Presiding Officer can take pride in a legacy of reform

The current term at Holyrood will be the last for one of the parliament’s most prominent and respected members.

Tricia Marwick, the presiding officer, has announced that she will stand down as an MSP at next May’s elections.

The Mid Fife and Glenrothes MSP was one of the original 129 members of the reconvened Scottish Parliament elected in 1999. In 2011, she was voted presiding officer, a position broadly equivalent to the Speaker of the House of Commons and responsible for ensuring the smooth running of debates and votes at Holyrood. Although an SNP politician, she suspended her party affiliation as is customary for the neutral role of chair.

While never seeking the limelight for herself, she has one of the most well-kent voices in Scottish public life for her no-nonsense approach to First Minister’s Questions. Any MSPs not toeing the line soon find themselves on the receiving end of a tongue-lashing. Voters who long to tell boisterous politicians to put their gas at a peep will have cheered at last week’s FMQs when she instructed noisy members to “wheesht”.

Admirably, she has held down this high-profile job while successfully battling bowel cancer, which was diagnosed in 2013. (Just as former Scottish Labour MP Lindsay Roy supported Marwick during her treatment, she is now helping him after his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease.)

Marwick’s health remains good but she wants to spend more time with her grandchildren. The current five-year parliament, which still has one year to go, means she is already the longest-serving presiding officer. After 16 years at Holyrood, no one would begrudge her the respite.

As presiding officer, she has performed her duties with aplomb. It is not easy to set aside the beliefs that have animated your political life. To do so during the parliament that debated and delivered the referendum on independence must have been a real challenge for such a passionate Nationalist.

Not once did she inject her own views into those proceedings, sorely tempting though it must have been. Indeed, the casual observer might struggle to remember which party she was re-elected for in 2011. That is a tribute to the fairness and integrity with which she carries out the job.

During the election campaign Jim Murphy, God love him, tried to capitalise on the Westminster second jobs row by urging Marwick to ban MSPs from holding paid consultancies. She replied diplomatically but firmly that, as a more open and transparent operation, Holyrood did not face the same problems bedevilling its UK counterpart.

Marwick can take pride in becoming the first woman to serve as presiding officer; as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says, she has “blazed a trail for other women to follow”. But her legacy is the reform she brought to the parliament. She has driven change from the chair in the interests of parliamentarians and the people they serve. Ministers now face topical questions from MSPs and under her tenure the debating chamber has become more prominent in the business of the parliament. Her efforts to establish a continuing professional development programme for new members deserve credit too.

A passion for parliament was evident from the start, her maiden speech given over to lambasting plans to treat regional list members as secondary to their constituency counterparts in the allowances system. Right from the outset, she has been standing up for the rights of MSPs.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie commended her for giving a voice to backbenchers in a legislature dominated by a majority executive. “She raised the stature of the parliament,” he judged, a sentiment that will be shared across the political spectrum.

Despite her achievements she has set out a blueprint for further transformations, proposing a streamlining of the committee system and the direct election of conveners by the parliament. These twin changes would shift some power away from the executive and party business managers and towards MSPs, providing greater scope for holding ministers to account, scrutinising legislation, and initiating bills popular on the backbenches but not on the government’s radar.

In a legislature with no revising chamber and a single-party majority government, this rebalancing is essential to the democratic and procedural wellbeing of Holyrood. As Marwick pointed out in her lecture to the David Hume Institute in March, the strong committees model present in the House of Commons is a “real success”, a mature recognition that Holyrood does not have all the answers and can learn from Westminster even as it accrues more powers from that parliament.

With a year left to Marwick’s tenure in the chair, the Scottish Government and opposition parties should accept the good sense of her proposals and reach a consensus to implement them. It is never easy to surrender power but those who cherish a confident parliament and accountable government — those who truly believe that Holyrood should be neither a “nest of fearties” nor a “phalanx of forelock-tuggers” — should welcome this as an opportunity.

The last two years have seen a great renaissance in Scottish democratic life. We are once again a nation that does politics. The current party carve-up in committee appointments seems not only undemocratic but anachronistic. The Marwick reforms would allow parliament to catch up to the people.

The presiding officer insists she will continue to serve in public life. What form that will take remains to be seen but I hope in part it involves building on the groundwork she has laid through the Parliament Days initiative. This scheme brings Holyrood to the voters, with the presiding officer and a contingent of MSPs visiting communities across the country to talk about the role of the Scottish Parliament and the opportunities for ordinary people to participate in its work. At a time when the political class seems remote from the voters and the voters deeply cynical about their elected representatives, programmes like Parliament Days make an important contribution to repairing the relationship between politicians and the public.

This kind of outreach is sorely needed in schools, particularly in disadvantaged communities where a poverty of self-confidence and ambition can hamper children’s prospects as much as material deprivation. I will never forget the time when I was in primary six and the local MP came to visit our school. After a short speech, he invited questions and my hand shot up to ask his party’s policy on something or other. It was the first time it had occurred to me that someone from my background could be part of the process. Young people, particularly girls, could benefit from the wisdom and experience of a prominent public figure like Tricia Marwick.

Of course, her interests may lie elsewhere. There are any number of causes that could benefit from her efforts, from voter engagement here in Scotland to supporting embattled female lawmakers in the emerging democracies of the Middle East and North Africa.

Whatever she chooses to do, I hope that Marwick becomes more active on Twitter, where she currently tweets as @TriciaMarwickPO. I know social media can seem like a bear pit at times, fraught with potential faux pas and nasty trolls, but trust me, we’re a nice bunch really, Tricia.

There is still another year of hard work to go, controlling a rowdy chamber that will only grow rowdier in the run-up to the 2016 elections. But when the time comes to vacate the presiding officer’s chair, Tricia Marwick can do so with pride in her public service and achievements and satisfaction in a job well done.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © bnhsu by Creative Commons 2.0.

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