Nationalist bloggers insist that policy should be made 'in the schemes of Scotland, not on the playing fields of Eton'. Some of us with a working knowledge of these habitats would rather that policy was made in neither. But the striking phrase, with its underlying hint of some popular uprising, barely disguises a more immediate anxiety.
The bloggers seem to have forgotten that there is a national democratic forum for making policy, but they are not alone in their state of amnesia, or downright ignorance; it is shared by most of the electorate. The forum in question is called the Scottish parliament, yet it is usually necessary to make a conscious effort to remind ourselves that it is there (at the foot of the so-called royal mile, should your satnav be defective).
Occasionally the seat of democracy in Edinburgh impinges on the dim consciousness of those – just over half the adult population – who elected it. This happened last week when three of the mainstream parties voted against a second independence referendum and two voted in favour, and this was called a decisive mandate.
For a few hours, images of that glum assembly flitted across television screens. Low-profile servants of the people – it was possible to put names to no more than a few – could be found lurking behind voting machines. There was no hint of excitement or unpredictability about so momentous an occasion in the life of a small nation. The result had been negotiated in advance. The conclusion was as foregone as it gets.
After this brief exposure to daylight, our elected representatives were once more left to their own devices, whatever these amount to. No one seems altogether sure. For the Scottish parliament might well qualify as the most unreported, most ignored, most inactive legislature in the western world.
The day of the vote for a second referendum has been called historic. But if we must talk in these grandiose terms, there was another historic day recently. It was 22 March 2017, the first anniversary of the last time any legislation was passed in the Scottish parliament – the only exception being the governing party's budget which it is legally obliged to enact. A whole year had somehow slipped by, a year of stasis, in which nothing of consequence occurred apart from the constant clamour for more power, more power, for the Scottish parliament. Power to do what, though? Does it want to do anything very much?
The legislative paralysis is actually rather worse than it appears. The last three bills approved by the parliament, all of which were passed on 22 March 2016, were introduced as long ago as October 2015. But it is not simply the quantity of the bills coming, or not coming, before the parliament that should concern the Scottish National Party's many friends in the schemes of Scotland. There is the question of quality.
Let's imagine – painful as this may prove to be – that the last three bills, the ones passed on that historic day, were the last-ever measures of the Scottish parliament (America having attempted to take out North Korea, but mistaking John Swinney for Kim Jong-Un, easily done if the name on the bomb happens to be Donald Trump). Let's further imagine that the parliament will then be symbolically remembered by any survivors of the unfortunate nuclear incident for the standard and relevance of its final decisive acts.
Step forward, first, the Bankruptcy (Scotland) Act. For an understanding of what this is all about, it is necessary to have a rough working knowledge of consolidation bills. A bill of this kind – I rely here on the Stair Memorial Encyclopaedia – is an enactment 'which, without making any changes in the law, brings together in one Act the statutory provisions relating to a particular topic and repeals the former enactments'.
The bill in question did not detain our masters unduly. No debate on its provisions was deemed necessary. But in the interests of democracy, and as an example of how to construct an impenetrable political culture and language in 18 short years, we quote from the Scottish parliament's account of how the bill came to pass: 'Normally, a Consolidation Bill is dealt with by a Consolidation Committee. That is a committee established specifically to consider the Bill under the procedure laid out in rule 9.18. However, a recent rule change allows the Parliamentary Bureau to propose that a Consolidation Bill is referred to the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee instead.'
What is rule 9.18? What is the Parliamentary Bureau? Who dares to disturb, with a loud, subversive snore, the otherwise catatonic deliberations of the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee on the Bankruptcy (Scotland) Bill? But here is the bottom line for all bankrupts, especially those living in the schemes where policy will one day be made: this bill changes nothing. Still the only bill that counts is the gas bill you have no means of paying. You are as bust as you were before, if not buster. Though, if it's any consolation, you may consider yourself consolidated.
Next, the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act. This is proof – I was about to write 'living proof' – that there is no peace in Scotland these days. There is no peace even when you are six feet under with your bankruptcy permanently discharged. The Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act stipulates that, before you bury your loved one in the back garden, always assuming he or she is dead first, you must first seek the permission of your local authority. None but the most libertarian could reasonably disagree. More contentiously, however, the same legislation enables lairs to be restored to use if the last remains were interred in them at least a hundred years ago.
I hesitate to elaborate upon the practical implications of this ground-breaking – almost literally ground-breaking – initiative. You have been lying there peacefully enough in your lair since 1916 when, without warning, a body called the Scottish parliament, for which you never voted, of which you are unaware, to which you are utterly indifferent, decrees that you will have company for the rest of your death. And it could be anybody. In the ultimate expression of all that guff about Jock Tamson’s bairns, the grand house will lie down with the scheme, the Unionist of 1916 with the jocky-come-lately Yes voter of 2014. It may be the most democratic thing the Scottish parliament has ever done, yet surprisingly little is known of this revolutionary provision.
The last of the legislative measures is perhaps the raciest of the trio – the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act. Among its effects, it makes it an offence to distribute or threaten to distribute a photogaph or film showing a person in an intimate situation. For the purposes of the bill, an 'intimate' situation in Scotland arises when that person's 'genitals, buttocks or breasts are exposed or covered only with underwear'. This is more commonly described as 'revenge porn', a phrase almost as vulgar as 'indyref2'.
As the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act only came into force on April Fool's Day, it is as yet unclear whether 'revenge porn'
goes on to any extent in those hotbeds of democracy, the schemes of Scotland; it seems more likely that the unsavoury practice is confined to such middle-class enclaves as Newton Mearns. Either way, however, your parliament is determined to stamp it out.
And that's it. That's really it. Scotland's do-nothing legislators may enjoy extensive powers over such vital matters as education, health care, policing and local services, as well as tax and social security, but do they have the faintest idea how to use them? Or do they prefer to tinker at the edges and hover over gravesides? After bankruptcy, burials and bare bottoms, the rest is silence – save for the distant rumble of unilateral declarations.