The second section of Common Weal’s White Paper considers the Key Institutions of an Independent Scotland. This apparently will include reforming our current Scottish Parliament. The White Paper calls for two specific changes: 1. increasing the number of MSPs and 2. creating a Citizens Chamber. What is notable about both suggested reforms is that no context for either is provided. Common Weal just asserts that they will be necessary.
As regards a Citizens Chamber the justification according to the White Paper is that Scotland does not have a revising chamber and would no longer have Westminster, the House of Lords or any other parliamentary body with the power to examine its work. While it is true that Scotland does not have a revising chamber, I am not sure that Westminster or the House of Lords offer much in the way of scrutiny. There is also the not insignificant matter of democratic legitimacy. Which I would suggest both bodies conspicuously lack in relation to Scotland. So losing their input is not much of a loss at all as far as I can see.
The unstated assumption behind this claim is that Scotland needs a revising chamber. But no evidence whatsoever is provided as to why this is so. In particular no reference is made to the actual experience of other independent countries. While many countries do have a revising or second chamber, nearly all of them are countries with much, much larger populations than Scotland.
For countries with a population similar to Scotland or less than Scotland’s, a unicameral parliament is the norm. For example of the 10 member states of the European Union with a population similar to or less than Scotland, eight manage successfully with just one chamber. Only Ireland and Slovenia have felt it necessary to have a revising chamber. Outwith the EU, nine of the 10 countries with populations similar to or less than Scotland also manage with just one parliamentary chamber. The Exception is Bosnia and Herzegovina, which may have its recent bloody history as a reason for needing a second chamber.
Looking beyond Europe there does not appear to be much evidence that a revising chamber for small countries is needed. Our antipodean cousins in New Zealand also manage to run a successful country with just one chamber.
None of the above means that creating a revising chamber is not something worth considering. It should mean at the very least that someone explains why Scotland needs an additional chamber when just about every other country of similar size manages well without one.
The other claim is that we will need to increase the number of MSPs with independence. As the White Paper puts it: “Upon independence the Scottish Parliament shall take on all responsibilities currently reserved to Westminster as well as maintaining existing responsibilities, leading to a substantial increase in workload which cannot be performed by the existing Parliament. The number of members of the Scottish Parliament shall therefore be expanded to reflect the loss of Members of Parliament at Westminster.”
Notice that this is not a recommendation. The use of the word “shall” implies that an increase in the number of MSPs will happen. However once again no context for this is provided. For example how does the size of the Scottish Parliament compare with parliaments in other similar countries? At first glance this comparison does provide some grounds for a larger number of MSPs. Of the five EU countries with a population very much similar in size to Scotland, all five have a larger number of parliamentarians. However there is no pattern to this. The numbers range from 150 for Slovakia to 179 for Denmark, while Finland has 200 MPs.
It is not obvious why there is such a wide range. Which emphasises a key point – there does not appear to be any clear relationship between the population of a country and the number of MPs in parliament. This holds true for countries outwith the EU. Macedonia with a population of around two million has a parliament with 123 MPs, while Moldova with a three and a half million people manages with just 101 MPs.
The other important factor in all this is that irrespective of the size of the population of a country, its government and parliament will have to carry out pretty much the same functions. This applies to even very small countries such as Luxembourg, Malta etc. Estonia for example has a population of 1.3 million and a parliament with 101 members. Yet Estonia manages to sustain a government with 14 ministries in addition to the Prime Minister. The same is true for countries outwith Europe. Costa Rica with five million people somehow manages with just 57 MPs. Perhaps a more relevant example is our friends in the south pacific, New Zealand. With a population slightly smaller than Scotland, New Zealand manages to successfully run itself and promote the country internationally, with a parliament of 120 MPs.
Once again this is not to say that an increase in the number of MSPs is out of the question. However it is incumbent on those proposing this increase to explain why it is necessary. Especially as this will inevitably involve some considerable expense and disruption. In particular they need to explain why this imperative has to form part of the prospective for independence. If New Zealand can manage as a successful independent country with 120 MPs I am convinced that Scotland can do so with 129MPs.