A Scottish experiment that could be a model for Westminster Scotland could offer a shining example for a new Westminster

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The Independent Online
LAST week, Andrew Marr and Polly Toynbee climbed their Independent columns to shout a protest about how Britain is governed. On Tuesday, Marr discussed Dudley Fishburn's decision to quit the House of Commons in disgust at the impotence of individual MPs. He concluded: "It is possible to imagine a different Parliament. It would be one that seized back control over hosts of appointments and policies ... a place really worth fighting to get into."

The next morning, in the same slot, Toynbee wrote a shrewd and well- researched account of the development of "judicial review" - judges striking down ministerial or parliamentary decisions as unlawful. She concluded that judicial review could never substitute for a proper Bill of Rights. "What is needed is a reform of the way Parliament works and a devolution of much of its unwieldy and badly-managed power to those who can manage it better."

But somebody has indeed "imagined a different parliament". Before me is a document containing the draft standing orders for the Parliament of Scotland. Prepared for the John Wheatley Society by Bernard Crick and David Millar, the document's very title is significant: "To make the Parliament of Scotland a Model for Democracy". When that parliament comes about (there is no longer an "if"), it could embody and display almost every reform for which Marr and Toynbee sigh at Westminster.

Before going into these reforms, I want to lay out, in a contentious and dogmatic way, where I think the "Scottish Question" has got to. I do this firstly to explain the political context which could make innovations in Edinburgh into a lighthouse for London to aim for. Secondly, because southern readers remain baffled by misinformation about thinking north of the border.

1. Independence or Devolution? Most Scots want internal home rule, through a Scottish parliament, within the United Kingdom. The Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish National Party suggest that independence and devolution are mutually exclusive. The evidence is that the voters don't entirely agree. Their priority is a parliament to run Scotland: inside the UK if possible - but if not, not.

2. Devolution within the UK is the tough option of the two, not the easy one. It will take enormous commitment, tolerance and imagination to make it work. Independence within the European Union would not be a calamity, in my view. But it would be a democratic calamity if Scotland slithered into independence without really wanting it. The Scots, I believe, should experiment with home rule within the UK. Only then, on the basis of experience, should they decide whether they want to go further.

A warning is what happened with the Czechs and Slovaks. Devolution is sure to produce stand-offs between London and Edinburgh. The danger is that stupidity, spite or the ambitions of some headbanger to become a national hero may sabotage compromise. A combination of these pushed Slovakia into an independence which most Slovaks did not want (though they have grown to like it).

3. Labour's regional plans. The media screamed "U-turn". But it was just a turn from pretence to realism. The idea of "devolution all round", with a Scottish parliament presented as no more than part of a general reform of British local government, was a lie. The Scottish question is about nationalism. It has nothing to do with elected assemblies for English regions. Labour, wisely, has now admitted this. The present Labour proposal - English regional assemblies where people show that they really want them - is about right.

Let's assume, anyway, that the Tories lose the next election and that a Scottish parliament - within the UK - is established within a couple of years. There are infinite implications for Scotland. What about the implications for Britain?

This new Scottish legislature might have two kinds of influence on Westminster. One through what it does. The other through what it is. What it does - the legislation - may well run ahead of British practice. It may also provoke disputes about competence. For instance, Scottish media people will push for a Freedom of Information Bill, reversing British secrecy doctrine by making all official information in principle public. Would Edinburgh be entitled to debate or pass such a bill? Could the British state tolerate two contrasting information regimes?

But what it is - the nature and structures - matters even more. In the first place, it will transform the texture of British party politics. For the first time, winner will not take all. Britain may be Tory-ruled, for instance, except for Scotland and perhaps Wales which have Labour sub-governments. This allows the English voter at a general election to look at the record of Labour administration north of the border and weigh solid evidence about how Labour would govern Britain - just as a German can assess the opposition by its performance running Lower Saxony. Neil Kinnock's experience of power would not just be one year as a Westminster PPS, but perhaps four years as the Welsh environment minister. Gordon Brown might already be famous for reforming Scottish secondary education.

With structures, I come back to the Crick-Millar paper about standing orders. They say: "A new and a national parliament has an historic opportunity to innovate ... to show Westminster and other centres of power that new ways are needed, can work and are better." But they warn that these procedures must be discussed and worked out now. Else the members - the "MSPs" - will simply plump for a mini-Westminster sketched out by some Commons official, and the opportunity will be lost.

The parliament will be elected proportionally and should contain equal numbers of men and women. There should be a "charter of rights", to which the parliament and executive would be answerable in the courts. Its powers should be "entrenched" against the whims of Westminster. So much is already agreed by the Scottish Constitutional Convention (Labour, the LibDems and a host of civil-society bodies), although details of "how" remain largely undecided.

The Crick-Millar draft suggests that the parliament should meet in "social" daylight hours. Permanent committees would cover the main departments, with power to initiate legislation as well as to scrutinise and amend both Bills and a department's work. A "steeringcommittee", with all-party mem- bership, would manage the agenda and avoid "government's excessive control of the House at Westminster". All committees would be open to the public.

Parliament would have a four-year term, but could be dissolved by a two- thirds majority vote. It would directly elect a prime minister (important in a chamber likely to be run by inter-party consensus rather than by crushing majorities). The number of ministers should be kept to 10 or less, out of 112 members. Work for lobbyists would be forbidden, as would the practice of any other full-time occupation and membership of any other parliament. Parliamentary parties (minimum: six MSPs) would have legal recognition, which the British system denies them.

The public would be treated like a partner. With 1,000 signatures, electors could put a parliamentary question. With 10,000, a petition must be published in the parliamentary record and debated if one member moves it. Crick and Millar propose a full-scale parliamentary information service, opening the parliament and its workings to the people.

I have taken only the plums from Crick and Millar. They have sought to move away from confrontational politics, to break with Westminster procedures which "seek to perpetuate the English myth of the two-party system". They and the Convention have designed a democratic House for our own times, for the sort of society we live in now.

It seems to me that Andrew Marr's and Polly Toynbee's help cometh from the hills - from the hill in Edinburgh where the old Royal High School waits to become a parliament. Here, if all goes well, a model may arise for the renewal of Westminster - unless it is too late. "Break the mould of British politics!" the Social Democrats used to cry. The trouble may be that only mould holds Westminster together.