It’s not a good sign when a sketch writer worries about a breakdown in civility at Holyrood.
Parliamentary rammies are our bread and butter; a debate that goes off smoothly is a waste of good ink. Yet last week’s rancorous bout of First Minister’s Questions left me cold and, if I’m honest, troubled.
I am no schoolmarm. I can zing with the best of them and the surest way to my heart is by needling a political rival with a well-timed put-down. But alongside the cut and thrust of political combat something else is festering — contempt. For parliament. For each other. For the very idea of civil and persuasive politics.
The fracas at FMQs should give us pause. For those lucky enough to have missed it, Thursday’s Q&A session saw Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie accuse Nicola Sturgeon of lying, the First Minister brand him ‘a pathetic attention-seeker’, and MSPs bawl at each other and the Presiding Officer when he tried to intervene.
It was like watching one of those Ewing family brawls on Dallas with Ken Macintosh cast in the role of Miss Ellie, threatening to burst into tears if JR and Bobby didn’t come to their senses. All that was missing were the shoulder pads and the ten-gallon hats.
It was hardly an isolated incident. Since Richard Leonard became Labour leader I can count on one hand the number of his weekly questions that I have been able to hear in full. The cacophony of Nationalist heckling has drowned out the rest. At Westminster, Tory MPs try to throw Jeremy Corbyn off his game by bellowing across the chamber but eventually they settle and listen, even if more out of curiosity than courtesy.
By contrast, the SNP benches, ministers included, often caterwaul right through Mr Leonard’s queries. There is neither curiosity nor courtesy shown and instead an uneasy sense that no question, no dissent can be tolerated.
This was thrown into stark relief during the stage one debate on repealing the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. One of the less luminous stars in the Nationalist firmament warned MSPs that scrapping the law, as all four opposition parties are committed to doing, ‘plays right into the Tories’ hands. Many of them would be happy to see the Scottish Parliament treated with contempt and derision, and I fear that that will be the consequence of a decision to repeal the act’.
The notion that parliament is undermined by voting against the executive is absurd but perhaps not surprising. One of the under-examined, and counter-intuitive, side effects of the independence referendum was the weakening of the Scottish Parliament, which took a back seat as politics shifted to rallies, meetings and street stalls. For roughly two years, MSPs saw their primary roles as advocates for one side or another of a constitutional struggle and their position as scrutineers of legislation and checks on ministerial excess became a secondary concern.
Even after the referendum, Holyrood did not go back to its old job right away because the SNP’s determination to overturn the result held parliament hostage to the whims of a potential Indyref2. That threat removed by the voters, MSPs have been able to resume the day-to-day business of improving Bills and keeping the government honest.
Still, the belligerence of 2014 remains. There are MSPs at Holyrood today who sincerely believe that colleagues a few feet away are out to undermine the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish people, and even the idea of Scottish nationhood. The most hardline deem their opponents unpatriotic, servants of a foreign power. Just as dismally, there are members who dismiss their opponents as brainwashed, flag-waving fanatics incapable of independent thought. The referendum injected a poison into the political bloodstream that has still not been drained.
Improbable as it might seem in 2018, Holyrood was sold to the voters as more consensual and less partisan than Westminster. The proportional voting system, the public petitions committee, and even the semi-circular debating chamber were hallmarks of what was rather grandly called ‘the new Scotland’. We now know the devo-idealists were setting up a forum for accentuating divisions over the constitution. That doesn’t mean Holyrood can’t return to its early ideals; it just has to be more hard-headed about them. Holyrood can be more than a platform for insult-trading and divisive identity politics.
Most MSPs are middling and some shouldn’t be allowed out without supervision but there are a handful who are examples of what Holyrood could and should be. They cross party lines and hail from various points on the ideological spectrum but they stand out for their ability, open-mindedness and conscientious approach to public service.
Take the SNP’s Mairi Gougeon and Ben Macpherson. Both are proud partisans for independence and the Nationalist worldview but, hard as it might be for confirmed Unionists to accept, they are more than the sum of their party’s talking points. Mrs Gougeon has contributed serious and substantial scrutiny of the Brexit process and its unintended consequences for EU nationals who have made Scotland home. Mr Macpherson is a fair-minded questioner on the Justice Committee and, falling on the boundary with his constituency, I can vouch for his endeavours as a local MSP.
Nationalist ideologues would struggle upon encountering the work of the Tories’ Miles Briggs and Adam Tomkins. Mr Briggs’ efforts to get justice for dementia sufferers have been commendable. Campaigners who spent years pleading to be listened to speak highly of the politician who became their champion.
Professor Tomkins, meanwhile, has brought forensic legal insight to the debating chamber, whether in his probing of constitutional matters or the Scottish Government’s ill-drafted state guardian legislation. Yes, he is a lawyer and that will always count against him but he is otherwise a good egg.
The same could be said for Labour’s Jenny Marra or Monica Lennon. Then there’s Alex Cole-Hamilton, who somehow reconciles his competing interests in common sense and the Liberal Democrats.
Late last year, a poll showed one in five Scots wants to abolish Holyrood. Show the voters last Thursday’s FMQs and the proportion would be infinitely higher. If the Scottish Parliament is to restore its standing with devo-sceptics, and the public at large, it cannot be the Holyrood of insults and imputations. It has to be a Holyrood that has moved on from 2014 and is led by the very best of its members.
The nation’s artists are gripped by the drama of Creative Scotland’s latest funding announcement. The cultural quango has angered some with its decisions but at a time when budgets are tight, it is perhaps inevitable that some projects will no longer receive public support.
One such project is Birds of Paradise, which has been informed that its £450,000 three-year funding will go. It is a crushing blow for Scotland’s only professional arts enterprise that is led by disabled people and committed to showcasing their work. The news is all the more painful coming as it does in Birds of Paradise’s silver anniversary year.
Spending public money is always a matter of priorities but it’s hard to imagine what set of priorities would want to see such a worthy organisation close its doors. It’s not too late for Creative Scotland to reverse this decision. If it doesn’t, it will send disabled Scots a message that they are not part of its vision for the nation’s arts.
Are the Tories now working for Jeremy Corbyn? Yet more anonymous quotes fill the newspapers as Conservative MPs brief against Theresa May. The Prime Minister is never going to share a page in the history books with Margaret Thatcher but she is the best they have right now and they should be rallying round her.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.