‘Members shall at all times conduct themselves in an orderly manner.’
That’s what the standing orders of the Scottish Parliament say. The standing orders are Holyrood’s rulebook, intended to ensure the smooth running of parliamentary business.
Scottish Labour MSP James Kelly fell foul of this instruction on Tuesday afternoon when he became confrontational with presiding officer Tricia Marwick.
The Rutherglen MSP raised a point of order on a ruling made by Marwick last week. Faced with an attempt to block the UK Government’s trade union bill, which the SNP and Labour oppose, Marwick determined that the “legislative consent” of Holyrood was not required since industrial relations is a reserved matter.
Her ruling did not go down well with the Nats or Labour and it wasn’t surprising when the issue came up in the chamber today. However, the way Kelly went about it turned a normally dry procedural question into a political row. Although the rules allow MSPs three minutes to make a point of order, Kelly began with a long preamble that failed to state where the standing orders or legislation had been misapplied.
Marwick pressed him four times to get to his point of order and Kelly shot back that he couldn’t because “you keep interrupting me”. His tone would charitably be described as terse and an obviously displeased Marwick told him to resume his seat. Kelly refused to comply despite the presiding officer reiterating her instruction a further four times, on each occasion prefacing her enjoinment with a courteous “please”. “I will not sit down. I want to make a point of order,” he insisted, before adding: “I want to make a point of order and I was not allowed to make the point of order because you kept interrupting me.”
Marwick asked twice for the Labour MSP to respect the authority of the chair and reminded him of the sanctions available to her should he continue to behave in a disorderly manner. Still he tried to speak over her and in the end Marwick ordered him out and asked security to show him the way.
Scottish Labour is capitalising on the brouhaha with the hashtag #FreeJamesKelly. Fair play to them; their opportunities for good press are few and far between these days.
There will be mutterings too about a presiding officer with a Nationalist background throwing out a Labour MSP. Opposition parties are increasingly unsettled by the dominance of the SNP and the lack of democratic infrastructure to hold the executive to account. Those are concerns which many will share, regardless of political inclination, but they are not at issue here. Marwick has been the very soul of neutrality, her rebukes from the chair directed as firmly at noisy Nats as recalcitrant opposition backbenchers. (Remember this to-do only came about after she ruled against her old party on procedural grounds.)
And any fair-minded reading of the rules suggests she’s in the right. A point of order is not a speech or an excuse for a good moan; it is an instrument to flag up possible breaches of parliamentary rules. Beyond this, the functioning of parliament depends on respect for the presiding officer, even when members bitterly disagree with a decision.
Rule 7.3 is clear: MSPs must “at all times conduct themselves in a courteous and respectful manner and shall respect the authority of the presiding officer”. The standing orders explicitly warn members not to “speak or stand when the presiding officer is speaking”. And if MSPs refuse to take a telling, the rulebook empowers the chair to boot them out “for such period as the presiding officer thinks fit but not beyond the end of the next sitting day”.
This is broadly similar to how discipline functions at Westminster. Standing order 43 of the House of Commons allows the Speaker to “name” disruptive members, whereupon MPs vote to exclude them from “the precincts of the House” for a defined period (five sitting days for a first offence, 20 the second time). That power was invoked notoriously in 1881 to eject Irish nationalist parliamentarians en masse, led by Charles Stewart Parnell.
In modern times, speakers have shown greater reluctance to use their disciplinary powers, relying on the compliance of members. An exception was Bernard Weatherill, a martinet for parliamentary procedure who named fractious Scottish Labour MP Tam Dalyell on four separate occasions. Other parliaments that have adapted the Westminster system maintain similar tools for keeping badly behaved politicians in line. Bronwyn Bishop, former speaker of the Australian House of Representatives, ejected 18 opposition MPs in one hour during a particularly rowdy question time last year.
Holyrood’s rule 7.3 has been drawn upon sparingly by presiding officers and it is difficult to argue that Marwick has deviated from that tradition. No matter your opinion on her Sewel ruling, her management of today’s argy-bargy showed patience and restraint.
The trade union bill is the subject of intense debate and disagreement. For a socialist and trade unionist like Kelly, it understandably stirs sincere anger. The cynic in me recalls too that Scottish Labour MSPs are vying for places on the regional lists and a highly-publicised dust-up over the trade union bill would go down well with the party’s newly Corbynised selectorate. But Tricia Marwick is not proposing to strip a single shop steward of a single protection or entitlement. Right sentiment, wrong target.
Whatever the motivation, whether it was desperate plea or canny stunt, Kelly has been banned from the chamber for the remainder of Tuesday’s business and Wednesday’s to boot. It’s the Scottish budget tomorrow. Let’s hope the good people of Rutherglen were not hoping to see their MSP hold finance secretary John Swinney to account for his economic policies. They’ll have to settle for a press release instead.
Chairing the Scottish Parliament – any parliament – is a thankless task. “Presiding Officer Runs Parliamentary Business To Schedule Again” isn’t the stuff of headlines. Slip up, mind, and you’ll be the first segment on Scotland Tonight. Tricia Marwick, who is standing down in May, has served the parliament with integrity and dedication. It’s not too much to ask that MSPs show her some respect in return.