HOLYROOD should have a new Consultative Assembly to act as an “official check” on its work, Jack McConnell argues, as he says Brexit will open up an opportunity to create fundamental constitutional change for Scotland and the UK.

In an exclusive interview to mark the 20th anniversary of devolution, the former first minister decries those, including Tony Blair, who argue that constitutional change should be made primarily to “strengthen the Union”, insisting, rather, that changes should be made with the sole purpose of improving the governance of all four nations of the UK.

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Sitting in Portcullis House, Westminster’s modern annexe of glass and steel, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale reflects on the infancy of the Scottish Parliament and its future with as much passion and insight as he did when he served as first minister from 2001 to 2007.

Calling for a constitutional overhaul as Britain leaves the EU, he offers a surprising proposal: a new democratic body for Scotland. But would this mean yet more politicians? “Totally not,” he declares.

“There are too many politicians in this country. I would cut the number of MPs at different levels and I would certainly dramatically cut the numbers in the second chamber. But I do believe there is a gap in terms of accountability and engagement 20 years on from the creation of the Scottish Parliament.”

He explains: “The Parliament was such an exciting and new thing in Scotland that it became, understandably, the primary focus of attention. Both Scottish local government and some of the great institutions of Scotland like the church and the STUC, bodies that really had a big influence in pre-devolution Scotland, have not had the same voice since.

“Alongside that, given the electoral system has not worked out to be quite as proportional as people thought it was going to be, and it appears you can have majority governments on minority votes, which we had hoped would never be the case, to me there is a need for an additional check on the work of ministers and the priorities of the Parliament.”

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The Labour peer calls for a national debate on a Consultative Assembly, which, he admits, some people might call a second chamber but insists it would not be a legislative one. Rather, it would be something like a Citizens’ Assembly but with more status and authority.

“You could have one representative for each of the local authorities, maybe two for each city. You could have a select number of representatives of business and, similarly, the voluntary sector.

“I would have a role for the local authorities at the centre. They have been disempowered for the last 20years. There is a need to revitalise, re-energise their voice.”

CAs, as they would become known, would sit part-time, could be paid an allowance for attendance, and would meet to discuss certain big issues like the Scottish Budget or major pieces of legislation. Membership would be kept to below 100.

“We would not create a new set of politicians,” insists Lord McConnell. “The Scottish Parliament would be legislatively bound to listen to them. It would act as an official check on the work of Holyrood.

“If I had been FM with a body like that in place, we would have had to think before every major act and every Budget: ‘What’s the Consultative Assembly going to say about that? Are we going to get any rows over this? That would have been a good check on the performance of government.”

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While the former Scottish Labour leader rejects the idea of an official legislative revising body like the House of Lords for Scotland, he notes: “I do think politicians sometimes need a check on them. But a bottom-up check would be far better and it would be in line with the democratic thinking of Scotland rather than a second chamber of the elite.”

The 58-year-old politician also sees Brexit and the repatriation of powers from Brussels as an opportunity to shake up the running of the UK too, “a trigger to build a new relationship between the central UK Government and the devolved governments”.

This, he explains, would involve changes to the Cabinet, removing the “historical nonsense of the territorial secretaries of state”, and replacing them with a major figure on a par, say, with the Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, who would run a Department for the Nations and Regions, giving Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a “bigger voice at the table”.

Lord McConnell says: “That fourth [major office-holder] is the person who represents the diversity of the UK at the Cabinet table and they could have powerful ministers of state below them responsible for liaising with the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”

Alongside this change there would be a Euro-style UK Council of Ministers, which, in certain areas like fishing and environmental protection, would “not be consultative but it would be statutorily empowered to make decisions”.

The peer notes there could be different ways the Council could operate, either by unanimity or by majority voting. But that could mean Scotland having a veto over England, which has 90 per cent of the UK population.

“It would also give England a veto. And Wales too,” he points out, admitting: “Yes, it would threaten sensibilities but given the state we are in at the moment and given the massive change that is coming down the track if Brexit does happen, with all these new powers, there is an opportunity to be seized here.”

Asked if the Council of Ministers would challenge the authority of the UK Parliament, the former FM says: “People said creating devolution would create those kind of difficulties when, actually, where the political debate has gone over the last 20 years, in the main the relationship between the two parliaments and governments, the budgeting at Holyrood[and]…the business of government has gone on despite all the political shenanigans.”

He insists there has to be a “change in mindset”, stressing: “If you create the Council of Ministers at the same time as reshaping the Cabinet, having a proper serious debate about the House of Lords, having a proper directly or indirectly elected second chamber of the nations and regions, then you start to rebuild the way in which the UK is governed, recognising we now have a multi-layered democracy in the UK and that sovereignty at a UK level is shared with different nations that now have devolution.”

Lord McConnell decries what he calls “tinkering” at Holyrood, “mainly after 2007”, when changes were made not on consensus but on efforts either to strengthen the Union or undermine it. “That has been fundamentally wrong,” he declares, describing the process as “almost swimming in treacle”.

Among those he disagrees with is his friend and colleague Tony Blair.

While the Labour peer insists he is still an admirer of the former prime minister, without whose leadership devolution, he says, would have been much harder to achieve after 1997, he nonetheless takes issue with Mr Blair’s approach to devolution.

“He is wrong to keep viewing this issue through the lens of strengthening or undermining the Union.

“Our objective should be to find the best way of governing in all four nations of the UK and in the UK as a whole. That should be the measure against which we decide our powers.

“If you decide everything on the basis of strengthening or undermining the Union, that is when you get into sloppy compromises and you make decisions on additional powers, for example, maybe three times in the last 12 years, none of which has fitted together in a cohesive way and none of which has settled the debate.”