An Assembly Would Still Be Powerless in Face of So-Called 'Deficit in Democracy'; PREPARE YOURSELVES FOR INDEPENDENCE DAY

Daily Mail (London), September 10, 1997 | Go to article overview

An Assembly Would Still Be Powerless in Face of So-Called 'Deficit in Democracy'; PREPARE YOURSELVES FOR INDEPENDENCE DAY


Byline: ALLAN MASSIE

DURING the Tory years, and especially after the 1987 election when the Conservatives lost half their seats in Scotland, the phrase 'the democratic deficit' was often used.

The argument was simple, Scotland voted overwhelmingly Labour and yet was governed by the Tories. So democracy wasn't working properly. There was 'a democratic deficit'.

The Tory response was simple, if perhaps on the complacent side.

The election was for a government of the United Kingdom and fought under UK rules. There had been, they pointed out, times when England got a Labour Government despite the Tories winning a majority of English seats. That could happen again.

Indeed it looked like happening in 1992. If that election had gone as the polls were forecasting, there would have been a Labour Government, with Neil Kinnock as Prime Minister; and it would have been brought into being by Labour majorities in Scotland and Wales, for the Tories would still have won a majority of English seats.

But 1992 didn't work out as intended. So, many Scots still complained of a 'democratic deficit'. There is none today of course, in any country of mainland Britain, since Labour has majorities in Scotland, England and Wales.

Nevertheless, despite its absence, and despite the obvious fact that there is nothing which a Scottish

Important parliament could now do which could not be done equally well and democratically by Westminster as result of the Labour majority there, the argument of the 'democratic deficit' is still with us. It underlies Labour's commitment to devolution. The Scottish parliament, Donald Dewar tells us, 'will strengthen democratic control'.

There is one flaw in this argument about the 'democratic deficit', however; it is that it is an argument for independence, not for devolution.

It is therefore a proper argument for the SNP, but a dishonest one coming from Labour.

The reason is simple. You have merely to look at the list of powers reserved to Westminster. They are considerable. Westminster retains complete control over foreign policy, defence, the stability of the UK's fiscal, economic and monetary system, over employment legislation including industrial relations, and over social security policy and administration.

There are many other reserved powers, but these are the main ones. This means that a government without a majority in Scotland would still be making decisions about many of the most important things. To take an obvious example, it will still be London, not Edinburgh, which decides the level of the old age pension or of unemployment benefit.

If you look at the Thatcher years and suppose that a Scottish parliament was then in being, with the powers that will be given to it if the White Paper is enacted as it stands, then it is worth asking what difference it would have made.

A Scottish parliament could have done nothing about fiscal policy or about the switch of emphasis from direct to indirect taxation. It could not have altered the rate of VAT for instance. Moreover, if a future government bowed to the wishes of Brussels and imposed VAT on food, there is nothing the Scottish parliament could do to prevent it. …

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