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Scotland's Parliament examined.

The Scottish Parliament: A Scandinavian-style Assembly? David Arter. Frank Cass. [pounds sterling]50.00. 298 pages. ISBN 0-7146-5567-8.

This rather specialised, dauntingly erudite, but important assessment of the new Scottish Parliament is part of a Library of Legislative Studies series. Its author is 'the leading Scandinavianist in the U.K.', Professor in the Aberdeen University Department of Politics and International Relations and founder of a Nordic policy studies centre there. But how close are the patterns and affinities of politics and Parliaments, making due allowance for the special situation of the Scottish Parliament? Although the United Kingdom is no federation, the new Scottish executive and legislature exercise powers in their sphere, as part of an ad hoc act of devolution, similar to those of States in American, Australian, and other federal systems, but very different from Scandinavian systems.

Advocates of a Scottish Parliament, with differing notions of its role and powers, found affinities with Scandinavia long before the Blair Government set one up in 1999. Thirty years ago the then Liberal leader, Jo Grimond, MP for Britain's Nordic isles of Orkney and Shetland, argued the case for a semi-independent Scotland in ways that drew charges of 'playing at Celts and Vikings'. More recently Scottish Nationalists have argued that full Scottish independence would retain a relationship with England similar to that among Norwegians, Swedes and Danes.

The main field of Professor Arter's study is rather different. A substantial part of this book is devoted to a detailed study of the way committees work in the Swedish Riksdag and the Iceland Althingi, though Norwegian, Danish, and Finnish experience also comes into his more general comparisons between fairly settled Scandinavian patterns and a Scottish Parliament still feeling its way in a colder climate of public opinion than accompanied its establishment. The Scottish Parliament began with an inclination to do things rather differently from Westminster, sometimes from a rather cussed determination to be different but also for two rather better reasons. One was to stake from the start a claim to greater day-to-day influence over executive policy than Downing Street and Whitehall allow, the other a recognition that the network of contacts in a multi-party Parliament elected by proportional representation was bound to be much more complex than dealings 'through the usual channels'.

In practice one of the most important differences, on which Professor Arter concentrates his attention and largely bases his claim about a 'Scandinavian style', has been the more influential role of standing committees, especially in preparing Scottish legislation. He does not, however, over-state the case and recognises not only the differences of style within Scandinavia but some of the distinctive Scottish features in coalition-forming, inter-party negotiation, 'bargaining culture', and a parliamentary style in which people 'are still shouting at each other'. His basic premise is that since devolution in 1999 Scotland has become a Scandinavian-style democracy with Parliament as the centrepiece of its new political system. He sees Scotland as an embryonic 'bargaining democracy'.

While Prof. Arter appears sympathetic to the new Parliament and the lobbies which shaped it, he is far from uncritical. He identifies a problem, not only in the committees, of what he calls structural overheating and suggests that the scale of legislative activity 'escalated beyond the resources needed to supply successful outcomes'. He also identifies a concern with 'role identification and role differentiation on the part of new policy actors' which might be paraphrased as a suggestion that the new Scottish political functionaries do always know what they are doing and incline to get in each other's way. He could hardly fail to mention the problems caused by the ebbing of Scottish enthusiasm for the new Parliament and the widespread mixture of outrage and bewilderment at the enormous cost and confusion of the long-delayed Parliament building.

This is a valuable book for anyone with a strong interest in either Scotland or Scandinavia, though it does not greatly explore Labour's inner workings in Scotland, its leaders' links with Westminster, or their relations with the civil service (which they would like to blame for the building fiasco). Its theme is strong enough to bear the weight of its research, though it is surprising to find so academic a study swallow whole, even if in passing, the Nationalist theory that the Scottish Parliament with devolved powers is a restoration of the one before 1707. It might also have stated more forcefully the necessary reservations about comparisons between central Governments and their legislatures and the devolved system operating in Scotland.
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Author:Kernohan, R.D.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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