A new democracy for a new parliament

6th February 1998 at 00:00
The siting of the Scottish parliament has aroused far greater media interest than the detailed scrutiny of the Bill in the House of Commons. The legislation is still a centrepiece of the Government's programme in terms of the time allocated but despite its constitutional significance it lacks the ingredients of controversy. The overwhelming majority of MPs are in favour of the principle of the bill, and the Conservative opposition accepted after the referendum vote that its criticisms cannot be pushed very far.

The danger is less that MPs forgo line by line examination of clauses than that the lack of public attention will mean that an opportunity is lost to debate the place of the parliament in public life now that its creation is assured. Council leaders have expressed concern about the future relationship with central government.

There have been general, but imprecise, calls for openness in the way the parliament goes about its business.

The Secretary of State has set up an all-party committee to look at procedures. Yet people are mostly exercised about Holyrood's transport links and traffic.

As a contribution to the much needed wider debate the Scottish Local Government Information Unit is to be commended for publishing a paper by Lindsay Paterson on Education, democracy and the Scottish Parliament. Professor Paterson explores the hopes for greater openness in decision-making. He suggests that discussions within the Inspectorate should be in the public arena, as should the deliberations of bodies such as the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum and the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

He is right implicitly to query the historic insistence on secrecy. For example, the reasons for tension at various times between the Scottish CCC and the Scottish Office have been treated like matters of national security. It is not only nosey journalists who would like to know what goes on: the nature of disagreements and their resolution ultimately affects teachers and pupils.

Professor Paterson argues that people nowadays expect more from educational institutions, in terms of the number of places in nurseries or universities and also in responsiveness to individual preference, most notably in where their children are sent to school. New democratic structures must reflect such demands.

They should also encourage diversity.

The cohesiveness of Scottish education has been among its strengths. It helped in warding off the fissiparous activities of the last government. But it can lead to a single authorised response to a complex situation and it discourages experiment. We need more of the self-questioning that has marked the debate on school standards since the departure of the Conservatives.

The record of Scottish MPs at Westminster in debating education is not good.

For the most part they have been unconstructively partisan. In their defence, the London setting has been wrong and their opportunities for informed discussion far too few. The MSPs will have better opportunities. Using them to good effect will mean devising ways of eliciting information and ensuring public debate before decisions are made. In a small country like Scotland there will always be pressures to intervene from the centre, but MSPs will have to learn when to take a lead and when to let creativity and diversity flourish from below.

Education, democracy and the Scottish Parliament is available from SLGIU, 50 Wellington Street, Glasgow G2 6HJ, at Pounds 2.80.

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