Letter from Westminster

Life in a coalition government may be many things but it is rarely if ever going to be boring! Exhausting pos­sibly but never boring. That, at least, was the thought that went through my mind at 2.30am as I locked the door of my office in the House of Commons.

In government the Labour Party was keen to make progress on what it considered to be “modernisation” of House of Commons procedures with changes designed at ending late night sittings and the like. Commons business was more tightly controlled and timetabled. As a result a lot of legislation was put through with little or no proper scrutiny by parliament.

In opposition, however, a dif­fer­ent approach seems to be taken and concern about late nights and other such traditional features of Westmin­ster life seems to be less pressing.

Apart from the Finance Bill the other big piece of business to hit the Commons this week was the state­ment by Nick Clegg as deputy prime minister on Monday about the coalition’s plans for constitutional change. Electoral reform – a liberal policy since Jo Grimond was a boy – is now to be driven forward and we can expect to have a referendum next year on a change to the way in which we elect MPs to a fairer system so that every MP should have the support of at least 50 per cent of people voting in his or her constitu­ency. It is not the proportional system that I would have wanted to see ideally but it is an enormous im­prove­ment on the first past the post system which is currently used.

There has been some understand­able concern about holding the refer­endum on the same day as elections to the Scottish Parliament next May. Understandable as we can all still remember the shambles of the 2007 elections and everyone is keen to avoid a repetition of that.

That was a problem of poorly designed ballot papers where the vote for constituency MSPs and list MSPs had been put onto the same piece of paper with the list vote on the left and the constituency vote on the right. The list was long and it looked as if the two columns were in fact one.

That is a problem which will be solved by printing the ballots on separate pieces of paper. I have sufficient confidence in the intelli­gence of the average Scottish voter to think that they should be able to tell the difference between the dif­ferent decisions that they are being asked to take.

The other piece of news con­firmed by Mr Clegg on Monday is that Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles will continue to be single constituencies despite having significantly fewer voters. After nine years of seeing my representa­tions about the needs of island com­munities being different and having to be accommodated accordingly it was a pleasant change to see our voice being heard, understood and acted on. Government may be ex­haust­ing but it can also allow you to make a difference.

Alistair Carmichael MP


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