THE BLOG
27/06/2011 06:29 BST | Updated 14/01/2012 06:54 GMT

Salmond Accepts Scrutiny of Sectarianism Legislation

This week, it seemed as if the lessons of cooperation, vital in minority government, had been quickly forgotten by SNP leader Alex Salmond as he attempted to push through sectarianism legislation by next Thursday

This week, it seemed as if the lessons of cooperation, vital in minority government, had been quickly forgotten by SNP leader Alex Salmond as he attempted to push through sectarianism legislation by next Thursday.

Possibly the most ironic thing about the Scottish Election in May is that a PR system designed to ensure that no single party could gain a Parliamentary majority disproportionate to its actual support -- a system designed to encourage co-operation and collective agreement among different parties, whether they were in government or opposition -- had somehow produced a landslide for one party.

Well, it was ironic given that supporters of First Past The Post insist that it at least gives clearer results than PR; yeah, like it did at the 2010 UK General Election, you mean?

What was even more ironic is that the party in question was the Scottish National Party, which few remember had been initially quite hostile to the idea of a devolved Scottish Parliament within the UK.

Ironic, yes; also worrying. If there were (now largely forgotten) problems with the design and construction of the Scottish Parliament building, we now know that the institution itself was designed on shaky ground; an assumption that no single party in Scotland could ever win the support of an absolute majority of the Scottish people. However, in a unique case when they sucked up the votes of disgruntled Labour, LibDem and even Tory supporters, the SNP did just that.

Unlike the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament is a single chamber (a unicameral legislature, to give it its Sunday name); it has no 'cool-headed' equivalent to the House of Lords to scrutinise and redraft legislation as required. What it does have are a number of committees of MSPs, which do a similar job. The membership of these committees is selected to ensure they are proportionate to the overall make-up of the Parliament.

The SNP now has so many MSPs that it's difficult to find a meeting room in the Parliament buildings big enough to hold them all at the same time; SNP MSPs also now dominate (at least numerically) all the committees. Given that the Presiding Officer (the Scottish Parliament's equivalent of the Speaker of the House of Commons) is also an SNP member, and the possibility is open for the SNP to effectively steam-roll legislation through the Parliament whenever it likes.

As it seemed it was about to do with the anti-sectarianism bill which First Minister Alex Salmond clearly wanted on the statute book in time for the new Scottish Football season. Given the sectarianism evident in the so-called 'beautiful game' (specifically the 'Old Firm' of Celtic and Rangers) during the last 12 months, this rush is perhaps understandable.

History, though, is littered with the unforseen and unexpected consequences of hurriedly passed legislation and, while the numbers say that Scotland's opposition parties should have little say in things, it's a relief that Alec Salmond has remembered his post-election speech about the SNP not necessarily having a "monopoly of wisdom".

Less than three hours after SNP ministers had brought a vote to force the legislation through by the end of the month, Alex Salmond has announced that more time will be given to the bill's progress through Parliament and the views of the other interested parties will be actively sought. Some SNP back-benchers, particularly the fresh-faced new intake intent on flexing their baby muscles and changing the world, might be upset by this apparent U-turn in the face of minor opposition, but it's about time they learned the truism: more haste, less speed.

Given that the current sectarianism bill doesn't even include a proper definition of what it means by sectarianism, and rides roughly over the basic concept of freedom of speech, there is a definite need to ensure that the legislation is redrafted in a more intelligent and informed manner. Poorly thought out laws don't just cause problems; they bring the whole legislative process into contempt, and that is to the benefit of nobody. Not even the elected dictatorship of the first ever majority Scottish Government.