‘As the Fuuurst Minnnnnister would expeccccct, I dispute the figurrrrrres for who cooooommitted to what buhhht the issue is…’
It was Alex Rowley’s debut at First Minister’s Questions. He is standing in as Labour leader while they find their seventh leader in a decade. No wonder they want to ban zero-hours contracts; it’s the only way they can get anyone to stick with the job.
Mr Rowley is not one of life’s great orators. He speaks in the mournful monotone of a Fife undertaker at a pauper’s funeral. The woes of the world weigh heavy on every vowel; words are embalmed and led in dolorous procession. Mr Rowley doesn’t end sentences, he lays them to rest. If you listen very closely you can hear the strains of Amazing Grace being piped sonorously in the background.
Yesterday, it was the worthy subject of children’s mental health but it could have been any topic.
‘I am awarrrrrre that this week’s progrummmmmme for guvvvvvvernment has clearrrrr commitments to look at the matterrrrrrrr.’
FMQs is meant to be the set-piece event of the parliamentary week, a lively joust where politicians trade pre-tested punchlines and vie for ink in tomorrow’s papers. Kezia Dugdale had good days and bad. No one knows how Alex Rowley is doing so far thanks to the dense fog of dullness he emits. Imagine watching a car-crash blockbuster that never gets out of the petrol station.
MSPs’ attention began to wander. Lib Dems Liam McArthur and Tavish Scott had a right old chinwag. Government whip Joe FitzPatrick used the time to clean his nails. On the SNP backbenches, Kate Forbes produced a stylish tan handbag and rummaged around, retrieving a tube of moisturiser which she laboriously lathered into her palms in between checking her phone. In the time it took to get through Mr Rowley’s questions, the next Labour leader could already have been appointed, briefed against, and forced to stand down again.
You will Mr Rowley to get the words out. He’s not a bad man and he cares about things worth caring about but good intentions are not enough. As he told the First Minister, ‘actions speak louder than words’. A sound maxim but a bold one from a man who makes Graham Simpson sound hyperactive.
Patrick Harvie took this as a challenge and asked a question that was 300 words long. That’s longer than Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Discretionary payments to those affected by the ‘bedroom tax’ is a serious matter but one lost in rambling verbiage. The Presiding Officer is losing patience with long-winded MSPs. He kept them behind after the bell yesterday and told them he wasn’t angry, just disappointed.
Evidently, the First Minister feels much the same and so decided to spice things up. Midway through Thursday’s drudgery, she piped up: ‘The message that I want to send about Scotland — and I want to send it to people here at home, elsewhere in the UK and internationally — is that it is the best place in the world to grow up and be educated in.’
Scotland’s schoolchildren will be surprised to read that sentence. At least the ones that are able to.
There was only one voice that had any real impact. Labour’s Monica Lennon asked about provision for those suffering from addiction. ‘Too often,’ she said, ‘families only break their silence about drug and alcohol harm after they have buried their loved ones.’ The chamber clattered with conversations and shuffled papers; lunchtime beckoned. Without warning, Miss Lennon’s voice cracked. ‘I know that because, two years ago, my dad died as a result of alcohol harm.’
Silence fell like a stone. Miss Lennon’s words came quietly, painfully, but she got through to the end. The chamber applauded. Here was a voice worth listening to.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.