Transcript of lecture by Shirley Williams


  • Shirley Williams, Barnoness Williams of Crosby, gave the Donald Dewar Memorial Lecture on 25 August 2009. The event at Edinburgh International Book Festival was chaired by Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland's Political Editor.

I'll begin by telling a little story - which I think Ming and Elspeth [Menzies and Elspeth Campbell] may have heard, so they'll forgive me if I tell it again - about the beginning of the world where there was a discussion between a doctor, a lawyer and a politician.

And the doctor said: 'I came first because I made Eve out of Adam's rib.'

And the lawyer disagreed and said: 'No, no, I came before you because after all I brought order out of chaos.'

And the politician simply smiled and said: 'Who do you think brought the original chaos?'

Now, I tell you that story as a piece of self-defence, because to be a politician right now is a pretty unattractive role. Many people regard you as completely untrustworthy. You find quite often that people talk about how politics is the least attractive of all professions because of attitudes towards it. And I'll talk a bit about that in my lecture.

But I will add to it just a little 'PS' - not much fun being a journalist either. And Brian [Taylor] will recognise that many of the same situations apply.

I want, before I start on the bulk of my lecture, to say one other thing, and that is because I think it's better for me to say where I stand than to wait for you to tease it out. I've always regarded it on controversial issue as important to say where one stands.

The Megrahi case

So let me say a word or two about the Megrahi case, which has taken so much of the press attention over the last four days, here in Edinburgh and throughout the United Kingdom.

Let me say first right away that I admire and respect the fact that the Scottish legal system includes a specific provision for compassion release for somebody who is in the last stages of their life. I think that's part of what it is to be civilised. and let me remind you of the famous speech made nearly 450 years ago by Portia in the famous speech that she made to the court about Shylock:

'The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. And even the mightiest provide the mightiest mercy.'

That's something we should remember is part of being civilised: to show an element of mercy, to go for reconciliation rather than revenge, for revenge is never a very good guide to the way in which the courts of law should operate.

Remarks about justice

And let me say another thing, slightly more acid.

I find it - as someone who has work who has worked for many years in America and greatly admires that country - somewhat ironic to hear Mr Muller, the Head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, choose the very day that his own Government decided to investigate the involvement of the CIA in torture as the day in which he berated the Scots Parliament and the Scots Minister for Justice for what he described as 'not carrying out justice or fully accepting the rule of law'. I think one should be very careful about making that kind of remark when it could be so easily turned back the other way.

But there is something else to say as well. I'm not a lawyer, so I may say unwise things. But it is clear that there are some very profound questions to be pursued in this particular case. There is a real question, I think, about how one looks at the relationship between the Minister of Justice's decision - and I repeat that I think that was a civilised and merciful decision - and the letters that have come out since, including what appears to be a very heavy set of commercial interests.

And in that context in particular, I think the Prime Minister does have to explain why there were letters from the Minster of Justice in the Westminster Parliament, Mr Jack Straw, why there was a letter from Mr Ivan Lewis of the Foreign Office, and why there was, in addition, clear indications that there were likely to be proceedings and advances on the whole issue of Mr Megrahi, and they seem to have been not therefore as completely unrelated to anything except compassion as one might have wished. I think there are questions to be asked and questions to be answered.

And the final point that I want to make, because I think it's a really important one to make, is that we should be clear that there is something deeply disgraceful about a situation where a man or a women is changed into a hero because of their involvement in the deaths of 270 totally innocent people. And therefore I think we need to make it very clear that we do not share that concept of celebrating as a hero somebody who is involved - although we are not yet completely certain of his guilt - in an act of massacre on such a scale.

Donald Dewar and the Scottish Parliament

Let me turn from that to what I want to talk about tonight, which is essentially about Donald, about the Scottish Parliament and about its lessons for the rest of us.

Donald never trumpeted his own remarkable accomplishments and to the end of his days he eschewed the egotism and the pomposity that destroys so many political lives. He was, as you all know, born in Glasgow 72 years ago this month, and he flourished in that renowned cradle of rhetoric known as the Glasgow University Union, becoming its president.

Glasgow seems to have had an astonishing achievement and record in producing one brilliant politician after another - including not only Donald, but also Menzies Campbell, also Charles Kennedy, also many others, who became reputed and outstanding national politicians and sometimes international politicians too. I've always wondered what it was about Glasgow that produced this astonishing result, rather like the great achievements of the Platonic Academy in Athens so many hundreds of years ago.

It's also true that Donald went on to a career in the law and then in politics which took him into the Blair Government - Cabinet, rather - of 1997. His crowning achievement was, of course, the first democratically elected Scottish Parliament, which he himself described, and I quote his words, as 'a new voice in the land' - a land of which he became first First Minister in May 1999.

Donald was no spinner of fact, and he was no weaver of reputations. Today, when people long for politicians they can trust, those are great assets. And they are assets that Donald had.

He had a very hard time, however, from the media. The great achievement of a democratic devolution was for years overshadowed by carping about the costs of the new building, and squabbles about Section 2a. Donald's belief in what he was doing survived all that, and triumphed over his own pessimistic nature. Few of us are granted a place in history. Donald is unquestionably among those few.

Scottish Constitutional Convention

Scotland has been more inclusive and more innovative than England in the links that exist between its religions, its social institutions and its politics. The Scottish Constitutional Convention, convened in 1988 in response to a Claim of Right by prominent Scottish citizens, included church and civic leaders, trade unionists, academics, small businesses, and representatives of two of Scotland's four main political parties.

Scotland had suffered more than most parts of the United Kingdom, before and during the long regime of Margaret Thatcher, losing a third of its industrial manufacturing capacity between 1976 and 1987, and then being chosen, foolishly, as the location for the disastrous Poll Tax experiment in 1989.

Anger, as many of you who are Scots know, boiled over in demonstrations and in defiance of the law, in particular organised refusals to pay. Scotland, which had consistently elected Labour majorities and had seen Conservative representation decline, felt ignored by a Westminster Parliament with a commanding Conservative majority. The temptation to go it alone by demanding independence or by rebelling against Westminster laws was very strong.

Donald Dewar, supported by John Smith, Menzies Campbell and others, determinedly opposed both. Based on the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, they constructed a better, and a democratic, alternative - a devolved Scottish Parliament. The blueprint for that parliament was, in my view modern and radical, like the building that houses it. Its inspiration was best summed up in the words of the convention's chairman, Canon Kenyon Wright. I quote:

'We realised that our real enemy was not a particular government, whatever its colour, but a constitutional system. We came to understand that our central need, if we were to be governed justly and democratically, was not just to change the government but to change the rules.'

It was an insight Westminster has, to my regret, so far failed to emulate.

Far-reaching reforms

The constitutional convention and its recommendations and the Scotland Act of 1998, which was based upon it, embraced far-reaching reforms, among them a fixed term for parliamentary elections of four years, a hybrid electoral system combining first-past-the-post for constituency MSPs with a regional list based on proportional representation, and control of parliamentary business ...

(Speaker pauses.) I thought it was applause at first, but it's the rain. So bear with me: it will stop and then you can take over. (Lecture resumes.)

It produced a hybrid electoral system combining first-past-the-post for constituency MSPs with a regional list based on proportional representation, and control of parliamentary business by an all-party bureau chaired by the Presiding Officer, thereby substantially limiting the power of the Executive over the legislature.

Scotland's political parties responded by being innovative themselves: the Liberal Democrats over the electoral reform system, the Labour Party in twinning constituencies to ensure equal representation of women and men.

The Labour Party did not continue twinning in 2007, but the legacy of women elected in 1999 meant that both in the Scottish Parliament and in the Welsh Assembly the proportion of women members far exceeded that of Westminster, where the experiment in all-women shortlists has now been abandoned.

In both devolved legislatures, the position of women will, of course, erode if the public policies demonstrate no continuation and no willingness to continue to maintain it.

Openness and accountability

The spirit of reform, in my view, is evident in the openness and accountability of the Scottish Parliament, which has hosted such events as the Festival of Ideas and Scotland's Youth Parliament. There have been mild echoes at Westminster, not least in the initiatives of Helen Hayman, the elected Speaker of the House of Lords, but partly owing to the menacing anti-terrorist defences, the Houses of Parliament still seem remote to many UK citizens - something between a fortified museum and an exclusive restaurant.

Can the Scottish example help us in dealing with the current crisis of representative democracy?

I left Westminster at the beginning of August for a short holiday in the United States. The newspapers there were awash in stories about MPs' expenses. Some of the Westminster abuses are genuinely shocking - like claiming interest payments on completed mortgages, or 'flipping' homes to make capital gains. In my view, others were contrived to look bad - like lumping together expenses payments made over a number of years - or comic - like small items teased out of a bill for renewal or repairs.

The public response was predictably furious and in part justifiably so. Fraudulent claims should be dealt with by the courts in line with fraudulent claims for benefits - no special treatments for MPs or peers.

Scotland dealt with the matter much earlier, having ruled out second homes as being owned and insisted that they be rented, and having required expenses to be backed by receipts.

Loss of trust and respect for MPs

But the scale and extent of public anger in my view signals a deeper disillusion - a loss of trust and respect for MPs as a whole. That arises in part from the casualties of the unanticipated financial crisis, in part from the ineffectiveness of a Parliament largely controlled by the Executive, and with a widespread sense of powerlessness among electors - 'No-one listens to us.'

In a discussion about the crisis of representative government like - call it no less - in the United Kingdom, some reformers have advocated the American example, in particular calling for the US primary system of selecting candidates, and for local referenda or plebiscites on controversial issues. Both seem to me bad ideas. Primaries in the United States, whether for presidential candidates or candidates for Congress, are substantially money-driven - money to buy television and radio advertisements, including negative ads, money to pay for canvassers, money to organise social networks on the internet.

Two crucial factors limit, though they do not eliminate, money-driven politics in the United Kingdom - the inability to buy campaign time on television or radio, and the tight limits on constituency expenditure during elections.

Primaries for a substantial electorate like that of Scotland, let alone that of the United Kingdom, would be very difficult to fight without television or radio advertising. But removing the present barriers on political advertising would deliver us even further into the power of financial interests.

Public anger in the United States

Much the same case can be made against local referenda or plebiscites. In California, resort to local referenda has bankrupted a naturally well-resourced state, starting with a disastrous series on property taxes imposed by Proposition 13 in 1978. The state's government today finds itself hobbled by past public declarations and populist decisions, unable to make progress in any direction or even to rescue essential public services. It is now near bankruptcy and it's doubtful whether any of those public services can continue.

I found in the United States a popular anger as acute as that in the United Kingdom, but for different reasons.

A majority of Americans, according to opinion polls, albeit narrow, support health reform. The interests opposed to the President's proposal to introduce such a system have intervened in a national debate on the subject, organising individuals and groups to disrupt meetings with Senators and Congress members, mounting big advertising campaigns, and using radio and television programmes to spew out propaganda with extreme, often wildly inaccurate, character. Like the suggestion that a state financed health service would have panels to decide whether an elderly person should be subjected to euthanasia.

I'm glad to say that in a recent hip operation, I met no such panel, but no doubt I wouldn't have survived it.

They also, of course, have said that in the UK, France and Germany, people are told exactly what doctor to have and may never object to that doctor, however how poor his or her treatment may be.

Faced with a barrage of such material, the Obama administration, sadly, is already slowly backing down on the proposal for a public option, which would offer a competitive alternative to the existing system. Members of Congress, many dependent on corporate financing for their campaigns, are notably cautious, despite the evidence of public backing for reform.

One other comment, by the by, on the American scene, and, I think, an important one.

We in this country notice with admiration the very large number of young people - many of whom did not ordinarily bother to vote - who supported Obama in his campaign, who joined him on the internet, who became part of social networks, who turned out to canvas for him, who found themselves for the first time involved excitingly in politics.

But you may have noticed that when the rubber hit the road, to use an American expression, over the controversy over health, there have been very few people on the side of those supporting the President who have shown up at the contentious and often very difficult and unpleasant meetings conducted by Congress men and women supporting the President, and whose support would be vital if opposition of the particular financial interests that are affected is to be overcome.

Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill

The Scottish example, in my view, is much more relevant to Westminster than that of Washington. But Westminster response so far has been depressing.

The so-called Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, published just one day before the House of Commons rose for its long summer recess on July 21st of this year, was a profound disappointment - a tame laboratory mouse of a bill.

It had a useful section about the civil service which went some way to protect its independence, though too little to protect whistleblowers. It restored the public right to demonstrate outside Parliament, but subject to police conditions on numbers and potential obstruction of rights of way.

It brought in a welcome role for Parliament in the ratification of treaties, but then permitted a Minister to exempt a treaty from any kind of Parliamentary scrutiny in exceptional cases. It enabled the House of Lords to suspend, and even expel, peers guilty of a serious crime - there are, of course, some hanging around.

And there, apart from some useful material on the National Audit Office, the great reform bill stops.

Nothing on electoral reform, though the disproportion between votes and seats for the respective parties is now indefensible. Nothing on parliamentary control of its own business. Nothing on select committees choosing their own chairpersons, nor on combining select and standing committees, which has accorded committees in the Scottish Parliament greater authority. No accompanying White Paper encouraging more free votes, greater recognition and maybe even pay, for committee chairs. A lessening of the oppressive patronage powers of the Whips.

In short, there is every reason for the optimistic word 'renewal' to be replaced, as it has been, by the heavy pomposity of the word 'governance'.

Those of us who were enthused, as I was, by Gordon Brown's weighty speech on liberty in October 2007 shortly after he became Prime Minister were saddened. Where were the new rights for the public expression of dissent? Where were the new rights against arbitrary intrusion? Where were the new rights to protect private information? All of which he promised us then. The new bill is a huge disappointment.

There's little time left in the remaining months of this Parliament for any substantial action in Westminster on constitutional reform.

Constitutional convention for the UK

MPs and peers should use the occasion of discussing the bill to press for a commitment from the leaders of all the main parties to establish a constitutional convention for the United Kingdom after the election, a convention on the Scottish model that would include representatives of all parties, of civil society, academia, both sides of industry, the churches and others as the Scottish Constitutional Convention did, together with the tools a deliberating democracy requires.

Even Scotland dare not be complacent, despite the nice things I've said about the Scottish Parliament. The figures for turnout in the three Scottish elections since the opening of the new Parliament in 1999 are, bluntly, poor - perhaps due to lack of knowledge about the Parliament's powers and what it does.

The admirably clear and comprehensible report of the Calman Commission on Scottish Devolution, called 'Serving Scotland Better', declares unreservedly that devolution has been a real success.

But the fall in turnout from 59% in 1999 to 49% only four years later, while not undermining that assertion, shows the damage done by the widespread media criticism of the devolved administration in that first term, in particular the design and cost of the parliament building. There was at best a modest recovery to 52% in 2007, but even by the unimpressive standard of turnout in the United Kingdom as a whole it was not good. It showed that the MSPs still have a great deal of work to do to inform and involve their constituents.

Global citizenship

The crisis of representative government is not, of course, just about how well parliaments work or how open and accessible they are. In an interconnected world, many desirable objectives, from resolving conflicts to moderating climate change, cannot be achieved by devolved governments or even by national governments.

The case for limiting, for example, sky-high bonuses in banking is invariably met by the argument that any such limitation would lead to the loss of the best and the brightest to other countries. In other words, if it can't be done globally it can't be done at all.

In an earlier, distinguished, Donald Dewar Lecture, Robin Cook told his audience that, and I quote, 'in the modern world the concept of national independence is of increasingly doubtful relevance'. A brave thing to say.

So let me give, in that context, the last word to a great and much-misunderstood Scotsman, Adam Smith - he of the invisible hand. Advocating citizenship of the world, Smith wrote, and I quote:

'He is certainly not a good citizen who does not wish to promote, by every means in his power, the welfare of the whole society of his fellow citizens.'

It is a good moral for the bankers of Scotland, and maybe for the world as well.



2009 lecture main page   |   NLS Donald Dewar Memorial Lectures page

Speak me