Executive ‘horse-trading’ united Scotland: the Scottish constitutional convention and its relevance today

The constitutional convention changed Scottish politics through hard earned consensus building. The Scottish experience could be a driving force in mending broken British democracy.

Robin McAlpine
29 September 2015
Scottish parliament.jpg

Flickr/ Andy Hay.Some rights reserved.

So many of you progressives in England have been so interested in the referendum experience in Scotland that I fear you've forgotten about the longer-term history of how we got there. And this is a shame because I suspect it will be the events in Scotland of (roughly) 1988 to 1994 that might be more directly relevant to you right now.

And so a quick recap. In 1979 Scotland voted for a Scottish Parliament but one half of a deeply divided Labour Party pushed a clause in the referendum legislation which required not only a majority vote, but a threshold of the population as a whole to have voted yes. The campaign was similarly dispiriting (I was only seven but even by then the horror of the 1978 World Cup campaign had merged into a dismal referendum outcome...) The SNP wouldn't work with Labour, Labour was split down the middle, the media was very hostile, even the weather was truly awful. Then there was Thatcher...

It was in the face of this division, misery and despair that a cross-party group of people who had been working as the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly changed their name to Campaign for a Scottish Parliament and began the process of assembling the Scottish constitutional convention. They invited every Scottish MP, all the political parties and a whole host of key civic organisations (crucially the churches, the voluntary sector and the trade unions) to become members. In total, this created a body of coming on for 200 people. They set up an executive to do the primary work and used biannual meetings of the whole group as effectively a PR opportunity. The whole thing was chaired by a popular and respected Scottish Episcopalian minister.

The executive was chaired by two particularly respected former civil servants, both experienced in negotiation. The executive was made up of carefully selected representatives of the stakeholders who were going to be make-or-break for the whole process and in particular the political parties (the Tories refused to participate and the SNP later pulled out after an internal party split between fundamentalists and gradualists). This was not representative or participatory democracy. It was horse-trading behind semi-closed doors among stakeholder groups. And that is very much what it needed to be. It operated on a consensus basis and so if it was to work (if the end result was not to be rejected by some of the groups and therefore fall apart), all the hard work of deals and compromises had to be thrashed out. There was an element of open and citizen engagement but to get parties (and here I'm not just referring to political parties) to sign up there had to be negotiation.

As well as the two civil servants who chaired the group, it is important to be aware of the crucial role that Campbell Christie took. He was the general secretary of the STUC and a visionary man who still knew how the system worked. On many issues it was the Labour party that had to be brought into the fold with the others – particularly on agreeing a proportional voting system. This is understandable given how dominant Labour was at the time, but it was also a function of a party in which the culture was not just to have back-room deals but to never lose them. From my knowledge of what happened in the convention (I was too young to remember it all but my mum was a member of the executive) I would argue that the title of the 'real father of the Scottish parliament' should belong not to Donald Dewar but to Campbell Christie. A strong case can be made that it was his determination, intelligence, and problem-solving skills that overcame all the real barriers that were there from the outset.

A nearly final report was produced before the 1992 election. It produced what I have referred to as a 'radical consensus'. There is an assumption that horse-trading and consensus working tends towards a lowest common denominator outcome. The convention showed that this need not always be the case, with the voting system being perhaps the case study. Labour (mostly) opposed any form of proportional representation in an effort to shore up their Scottish hegemony. But clearly for the Lib Dems, this was a deal-breaker. And so arms were twisted and the implication of failing to find a consensus driven home to all. In the end, Labour agreed (and it should be noted that not all in Labour were anti-PR with the feminist lobby in particular seeing this as a route to rebalancing gender representation).

However, the Lib Dems would have gone for a fairly conservative version of Single Transferrable Vote. This, however, was not accepted by in particular the women's caucus inside the STUC. They saw the Additional Member System as the means through which gender balance could best be achieve with the list element being used to balance disproportionate male representation in the constituencies. As this was not a deal-breaker for the Lib Dems, this became the system proposed in the final report. And it is the voting system used in the Scottish Parliament to this day.

(As a historical footnote, one of the enduring myths of Scottish politics is that this voting system was agreed to make sure that the 'SNP could never achieve an overall majority'. This is total nonsense. It was the Lib Dems and the STUC that made the system of PR inevitable – the line about keeping out the SNP was simply a line used by Labour to sell the deal to their more recalcitrant members. I remain astonished that this ill-informed myth is so prevalent in Scottish politics to this day...)

The whole thing was put at serious risk after the 1992 election. Everyone of course expected Labour was going to win which meant everyone was geared up (mentally and practically) to implement this package. The shock result was a serious blow. It created very substantial anger and despair across Scotland and the 'Scotland United' movement with mass demos and talk of civil disobedience briefly seemed like it might derail the whole process (going to the Scotland United demo in George Square within a week of the election result was one of my early personal political acts and no-one there thought their sort-of collective scream of rage was going to put the process at risk, but by being militant but completely unfocussed, it nearly did).

The final report of the convention was then picked up and tweaked a bit after 1992, generally improving it. And the process of embedding it continued with the 'village elders' of the convention building the proposals deeper and deeper into their various parties and organisations. It didn't have the glamour or the excitement of the Scotland United movement (and it is of course important to note that there was an enormous amount of cross-over between the two), but Scotland United, without a shared plan or goal, fizzled out within the year while the more sober but deeply-rooted convention proposals lived on. By the time Tony Blair took on the mantle of delivering on the proposals there was nothing he could do but implement them in total – much as he would have liked it to be otherwise.

In truth, this grinding hard work created the Scotland we have now. It immediately injected a Green and Socialist voice into Scotland and balanced the parties much more equally. It isn't conceivable that the political awakening happening in Scotland right now could have existed in this form if this work had not been done.

So that's the basics. What does it mean for Britain today? I think it needs to follow something very like this model. So first of all, there needs to be a constitutional convention with voting reform at its very heart (though I think this is the bare minimum it should look at). It must not be owned by any political party if it is to work. It must reach out beyond the political parties too, drawing in key civic organisations. However, much as I'm a strong supporter of participatory democracy, I'd strongly argue here that horse-trading is unavoidable. If the big stakeholders cannot be 'bound into' the process and the outcome, it will fail. And I'm afraid that everyone just needs to accept that big institutions still operate by way of, well, 'trading horses'.

A few more thoughts on the specifics of the Scottish experience. First, I'd look for a really highly respected public figure who is not tied closely to any one political party to be the chair of the convention. Put simply, what is Stephen Fry (or someone similar) doing for the odd weekend over the next two years? Then I'd be highly cynical in picking people. There needs to be first rate negotiation capacity in there, independent of the parties. Perhaps the TUC's Frances Grady could take the Campbell Christie role? And then I'd pick an executive not based on who is already totally on board but specifically on who is 'winnable' and absolutely needs to be on board. There is no point making the Labour figure a PR evangelist if he or she can't carry the rest of the party. And it can't just be the political parties – there needs to be some civic 'glue' to bind together the more fractious political element.

There are some weaknesses in the starting position in Britain just now compared to Scotland. There was much more unity in Scotland in the 1980s, driven by widespread rejection of Thatcher. There were stronger national civic institutions than there are in Britain and they were both more united and more radical (the churches in particular managed to speak with one voice and that voice was radical and progressive). The media was largely sympathetic, particularly the biggest-selling tabloid. And frankly, the arguments had been largely won (remember, we'd already voted Yes in a referendum).

I suggest that to overcome some of this the whole process must absolutely be embedded in a 'frame' which is not about the constitution but in 'fixing Britain's broken democracy'. It will require a much sharper and better-resourced public relations and campaigning strategy than was needed in Scotland. It should be about rebalancing the relationship between citizens and power, and it should be inspiring and visionary in its goals and aims (I have many thoughts on this but if I start outlining them here this article will never end...)

What I can't judge is if there are major, uniting figures who have the personal commitment to drive this (as an example, the body which represented Scotland's local authorities was represented by a strong advocate for this process and it was CoSLA which provided the secretariat to the convention). Success will I suspect be driven by the individuals involved as much as by the institutions involved. That was certainly the lesson in Scotland.

And so finally, what should it look at? I'd suggest that the best way to set that is to let the 'radical consensus' model play out and see what people bring, what people can live with and what becomes the priority in discussion and debate. So it would be better to start with a bigger list rather than a smaller one. I think that PR, replacement of the House Of Lords, empowering local government and decentralisation, embedding participatory democracy, strengthening Freedom of Information and reform of the civil service at the very least should all be on the table. Personally, I think that media reform is absolutely crucial and a cross-party approach like this might be the best opportunity to take this on (though I realise that alienating the mainstream media may not be the best way to gain consensus, wrong as that statement feels even as I write it). One thing I would offer the strongest possible warning on is that this convention should not try to 'fix' the 'Scottish problem'. If it does it will simply split things further almost immediately and be likely to do nothing more than generate a lot of hostility from Scotland among people who would otherwise be strong supporters. If you want to 'fix Scotland', start in Scotland. With us. By us.

If you are a veteran of constitutional politics and have read through all of this and learned nothing, my apologies. The constitutional convention was born and became unnecessary all before the internet. You'll find surprisingly little information on it online. But it worked and worked incredibly well. If the referendum process was the first real revolution of the new politics, the constitutional convention was the last real revolution of the old politics in Scotland. It not only created a strong proposal for change, it not only embedded it so deeply that it could not be overturned, it not only bound all the parties to it, it changed the whole of Scottish politics in the process of creating it.

Democracy in Britain is broken. It will not be fixed by any one party, stakeholder or campaign. We will not get out of 'this Britain' and into a better one by following the same party-political approaches that have kept 'this Britain' alive. But it cannot be done without binding closely all the parties who can drive change (and finding pro-reform Tories would be a crucial early task). The despair of the Thatcher years galvanised Scotland into doing something big and real that was deeply rooted and irreversible. The Osborne years should do the same for Britain. I just think it could save a lot of time for all involved if they were to take a good look at the Scottish experience of this and build a robust process today which will deliver the same radically-reforming outcome for Westminster.

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