Saturday, April 07, 2007

Scottish Parliament

Entry for April 7, 2007:

For this week’s Saturday Adventure, we decided to go to Edinburgh. We had invited Mikio and Hokuto along, but they were exhausted from looking for a flat and adjusting to Scotland, so we set off by ourselves.

It took a total of about 90 minutes from walking out of our flat in Hyndland to walking out of Waverly Station in Edinburgh, a comfortable travel time for a day excursion. We decided to walk the Royal mile from the opposite direction, starting with Holyrood Palace. However, when we got there, we were immediately attracted by the unusual lines of the new Scottish Parliament building, completed in 2004, after Scotland re-started its national parliament in 1999. We saw a few things after that, most notably St. Giles Cathedral (including the Thistle Chapel), the Scottish Parliament Building was the most interesting and inspiring.

As Americans, it has been difficult for us to understand what the Scottish Parliament is and does. By a process called devolution, many domestic law-making powers have farmed out to the Scottish Parliament, although foreign policy and defense and various other issues are reserved for British Parliament. There is an election for Scottish Parliament on 3 May of this year, the current parliament was dissolved a few days ago (on April 2), and the newspapers are full of stories on campaigns, polls, and the positions of the various political parties, of which there are many, including Labour, Liberal Democrats (these two currently form the ruling coalition), Scottish National Party (which favors greater devolution and even full independence), the Conservatives, the Green Party, and various others.

From an American point of view, there are lots of interesting things about the Scottish Parliament beyond its multi-party system. Actually, devolution is one of the more understandable and familiar aspects, since it echoes the American Federal system, with its many state legislatures with specific devolved powers.

Particularly interesting is the composition of the Scottish Parliament. Although it is a unicameral body, it has two sets of MSPs (Members of Scottish Parliament). In election, voters cast two votes: one for a specific person to represent their constituency or district (their local MSP) and a second for a political party. There are 73 “constituency MSPs,” and 56 other “list MSPs". The latter are sets of 7 MSPs selected for each of 8 different regions of Scotland (of which the City of Glasgow is one), such that the overall representation in Scottish Parliament (including consitituency MSPs) matches the proportion of votes for each party. This ensures representation for the smaller parties; its technical name of “Mixed Member Proportional Representation.” I have to say that this system sounds refreshingly different from the American system which feels cumbersome, hidebound and polarizing! We’ll have to see how it actually works out…

The other really different thing is the Scottish Executive, which I have been hearing about for months. I have asked people what it is, because it seems to have a lot of power, but I’ve never been able to get a straight answer. The way it had been explained to me was that it is kind of like the civil service or, alternatively, as the tour guide explained today, a form of cabinet. In the US, the cabinet is part of a separate arm of the government, appointed by President (and confirmed by the Senate); however, as I learned today, this is not the case here; the Scottish Executive consists of MSPs… because there is no separate here between legislative and executive branches of government. This was a wonderful and helpful insight.

… Except that it was wrong! Or at least incomplete. Come to find out (thanks to Wikipedia!), due to what appears to me to have been a flaw in the Scotland Act, there are two different Scottish Executives, one of which is the executive committee of the Scottish Parliament, and the other of which is the branch of the British civil service that serves the executive committee of Scottish Parliament. No wonder I got vague answers! The situation is genuinely confusing! The executive committee of Scottish Parliament wants to call itself the Scottish Government, but it can’t do so officially, without a change in the Scotland Act that created the devolved Scottish Parliament in the first place. Hmm… I guess the Scottish political system isn’t so rational after all…

But the building is beautiful, 21st century, organic, even more so than Frank Gehry, whose favoring of titanium and other shiny metals gives his buildings more of science fiction feel. This feels more natural and better tied to its geographic and political-cultural context. The Scottish Parliament Building is full of wood and stone and concrete formed into leaf-shapes, with tree motifs and echoes, full of asymmetries and twists, references to other buildings, symbolic representations (e.g., the figures on the wall of the debating chamber, which represent the people watching their MSPs). The building felt good to us, and was the high point of this week’s Saturday Adventure.

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