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Expert analysis

02/01/2014

I was fascinated by Tavish Scott’s op-ed in The Scotsman, which appeared online last night, in which he opines (once again) that one-party rule was hurting Holyrood, lamenting that it’s all gone horribly wrong since the SNP won a majority in 2011 (those pesky voters!), overlooking the fact that only one party had formed the Government in 2007 (albeit with a Parliamentary minority), and the 1999-2007 Coalition had rendered debate in Holyrood somewhat sterile before that. But never mind.

For those of you who do not remember him, it’s worth pointing out that Tavish Scott is a former Leader of the Norwegian Scottish Liberal Democrats. Let me now explain why he is the former Leader: an element of rot had set in before he assumed the role, with a net loss of LibDem seats in 2007, and the lost deposit in Glasgow East during the interregnum between Nicol Stephen’s resignation and Scott’s election. Scott was unable to stop the rot: his hardline anti-Government tactics backfired spectacularly in Budget negotiations; lost deposits followed in Glenrothes and Glasgow North East; Scotland became the only part of the UK where the LibDem vote went down in 2010; and the loss of more than two thirds of his Parliamentary group in 2011 capped it all off. He had no choice but to quit.

So it’s perhaps that the period around that election was such an emotional maelstrom that explains why he opens his article by misremembering the election of the Parliament’s current Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick.

Since 2011, Scotland has been ruled by a majority Nationalist government. In Holyrood, this meant the imposition of an SNP presiding officer. The only secret and so-called free vote was between Tricia Marwick (SNP) and Christine Grahame (SNP) to become presiding officer. Marwick won. Observers concluded that the SNP leadership wanted one of their own and Grahame did not fit that bill.

Let us begin by bearing in mind that if the SNP Leadership were capable of subverting a free vote and secret ballot, it would have been capable of preventing Christine Grahame’s candidacy in the first place, let alone stopping her from receiving 32 votes for the post. Let us also bear in mind that Jack McConnell attempted this very move as First Minister, when having appointed then Deputy Presiding Officer Patricia Ferguson as a minister, attempted to shoehorn Cathy Peattie into the vacant post ahead of Trish Godman. Godman’s candidacy never materialised, but neither did Peattie’s election: she lost to Conservative Murray Tosh by 68 votes to 45 (ultimately, Godman got her way in 2003 in any case). Now, it is entirely possible – indeed credible – to suggest that not a single Labour member voted for Tosh: the combined total of the SNP, Conservative and others, together with Labour’s junior Coalition partners the LibDems, would have had a majority. But Labour did have 55 MSPs at the time, so even if none of them rebelled, at least ten of them went walkabout when they were needed. That is what happens when Leaderships attempt to subvert votes in this fashion.

But I digress. Let us also remember that Tavish Scott is wrong in any case, for the choice in 2011 was not only between Christine Grahame and Tricia Marwick, but also Labour’s Hugh Henry, and that in this supposed two-horse race, Christine Grahame came third, with 32 votes to Marwick’s 45 and Henry’s 49. Now, note the combined total of the two SNP MSPs’ votes: 77. Let us, for the sake of argument, make a number of assumptions:

  1. That partisan calculations were the only arguments in play in selecting Alex Fergusson’s successor;
  2. That every member of the SNP was hell-bent on seeing their party seize control of the Chair;
  3. That every SNP MSP had entirely overlooked the merits of having a PO from the Opposition so as to enhance the SNP’s majority rather than reduce it;
  4. That Margo MacDonald was happy to get on board with this line of thinking; and
  5. That the Greens, who over the course of the previous four years had gone from ushering Alex Salmond into Bute House to seemingly lamenting every action taken by the Scottish Government, were also happy to get on board with this line of thinking.

You will notice my enthusiasm for these assumptions. But do the maths: there were 69 SNP MSPs then. There were (and still are) two Greens, and there can only ever be one Margo MacDonald. That makes 72. Who, then, were the other five to vote for them? Even in the final vote, Marwick defeated Henry by 73 votes to 55, meaning that at least one outright anti-SNP MSP backed Marwick. Partisanship was not the only factor, particularly as so many observers had noted the opportunity to elected a woman to the post for the first time.

So Parliament had more of a choice than Scott contends – and more than SNP members chose Tricia Marwick. But let us move on.

The Presiding Officer now proposes that Holyrood committee conveners could be elected by the whole parliament and not appointed by their parties. It is a reasonable idea. But only if parliament was to forget politics on the day of these elections, and that seems unlikely. Currently, parties are allocated conveners in proportion to their seats in parliament. That is a fair principle. Marwick proposes retaining that. A party then chooses a particular MSP to chair a committee. Instead, Marwick wants the entire parliament to vote in each convener. In the current parliament, that would enshrine power in the hands of the SNP whips and in reality, that means Alex Salmond. Nothing happens in parliament without Salmond’s assent. The SNP controls parliamentary business, votes and the timetabling of legislation. That is what one-party rule means. Marwick now proposes that a majority government would in effect appoint conveners of committees, thus enshrining patronage and loyalty. A minority or coalition government might ensure a more open contest.

Except on votes for the Chair, Parliament does forget politics, or at least, partisanship: the Cathy Peattie debacle of 2001, which saw Executive MSPs (whether Labour or Liberal Democrat) opt for an Opposition MSP to succeed Patricia Ferguson instead of one of their own; the 2007 election for the Deputy Presiding Officers in which two Liberal Democrats stood and between them, managed to get support from outwith their party in the first round of voting (though this may have fallen away in the second round after Jamie Stone was eliminated). It was forgotten to some extent in 2011 when not the SNP found not one but two women among its ranks to stand. Now, it can’t be completely forgotten in the race for Committee Convenerships as there is still a constraint on which party takes which chairs, but still, it is a secret ballot. And Whips cannot enforce it. How could they? They can neither reward compliant voting nor punish rebels, as neither can be identified. They will certainly have less influence on proceedings than they do now.

But, as always with Tavish Scott, the problem is not the proposal but the proposer: Marwick has to be politically neutral in her role, but for Scott she is still a Narionalist and therefore, she is The Enemy. She must, in his mind, always be wrong, and have sinister motives in mind. That her proposals for the next Parliament would take effect after an election must also be noted. He’s lamenting what effect the changes would have on a landscaped changed by an election more than two years from now, with two other elections and a referendum to come before then, by looking at what would happen now. Is he conceding that majority government is here to stay? Or is he lamenting that the voters behaved as they did?

The fact is that the system is what it is, and while successive Presiding Officers have sought to refine and develop it, MSPs – whatever their party – have to make it work regardless of whether we have a single-party majority, a coalition or a minority government. The system is built around what members require to do their jobs effectively, and taking the convenerships out of the Whips’ hands will surely push things away from the monolithic nightmare Tavish Scott sees. Instead, he’s opted to second guess the electorate. His argument seems to be, “We can’t reform things, as the public might vote in people I don’t like”. Some Liberal! Some Democrat!

The other downside to the proposal is the inherent failure of the Holyrood committee system. Holyrood does not have enough members to have separate legislative and select committees as Westminster does. So committees must mix cross-party, impartial inquiries with consideration of new laws. This tends to be highly political, irrespective of the colour of the government. All governments want their own way on legislation and whip the votes accordingly. Marwick has not proposed any reform to this.

So let’s see. Scott has identified a problem: the committees have to engage in both detailed study of their subjects and full-on legislative scrutiny. He may have misdiagnosed the symptom – that legislation politicises the Committee (it’s the Members’ political affiliation that does that) – but it does mean that there aren’t enough MSPs to have as many committees as are needed to carry out both the day to day scrutiny and the important pre-legislative work that was to be the cornerstone of the Committee system. But having identified the problem and the root cause – the lack of numbers – he then seems to be calling on the Presiding Officer to abandon her political neutrality and unilaterally demand that the Scotland Act be re-amended to increase the numbers. That is the only viable reform to this issue and it is beyond any Presiding Officer. If Marwick did attempt it, you can bet that Scott would be the first to criticise her for coming off the fence.

She has also rightly said that First Minister’s Questions does not work. Backbenchers are frozen out, as the party leaders take up most of the half hour allocated to allow Salmond to provide answers to questions that were not asked. There is one person who can do something about this: the Presiding Officer. She or he controls the format. If the First Minister or a party leader is waffling far from the subject matter, the Presiding Officer can stop them. A former incumbent says the day to get that right is at the first FMQ of a new parliament. Wise words.

And again, the Presiding Officer can only go so far: she has to enforce the Standing Orders. If the leaders are waffling at FMQs, how can she enforce a Standing Order to shut them up, if that Standing Order does not exist? Aside from the Leaders being more responsible themselves, that’s really one for the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, who have more influence on the format and structure of FMQs than the Presiding Officer, who selects the questions and keeps order. MSPs control the content of their speeches, not the PO. The SPPA Committee controls the format of FMQs, not the PO. But then, while Alex Salmond’s responses can be verbose, it takes two to tango: if the questions are long-winded, the answers will be as well. But Scott won’t blame long-winded speeches on the speechmakers if some of them aren’t in the SNP. Nor will he demand the Standards Committee do everything he wants because some of its members are not in the SNP. But Marwick is (or rather, was) an SNP member, so in Scott’s mind, she is not to be trusted.

And that, ultimately, is what’s really wrong with Parliament, and Scott is its leading proponent. When he was Leader, we heard so often about “Alex Salmond’s Referendum”. And even in this musing about Parliamentary procedure, the only names singled out are SNP names, Alex Salmond gets mentioned by name three times, and Hugh Henry appears to have been airbrushed out of Parliamentary history because his presence doesn’t support Scott’s argument. If you can’t win on policy (and Tavish Scott comprehensively lost on policy), attack the process. If you can’t win on process, attack the person. And if you still can’t beat the person, just tell an outright lie, as Scott did at the start of his article.

Scott presided over the near-wipeout of his party at Holyrood, but he has failed to learn from that electoral disaster that he way he did things was wrong. Instead, he has carried on as though everyone (including the electorate, who rejected his party and his way of doing things by a margin of more than eleven to one) is wrong except him. So let me be clear: yes, there is something wrong with Parliament. But it’s not the state of the parties, the election result or who’s in Government. It’s the Opposition’s obsession with the proposer rather than the proposal. It’s the unwillingness to let the facts get in the way of a hatchet job. It’s the unwillingness to come up with clear proposals on the way forward when carping from the sidelines will do.

No, what’s hurting Holyrood isn’t majority Government, but the same thing that delivered majority Government in the first place.

An incompetent Opposition.

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