Aye but. No but.
Not having had many chances to attend First Minister’s Questions at the Scottish Parliament, I was delighted to be going along this week, especially in what might be termed a ‘busy political newscycle’ in Edinburgh.
I should start by saying, rather unfashionably, that I am a huge fan of the Scots Parliament. Perhaps this comes from being of an age to remember when Scotland seemed to be run by faceless men in dark suits in St Andrew’s House, with an attitude that didn’t seem much changed from the days when that site housed the city’s Calton Jail.
Each time I visit, or even pass by that collection of buildings at the bottom of the Canongate, I am just happy that Scotland has reached a position where its representatives can come together and discuss matters of import for the nation. As Donald Dewar memorably said: “I like that!”
I like the feel of the building. Whenever you visit it is busy – not just with spads and meeja folk but with school groups, tourists, interests groups of old folk and young folk, with accents from all over the world and each part of Scotland. Some of the aims of the nascent parliament have not yet been met, but the stated desire that it be open to the people certainly seems to be happening, and to a far greater degree than is found in the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ by the Thames.
Those who, like Billy Connolly, cry it a ‘pretendy parliament’, either don’t understand the work it does, or have an agenda that leads them to be willfully ignorant. The improvements to Scotland made by its committees, advisors and parliamentarians – of all parties – over the past decade or so, are around us every day, examples of how politics, politicians and voters CAN make a difference.
There are those who point to an increasing lack of respect for politicians, with scandals, sleaze and incompetence hogging the headlines. Well, of course, there are politicians who debase their calling, as there are in all walks of life – but to use that as an encouragement to turn away from politics and proclaim a proud disinterest in how your country is governed is, to me, tantamount to criticizing the Wright Brothers for inventing manned flight because we have plane crashes.
A final, personal thought on first impressions: was struck, as always, by the connection between MSPs and the public. For various reasons, I have personal connections with four or five of the current ministers – mostly through political activity long in the past; I have met probably another 6 or 7 MSPs and have twitter contact with maybe another dozen. That the public feel they know the people in this chamber is important to the democratic process. Incidentally, friends in England find it hard to believe that Scottish Ministers operate their own tweets and that MSPs respond to tweets as a matter of course.
So I was in a positive state of mind as I had a coffee in the cafeteria; I like politics, I believe it to be important, and, on a more immediate note, we could perhaps expect to see skin and hair flying in the chamber after the revelations about legal advice or otherwise on the EU during the week.
So, my thoughts?
If you haven’t been to the Scottish Parliament chamber when it’s sitting, your first impressions would probably be contradictory: there is a sense of importance – as you would want and expect from a national debating chamber, but, especially as the MSPs enter, there is also a less formal ambience of this being a place of work, where the occupants are familiar with each other and at ease in their surroundings. I find both these signals positive.
Once First Minister’s Questions begin, you need to have your wits about you. The strategically placed monitors help, but the sound system isn’t brilliant if you’re in the back part of the public gallery and demands of time mean that speakers generally plough on through applause or jeers for fear of overrunning. This can mean it takes time to tune in to the cut and thrust of the exchanges.
Yesterday’s anticipation – with the press and cameramen very obviously sensing blood – was never really met. As the media have reported, there was a feeling that the major players were going through the motions. Unable to dent Salmond’s effectiveness, the opposition sensed they might have an opportunity with the argument around the Andrew Neil interview, Nicola Sturgeon’s statement, and the arcane nature of the ministerial code.
However, despite press excitement, I would imagine that parliamentarians on all sides are well aware that such obscure arguments are generally lost on the great Scottish public. If there was a lie, few voters will feel affected by it; if there wasn’t, the opposition’s brand of ‘Get Eck’ politics has been so weak for so long that the name calling has become a permanent backdrop, to be ignored.
That’s not to say trust in a First Minister is an unimportant matter; it’s just that to judge his trustworthiness on such an obscure issue was never going to set public reaction ablaze. As has been suggested: those who support Salmond will continue to do so, those who don’t will continue not to.
So the FM re-stated his case: the Ministerial Code says that, without prior permission, you can neither reveal legal advice received, nor, indeed, whether you have, in fact, sought it. Nicola Sturgeon’s statement had been made after seeking such permission.
He pointed out that such a position was familiar to the opposition, from their own times in government. And, as he would, he referred to details from the code in verse and part.
Johann Lamont’s ‘attack’ seemed unfocused and was more about name calling than factual analysis; she seemed less than well prepared, and, if I‘m honest, not totally engaged. As has been generally agreed, Ruth Davidson, when she spoke, seemed to have misread the occasion entirely. She tried for some knockabout, but ended up comparing Salmond to DelBoy, Nixon and Clinton. I wondered what the Salvadorean Ambassador, who was present in the Visitors’ Gallery, would have thought of her contribution. Me? I thought she came across as someone who was biding her time till she got a gig that was more important than heading up a parliamentary rump.
There was nothing forensic about either of the opposition leaders, or their approach to questioning Salmond – and, with four decades as an English teacher, analyzing listening and speaking skills is one of the few areas in which I would claim any sort of expertise.
This part of proceedings was a kind of microcosm of how the independence debate has been going. The SNP seem to be campaigning on the line that, as they’ve done quite well as a devolved government, they’d do even better with independence. The opposing parties, in the absence of positive reasons why the Union is good for Scotland seem reduced to the line: we don’t know what it will be like so we better not risk it. Any higher discussion of the merits of autonomy, the responsibility of countries to control their own affairs, is sadly absent. We can only hope the Yes Campaign will shift the debate in this important direction.
However, further down the bill, as it were, things got more interesting, with some genuine engagement across the chamber. Kenny Macaskill answered on the proceeds of crime confiscations; Colin Weir asked about the Forth Crossing progress (an opportunity for Elaine Murray to claim she had been misunderstood in her quote, to which the FM evinced some jocular sympathy!) and there was a useful exchange between Roseanna Cunningham and Annabel Goldie on methadone replacement programmes which suggested the amount of behind the scenes, cross party, cooperation that goes into some of the Parliament’s successes. A cordial exchange between Ken McIntosh and Alex Salmond on tackling poverty was a reminder of what this chamber can achieve when it shows unity of purpose.
You could say that the half hour of FMQs it not the best time to judge our parliament; or you might believe that its weekly performance for media and public attention is an amalgam of all that’s good and bad about it.
A recurring theme yesterday was the frustration that the Scots Government can only do so much without full access to the country’s resources. I choose to believe that MSPs go to Holyrood because they want to make a difference. What I have difficulty understanding is how so many on the opposition side are content to contribute to a limited legislature when the means are there to go forward in full control of our own destiny.
There is talent and ability in every area of that chamber; what could they achieve for Scotland if given the full opportunity to do so?