If Team Yes win the vote next year, amongst the governance changes required will be an expansion of the number of MSPs, primarily because we’ll need to staff more ministries and more Committees. Consider Westminster, bloated as its offices may be.
Starting with ministers, this page lists around 100 of them, and that’s just counting the Commons. The largest Holyrood grouping seen so far was just 73, the 1999-2003 Lab/LD coalition, down to 72 when Steel became PO. They couldn’t all be Ministers, not just because some of them weren’t up to it.
Now clearly there’s more to manage when you run an administration covering 63m people (with varying levels of devolution) compared to one which would the sole national administration for just over 5m people. But we’d need Ministers to cover pensions, social security, foreign affairs, defence, and a host of other junior Ministers too.
The same applies to Committees – currently there are 14 regular ones at Holyrood, plus a few on pieces of private legislation, plus welfare reform and one for the Referendum Bill. We’d need a permanent committee for the areas mentioned above, and there just aren’t enough MSPs to go round. Almost every MSP who’s not a Minister (or the PO, or Margo, or Johann Lamont, or Ruth Davidson) is on a Committee, sometimes two, sometimes three.
So what’s normal for an independent European country of our size? To pick the four such countries who have a population between five and six million, we find the following:
Bear in mind also that we’ll be celebrating the departure of 59 MPs who represent Scottish constituencies, plus a proportion of the 781 members of the House of Lords, however calculated. 65 would be our pro-rata share of the hereditaries and the bishops and those installed through patronage. So a Holyrood seating anything up to about 250 would be a net reduction in the number of parliamentarians representing Scotland. Oh, and we’d get more MEPs – to be honest, a greater proportional influence in the EU sounds more useful than about 95% of the peers I’ve ever taken notice of.
But 250 is excessive. Somewhere between 150 and 200 would make sense and fit that European pattern. I’m going to plump for 200 and y’all can haggle me down if need be.
So how would we elect them? The path of least resistance would be to expand the existing AMS system. Increasing both halves of the equation proportionally would give us about 113 constituencies and about 87 regional members. That’d be easiest done as regional lists of 10 rather than 7. Right now each constituency MSP represents just over 70,000 people on average (remembering that Orkney and Shetland have an MSP each, each representing around 20,000 people). Under this change each constituency MSP would represent about 47,000 people. Seems okay.
Another option would be to elect a second chamber by some other method – perhaps a national list or similar. And find somewhere else to house them (for a smaller chamber of, say, 71, the old Royal High would actually work). This is architecturally easier than expanding Holyrood, although I enjoyed being press officer for the building process and am ready to do it again if need be.
But if we’re going to do this thing, why not do it properly? Let’s get rid of the damn lists altogether, which were a compromise of their time between Labour and the Lib Dems, end the division between constituency and regional MSPs, and elect every last one of them fairly. STV works for Scottish local elections, it ends the kind of games which AMS encourages, and it allows the public to express more sophisticated preferences if they wish. Voters are already used to it, and it would reduce the number of electoral systems in play, making voter education an easier task.
The obvious way to do that (again, with tweaks for the islands in particular) would be to break each of the eight regions into five mini-regions, and elect five MSPs for each mini-region. People would complain that the constituency link would be lost, no doubt – they always do – but mini-regions like that would actually only be about twice the size of existing constituencies, and people living in each one would have five much more local representatives to talk to when they need help. Consider also the role of the Highlands and Islands list MSP just now. They represent an area the size of Belgium (as Eleanor Scott always reminded us), stretching from the most northerly point in Shetland to the southern tip of the Mull of Kintyre, a point further south than the whole of the central belt.
But I’m afraid it’s unavoidable: we’re going to need to do some building work to accommodate them all. I’m sure that’ll go more smoothly this time.
Update: By coincidence, Professor Paul Cairney wrote about this too, yesterday.