I was having a discussion with my boyfriend last week when our conversation ended up at parliaments (we are both heavily involved with politics and we even met thanks to politics). He is from Liverpool and takes a keen interest in Westminster; I am from Glasgow and more interested in Holyrood affairs. Devolution has had the biggest impact on Britain’s political scene since the creation of the Act of Union in 1707. For the first time in nearly 300 years, Scotland and Wales had the opportunity to shape their own political agendas whilst still remaining within the family of the UK. This meant a whole new way of doing politics - a new, more representative voting system, measures to ensure a greater number of female politicians and a desire to break away from the Westminster model.
Take a trip to the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh and you’ll immediately notice bright, airy spaces. The building has a relaxed, flowing feel about it, with many areas open-plan and the debating chamber where MSPs sit in a horseshoe shape. Compare this to the House of Commons, with a cramped debating chamber with benches facing each other, clearly defined spaces and the odd sign from years gone by warning women that they were in a man’s world. And then there’s the issue of how parliamentary business is conducted. Both parliaments retain a fairly similar Prime Minister’s/First Minister’s Question Time every week, but that is where the similarity ends. Westminster convention demands that MPs must address each other as ‘the right honourable gentleman/lady’ whereas in Holyrood, ‘the member’ is sufficient. This is an important distinction on two levels. Firstly, a marked contrast between the formality in parliaments and secondly, a gender distinction. My boyfriend argued that the archaic Westminster model represents tradition and gives respect to the person you are addressing. But right now, in 2013, where voter turnout is at an all-time low and celebrities telling young people there’s no point in voting, is minding your P’s and Q’s really the most important issue?
Whilst many of my friends these days are political, there are some who, in the eyes of general society, remain ‘normal’. When I ask these friends about Westminster, they talk about an old fashioned parliament, dominated by stale, pale males. They have little interest in parliamentary business and find debates uninspiring. Yet on the other hand, most of my friends have at some point contacted their MSP, visited the Scottish Parliament or seen some item of parliamentary business on the news. While this is by no means scientific, turnout at Scottish parliamentary elections has been consistently higher than turnout at UK general elections - a result of the more accessible nature of Holyrood?
As a politics student, I’m often the subject of raised eyebrows and remarks like ‘So you’re going to be my next MP eh?’. They see politics as something far removed from their day to day lives, failing to realise that actually, that really boring debate on Education will make a difference to their children’s future. I propose that just as Holyrood has attempted to do, make Westminster politics more engaging to the public by offering more opportunities to get involved with the policy process and relaxing the rules around parliamentary language. Perhaps if politicians spoke to each other like the electorate speak to each other, maybe then we will see more interest in politics, trust in our elected representatives and, most importantly, people having a say in decisions that affect them by turning out to vote.
Backbench Secretary of State for Scotland