laid down the marker for change. And whilst it is perhaps dangerous to hand the baton to the public over such sensitive issues, one thing is for sure – this cannot be dealt with internally. Whilst Westminster is some way ahead of Holyrood in having the ‘recall’ system, given the Speaker, John Bercow is entwined in the allegations, this issue must be dealt with by an independent body.

Perhaps Holyrood should take heed of developments at the House of Commons over the repercussions to some fantastic journalism by Chris Cook and Lucinda Day. Recall may very well be an option but it seems absolutely imperative that the change evoked from this marked shift in our moral compass is dealt with outwith the corridors of power – as those who occupy said corridors are oh so intimately involved.

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