By Mark McNaught
The recent controversy over a mis-statement by Alex Salmond regarding college funding, his subsequent apology, the ferocious reaction accusing him of mendacity and his critics’ failure to own up to their own mis-statements (or worse) point out fundamental problems in parliamentary debate.
Lies, falsehoods, and smears too often pass without accountability. The accuracy of parliamentary information is crucial to developing sound public policy; bad information makes bad policy.
Without pretending to be able to reinvent human nature, there could be meaningful clauses in a written Scottish constitution which could greatly help the honesty and rectitude of the debate, in addition to bolstering the accuracy and methodological integrity of the debate’s content, which ultimately informs the content of the laws.
One need only observe a typical Prime Minister’s Questions at the Westminster Parliament to see how MP’s can play fast and loose with the truth, throw out a blizzard of immediately unverifiable statistics to ‘win’ their ephemeral talking point, blame the opposition party for all problems during their last term in government, and impugn with impunity their fellow members.
The vast majority of the time, these inaccuracies fly by without any verification, or any mandatory parliamentary means to set the record straight. This is not to deny the positive effect of PMQ’s on accountability and transparency, but to point out what could be drastically improved.
Imagine a Parliament where all statistics presented must be cited, specifying the source to affirm its accuracy, just like any academic article or scholarly book. If it is demonstrated after the debate that a certain statistic is inaccurate, the Presiding Officer should be constitutionally mandated to require the MSP to publicly correct their error in parliament before they are allowed to re-enter debate.
Anyone can make a mistake, and they should be able to correct it without their integrity being challenged.
Any accusation against an MSP or public official, whether in debate or in public statements, must be backed up by the facts. If an accusation is scurrilous, inaccurate, or needlessly insulting, a public apology must be issued before the MSP can re-enter debate or vote on any bills.
The obvious question is who determines the truth in these matters, and how is it applied to ensure the integrity of parliamentary debate? While the details would have to be fairly worked out, it seems evident that a well-informed citizenry, closely following the Scottish parliament on TV, the press, and social media should play a major role.
If an MSP makes a major misstatement in debate or public speech, mechanisms can be developed whereby they can be held accountable. There could be an independent non-partisan committee formed to oversee the statements of MSP’s, and determine whether they warrant a retraction in order to re-enter parliamentary debate.
The sources of information for parliamentary debate also need to be under the greatest scrutiny, if the best public policy outcomes are to be achieved. In the US, there are a plethora of ‘think tanks’, which conduct purportedly scientific studies on economic and social affairs, and seek to have their conclusions accepted by politicians in adopting policy. Frequently, they are funded by interested parties, and their ideology determines the outcome of their studies, in that they have often already determined the conclusion and cherry-pick the data to substantiate it.
A written Scottish constitution could mandate total transparency for any public advocacy group which seeks to influence the debate in an independent Scottish parliament. Any MSP who submits a statistic or poll in parliamentary debate, which could be potentially used in formulating law, must specify exactly where they obtained this piece of data.
Any think tank or PR group, in order for their information to be considered valid in parliamentary debate, must make the entirety of their methodology and data available for public scrutiny. Without in any way abrogating free-speech, the Scottish parliament could promote competition among advocacy groups for influence over policy on the basis of the most accurate information, rather than the catchiest sound-bite or alarming misleading statistic.
Independence provides the scope for Scots to equitably forge the rules of engagement in their politics for years to come. Even if it is constitutionally unprecedented, Scots can create their own reality.
Mark McNaught is a member of the Constitutional Commission, and Associate Professor of US civilisation at the University of Rennes 2 France, and teaches US constitutional law at Sciences-Po Paris.