The Scotland Bill was no surprise when it was announced in the Queens Speech. In the lead up to the Scottish independence referendum vote last September and following a particular cliff-edge poll, unionist parties became very worried that the pro-independence Yes campaign might just do it. Two days before the referendum, the leaders of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties joined forces on the front of the Daily Record where they made a vow that more powers would be given to Scotland if they voted to stay in the UK. A cross-party commission under Lord Smith was quickly set up to look at further powers.
Many saw the irony that the unprecedented democratic debate that had grown out of the independence referendum, a debate way beyond parties and politicians, ended up in a number of small committee rooms in meetings composed only of politicians. Regardless, the Smith Commission reached agreement a few weeks later and the draft clauses were published in January. This week saw the second reading of the Bill born of that process.
On electoral matters relating to the Scottish Parliament, the Bill would see a significant transfer of powers. As far as electing and running the parliament itself within its own competencies – i.e. policy areas it is allowed to legislate on – it can be said to be fully devolved.
On other parts of the Bill, notably tax and welfare, there is serious disagreement between the Scottish Government and Westminster. The main argument seems to be the difference between David Cameron’s ‘intergovernmental agreement’ and Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘veto’. So Scottish ministers claim that the Smith Report has been watered down, while simultaneously making the case that, in voting for an SNP landslide at the General Elections, Scots were creating a mandate for the delivery of the SNP manifesto – a manifesto which obviously promised considerably more powers than are contained in the current Bill.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of these disagreements, if the new powers over elections are obtained it gives the chance for Scotland to continue leading the way on democrcatic reform. Scotland has already moved leaps and bounds beyond the rest of the UK by moving to electing its local councillors by the Single Transferable Vote, and now is moving further in a growing push for participative governance, part of an idea that has started to be termed ‘the Scottish Approach’.
The new powers could mean improvements to the Scottish parliamentary electoral system, an opportunity to have fairer sized constituencies based on population numbers not registered voters, and to try out innovations such as weekend voting or same day electoral registration. All making the most of the opportunity to get as many Scots as possible involved in democracy, and perhaps showing the rest of the UK what is possible.