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Editor: Kenneth Roy
Deputy Editor: Islay McLeod

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Islay McLeod

1 October 2014
The travesty
of democracy
known as Holyrood
Kenneth Roy

Photograph by Islay McLeod

In the last fortnight, two members of parliaments on either side of the border have quit their parties. Most people are aware of only one of them: Mark Reckless, who defected to UKIP on the eve of the Conservative conference, inflicting maximum damage on his leader. For disloyalty to the captain, his only current equal is the American golfer Phil Mickleson.

Mr Reckless is someone who believes in living down to his name. He once had to apologise for being too drunk to vote in the House of Commons, and has been ridiculed in the serious press as an embarrassing figure of no consequence.

Yet he is not without honour. He could have continued in the House of Commons until the general election next May. Instead, the Reckless one has chosen to trigger a by-election in his constituency, a Tory stronghold where his treachery may not be widely appreciated. By placing himself at the disposal of the electorate, he has put his career, such as it is, on the line.

In striking contrast, the departure of John Wilson was a story of little interest, generating no more than an exhausted yawn in the immediate wake of the referendum.

John who?, I hear you ask.

Mr Wilson is – or was – a Scottish National Party MSP. In 2012 he was unhappy about the party's decision to end its long-standing opposition to membership of NATO. He considered resigning in protest, but was prevailed upon to stay until after the referendum.

As soon as the No vote was declared, he left the party. But there will be no by-election. It isn't constitutionally possible in his case, even if he wanted one. Mr Wilson will simply plod on as an independent, drawing his salary of £58,000 a year for a further 20 months, until the delayed Holyrood election.

No-one complains about this. No-one seems to think it objectionable. And, though few have heard of him outside the Wilson household, he appears to be a decent bloke – a man of principle. Nevertheless, he now finds himself in a fairly odd situation. Let me explain.

When we cast our vote in May 2011 for the fourth Scottish Parliament of the modern era, we were faced with two ballot papers of different colours. On the first, for the 73 Scottish constituencies, we were invited to put our cross against the human being of our choice. Well, that was simple enough.

On the second – peach, I seem to recall – we voted for the party of our choice, relying on its sound judgement in selecting people unknown to us for the 56 seats in the parliament allocated to regional – better known as List – MSPs. None of us voted for these hybrid creatures – except in the most indirect fashion by our endorsement of their party.

An unacceptably high proportion of the parliament – 40% – consists of people that no-one voted for. Mr Wilson is one of them. He appeared high enough on the SNP's slate of candidates in the region known as Central Scotland to become a beneficiary of the system of proportional representation which is hailed by friends of the parliament as a model of democracy.

It is such a model of democracy that although Mr Wilson has been voted for by no-one, and has now disowned the party upon whose patronage he depended, he is entitled to keep his seat.

He is not alone. Two other SNP MSPs, John Finnie and Jean Urquhart, also opposed the about-turn on NATO membership, which was agreed at the party's annual conference in October 2012 by a vote of 426 to 332. But unlike Mr Wilson they quit at once. Mr Finnie said he could not belong to a party that 'quite rightly does not wish to hold nuclear weapons on its soil, but wants to join a first strike nuclear alliance'.

These principled resignations occurred only 18 months after the May 2011 election and left Mr Finnie and Mrs Urquhart, both List members, in exactly the same invidious position as Mr Wilson – only for much longer. By the time of the next election in May 2016 they will have been in that position for three years and eight months. For all of that period, they will have exercised their right to retain their seats in the parliament without a direct mandate from the electorate and divorced from the party that sent him there.

This same model of democracy also allows new members to drift into Holyrood in mid-term without any reference to the electorate. When John Park, a Labour List member in Fife, decided in December 2012 that he would rather be a full-time trade union official than a member of the Scottish Parliament, the law of Buggins' turn applied. He was promptly replaced by the next person on the party slate, the Buggins here being a Ms Buggins – a local councillor, Jayne Baxter, whose arrival in Edinburgh made not the faintest ripple on the body politic.

Similarly, when David McLetchie died in August 2013, the wondrously named Cameron Buchanan, a big name in tailoring, was suddenly to be seen wandering the corridors, the new unelected Tory on the block.

In May 2013, the SNP's Mark McDonald resigned as a List MSP in order to contest the Aberdeen Donside by-election (which he won). In the subsequent game of tartan musical chairs, he was replaced by Christian Allard, an executive in the fishing industry. There is no record of Mr Allard having stood for election anywhere, anytime. But good for him; he too is swimming contentedly among the many other small fish in the Scottish Parliament, without having to endure the inconvenience of seeking the prior approval of the electorate.

A system so obliging to the entrenched interests of the main parties, while masquerading as a glorious exercise in representation of the people, came badly unstuck with the death of Margo MacDonald, one of the few genuine independents in the 15-year history of the parliament. She too was a List MSP, but unusually one that the people had made a conscious decision to vote for.

The wacky system couldn't cope. The carve-up had been designed for party slates, and there was no party slate for independents. They were, so to speak, independent. So her seat must remain vacant until May 2016. By then the irreplaceable Margo MacDonald will have been dead for more than two years.

Proportional representation was intended to produce a parliament of many colours, giving a place to minorities. It didn't. It was intended to ensure that no party would ever have a majority. It didn't. It was intended to enhance democracy in Scotland. It didn't – we have the Electoral Reform Society's word for that. The system has failed in most of what it set out to do, yet it legitimises anomalies of the kind I have just described.

A model of democracy? No. A travesty of democracy; and without the scrutinising influence of a second chamber.

Despite Ms Sturgeon's protestations that independence will only be achieved by referendum, there are many supporters of the idea that it could just as well be declared unilaterally by a majority in the Scottish Parliament. In such a situation, the future of Scotland could hang on the wishes of 56 people, none of whom anyone has voted for. I thought I'd better warn you now.

Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review