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Holyrood Election? - Democratic Considerations

Briefly analysing whether it is democratically compatible for John Swinney to be installed as the third First Minister of this parliamentary term without facing a public election.


A multitude of questions have arisen from First Minister Humza Yousaf’s resignation, from the role of religion in politics, to the SNP’s long term prosperity strategy.


Our focus has been on the democratic implications of a third First Minister being appointed within one parliamentary term, and on whether there should be an early Holyrood election.


We ran a poll on our twitter page which received just over 1,000 responses. 47% of respondents said that there should be an election, and 53% said that there should not. By virtue of the nature of our following, the vast majority of respondents are likely to be pro-independence, and form part of the ‘independence base’. This poll, like any other twitter poll, is non-authoritative and is subject to various factors which affect its reliability. Regardless, I do think that this gives a clear picture of the independence bases split opinions on the issue.


In this article, I will outline why I think that there should be an election and examine arguments proposed by those on the opposing side of the debate.  


1.       Whataboutery.


Various ‘no’ respondents argued that because the UK and Welsh governments have not called elections in similar circumstances, the Scottish government is therefore absolved of any duty; moral, democratic, or otherwise, to do so in this instance.


I cannot accept this argument; it is a clear-cut case of ‘whataboutery’ and would rely on democratically incompatible actions of other governments justifying democratically incompatible actions of the Scottish government. The former cannot be used to simply ‘cancel out’ the latter, and this argument does not do anything to actually address the democratic merits of the Scottish government’s decision. It may be the case that the UK and Welsh examples serve as persuasive precedent illustrating that the Scottish government can proceed without calling an election, but they do not, in any objective sense, demonstrate that they should.


It simply seems illogical for Scottish independence supporters, who were outraged at the UK governments decision to not call an election in comparable circumstances, to rely on that same UK government decision to justify the Scottish government doing essentially the same thing.


The precedent of this ‘if they did it, we should do it’ argument could, if applied to other comparable UK government actions, justify the Scottish government acting in ways which are wholly incompatible with the ethos of the independence movement. It is the UK government which continually denies Scottish voters the ability to decide their own future, and the UK government which sought to prorogue parliament to circumvent parliamentary democracy and force through Brexit. Is it the case that the Scottish government could justifiably take comparable courses of action?


2.       Parliamentary process.


i)                         MSPs approval.


The SNP’s Westminster leader Stephen Flynn formed the most credible argument against holding a Scottish election on Sky News, where he outlined relevant differences between the Westminster and Holyrood parliamentary systems which, he argues, differentiate the un-democratic nature of the UK governments prior action from what would be a democratically coherent action of the Scottish government.


In summary, the Scottish parliament differs from Westminster in the sense that a First Minister’s appointment must be approved by a majority of MSPs. This is not the case in Westminster, where in comparable circumstances a Prime Minister can be installed by their party without parliament’s approval.


The proportionately representative electoral system of the Scottish parliament makes the forming of majority governments extremely difficult, meaning that a prospective First Minister would usually have to be approved across a variety of parties to be appointed in these circumstances. Parliamentary scrutiny is therefore intense and is not simply a ‘check box’ exercise.


Flynn’s argument is based in fact and has credibility. It demonstrates that there is an existing process in which John Swinney’s appointment will, in a sense, be democratically scrutinised. To endorse the argument however, one has to accept that in the relevant circumstances, an MSP majority vote reflects a sufficient exercise of democracy. I cannot come to such a conclusion.


MSPs are elected to act and vote on their constituents’ behalf in many regards, but they cannot replicate the will of those constituents in the ultimate democratic process of an election. Where a democratic mandate is reasonably required for governance, that mandate must be sourced directly from the public, not from priorly elected party-political representatives.


For the reasons which I outline later in this article when analysing a different argument, it is clear to me that the mandate which a party obtains in an election is, to a reasonable extent, dependent on, or dictated by, the leader of the party. It is incontestable that different party leaders would produce different electoral results, and it is for this reason that in my opinion, a governments mandate expires upon an elected First Minister stepping down. In this light, it is my conclusion that in the present circumstances, effective democracy requires that the SNP’s mandate is replenished by the public, and not by existing MSPs.


ii)                       Electing a party’s manifesto?


Some have argued against holding an election on the basis that the public voted for the SNP in 2021 based on the party’s manifesto, and that the mandate to govern has thereafter been based on that manifesto, meaning that the party leader and First Minister can change without distorting the legitimacy of the governments mandate.


I do not agree with this characterisation of the democratic process. The public vote for a party’s manifesto, but also for a certain leader to deliver that manifesto and to operate as the First Minister more generally, bearing various important responsibilities. The public are therefore unlikely to vote for a party if they do not approve of the party leader in whom First Ministerial powers and responsibilities would vest. The democratic mandate to govern and deliver the parties manifesto is therefore dependent on the party leader at the time of the election and accordingly expires when they step down.


In a broader sense, this argument is defeated by the absence of any process by which a new leader would be bound to the confines of the party’s prior manifesto. The government is entitled to deliver policies which are not contained within that manifesto, and is equally entitled to abandon the policies which are contained within it.

Each subsequent First Minister within the same parliamentary term takes the country in a different direction according to their differing vision and priorities, and each are entitled to fundamentally alter the policies pursued by the government by validly deviating from the party’s prior manifesto. In this light, it cannot be said that a hypothetical mandate sourced in such a prior manifesto would be unaffected by a change in party leadership. This is especially true in the present circumstances in which John Swinney has been open in outlining his intention to deviate from the direction of government set by his predecessor.


Furthermore, I do not accept that the party’s prior manifesto is the ultimate source of a governments mandate in the way which some purport it to be. If a governments mandate is based purely on their manifesto, do they act without a mandate at any point in which they pursue a policy not contained within that manifesto? How are the various non-legislative actions of the First Minister which are taken on behalf of the Scottish electorate democratically legitimised?


3. Stability.


Lastly, some politicians and SNP members have commented that the public want stability in their government, and that an election should therefore not be called. While this premise (that the public want stable government) is, in my view, correct, I cannot accept that this sufficiently justifies refusal of an election.


It is not for any politician to hypothesise about what the public want and override democratic principles according to the conclusions which they draw. Just as it is not for Rishi Sunak to say that he doesn’t think the Scottish public want a referendum and therefore refuse to grant a section 30 order, it is not for Stephen Flynn, or any other SNP politician, to say that the Scottish public don’t want an election, and therefore refuse to initiate one. Those decisions are to be made by the people of Scotland based on their democratic behaviours; in the former example, they have repeatedly elected SNP governments to hold a referendum (thus creating a mandate for one), and in the latter, they have elected a particular leader of the government, who, upon resignation, reduces the validity of the governments mandate. That mandate therefore has to be re-obtained, and it is not for any politician to say that because they think that the Scottish public want stability, that step can simply be overlooked. This applies retrospectively to Humza Yousaf’s appointment just as much as it is to John Swinney’s.


If the Scottish government utilise this ‘what the public want is stability’ argument, they must then accept the legitimacy of that same argument when Rishi Sunak uses it in an attempt to justify withholding section 30 consent. The big picture must be analysed, and this argument refuted.


Conclusion.


The law does not prevent the SNP from refusing to authorise an election upon John Swinney’s confirmation as the third First Minister in this parliament, and with that being the politically preferrable move to make, it is difficult to see how any other course of action will be taken.


It is absolutely true that the UK and Welsh governments have made similar decisions, and it is frustrating to feel like the Scottish government is held to a higher standard by hypocritical unionist politicians who didn’t bat an eyelid when their party did the same.


But despite these facts, and despite the quasi-democratic process in place for the MSPs vote of approval, I cannot conclude that John Swinney’s appointment without a public election is the most democratically compatible course of action available to the Scottish government.


We should strive to set the standard of democracy which we wish to be followed across the UK, and we should put the incumbent UK government to shame for its prior actions by holding ourselves to a higher standard.

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