Westminster should look to the devolved institutions in order to revive British democracy

16 Feb 2015

IMPACT Article of the Month

 

The British Parliament is often seen as being steeped in tradition and pointless formalities that eschew the true purposes of a functioning democratic body. This may very well be true. After all, the pageantry that occurs within Parliament on a daily basis seems irrelevant to the issues the country faces today. It appears that the devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales, formed in 1999, offer a more modern and practical form of democracy in terms of both basic functions and their engagement projects with the public.

 

We need only look at the way official votes are taken in Parliament to see the time and energy that is consumed by following traditional and outdated procedures. The fact that MPs still have to physically walk through lobbies in order to vote seems ridiculous in an age of modern technological innovations. If we look at the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales, we see a much more up-to-date form of voting on computerised devices within the chamber, with members being able to vote from the comfort of their own seats. One may ask then, why Parliament has not chosen this avenue. The answer is a simple but nevertheless perplexing one; tradition.

 

Perhaps more important than Parliamentary procedure is the way in which the devolved institutions have been able to engage with their respective publics and produce much more broad outreach programmes in terms of both policy development and general political engagement. The Welsh Assembly, for example, has long involved itself at the most basic level with grassroots activists and campaigners, and tries to engage with groups that represent the varying sides and positions of any given issue. The Assembly’s outreach programme is extensive, and has worked with numerous organisations and campaign groups since its conception, including groups representing black and ethnic minority communities, and the disabled.  

 

It has been a similar process in Scotland, putting the British Parliament to shame. Yes, Scotland and Wales are much smaller nations with much less historical baggage. However, British Parliament’s willingness and ability to change has been poor to say the least. Our ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ pressure group culture exemplifies this; meaning many opinions are not heard unless a persistent and well organised lobbying campaign is coalesced.

 

Further to this, the devolved institutions offer a much broader, fairer and more open process of democratic engagement for young people, in the way of internships and apprenticeships. Both the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament offer numerous and extensive work placements for individuals both at Secondary and Higher Education levels. This is something which Parliament has worked hard on over the past few years, but which still often involves direct contact with your local MP. In contrast, the devolved institutions offer more extensively diverse opportunities for both gaining experience with politicians, and gaining a foothold in other politically-related industries, such as translation.

 

Finally, devolved administrations provide an example of flexible and family-friendly working hours to which Westminster should adhere. That debates in Parliament often do not start until the middle of the afternoon, and can run into the late hours of the morning, seems ludicrous. The practices of Wales and Scotland, which invest in a more conventional 9-5 approach to legislating, not only make Parliamentary affairs more accessible to the public, but also encourage more people to run for election. It would be much easier for, say, a mother or father to work around these hours, with only limited need for childcare. However, in Westminster tradition takes precedence.

 

Parliament could definitely learn a thing or two from its devolved counterparts. The irony is, Parliament is the body that ultimately created these institutions. Thank goodness it didn’t create them in its own image.

 

 

 

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