Changing of the Parliamentary guard

2013 has, in many ways, been a transition year. It’s not over yet, of course, but November always seems like a good point at which to pause and reflect, before the hurly burly of the festive season takes over and we are then cajoled into looking forward to the year to come.

In many aspects of public life, this year has been a stepping stone, a bridge from the past towards the future. Moving forward requires leaving some stuff behind. Occasionally, we don’t get to do that voluntarily.

It’s been that kind of a year for Holyrood with the passing of three MSPs who were initiates of the Parliament when reconvened in 1999. The deaths of Brian Adam, David McLetchie and most recently, of Helen Eadie remind us that nothing stays the same.

There have been serious illnesses too for others in that original intake this year, with worried whispers and heartfelt goodwill transcending tribal loyalties. Most, thankfully, are on the mend and back in their rightful places. It’s good to see and to have them back and it will be even better when the others make it back too.

The award for lifetime achievement at the Herald’s Politician of the Year Awards to George Reid was an overdue acclamation for another of the 99 group. I’m not sure the SNP, at least in its modern guise, ever truly got George and what he brought to Scottish politics. His years at the International Red Cross – in my view – made him into a quite different politician, one who could see the need for consensus and yes, compromise. His term as Presiding Officer was instrumental in sorting the building problem but more importantly, in putting oor Parly on the world stage. Delegations still come and go but more fuss seemed to be made of them under George’s tenure. That mattered in terms of signalling our arrival in the family of nations with a bona fides democratic institution that crucially, other nations and states were prepared to take seriously.

And there’s still a role for politicians like George post-referendum, whatever the outcome. We’ll need elder statesmen, and women, to either negotiate and help signpost our way, particularly beyond these shores, or to soothe divisions and promote reconciliation so that devolution doesn’t become a standstill process. Hearteningly, George still has appetite and fervour to be part of the future and that’s a most welcome sign.

But there is definitely a sense that the old Parliamentary guard is passing. Brian Adam, David McLetchie and Helen Eadie were all MSPs who were good to me, on a range of professional matters, at various points in the last thirteen years. They were all always kind, thoughtful, courteous and assiduous, even when they were politely declining the opportunity to be hitched to whichever cause I was exhorting.

It’s worth noting how relatively young they were, all of them dying in their sixties. Being an elected politician for years is a hard shift. For all the paid hours – often upwards of fifty week in, week out – there are the unpaid ones as political party supporters and activists too. It takes a toll and their passing, and the illnesses of others, should remind us that politics is a far from easy game.

Even though David McLetchie enjoyed a brief moment in the sun and Brian Adam earned a place in the SNP Cabinet, mostly this trio were parliamentary workhorses. All Parliaments need them. Indeed, they are essential, for without backroom people prepared to do the heavy lifting, largely eschewing the limelight in the process, Parliaments would grind to a halt. Often, it’s working away quietly and behind the scenes which achieves results.

These MSPs might not have been noted for conspicuous moments nor will they be remembered for such, but sometimes, it truly is the sum rather than the parts which count. And while it’s true that not everything can stay the same, nor should we want it to, it’s important to acknowledge the contribution and role made by those left behind. The footprints of Brian Adam, David McLetchie and Helen Eadie will remain in the Scottish Parliamentary sand for a while yet, I hope.

“Ding Dong” is still the Song of the Clyde – politically at least

Two contrasting opinion pieces on all things Clyde-built this morning. Euan McColm takes Nicola Sturgeon to task, suggesting that her assertion that post-independence, of course Clyde ship builders could still make frigates for the Royal Navy, was rash and unfounded. “Sturgeon’s handling of this issue began so well. But today her argument is destroyed and her personal credibility damaged by that trade union attack. I wonder how she’ll get out of this one. I don’t see an obvious route.” Ouch. In fact, more than ouch, for McColm seems to think this might well be a hit which sinks the good ship Sturgeon.

And then we have Kevin McKenna in the Guardian denouncing the behaviour of Unionist politicians who used the job losses at Govan and Scotstoun to foretell impending doom if Scotland votes yes next September. “Last week in Scotland showed that there are still many in our midst who loathe and fear their own kind. There are those, including Davidson, Robertson and Carmichael, whose hatred and fear of independence is such that they would punish their own country by destroying part of its industrial infrastructure.” More ouch, this time for those on the No side.

So, which opinion is right?

There is no doubt that talking in certainties when the future of Scottish shipbuilding is anything but, is dangerous: why politicians persist in it is a puzzle.

What’s also a puzzle is that despite apparently spending the last twelve months squaring off the difficult questions about life post-UK, someone in the SNP inner circle forgot to include the defence manufacturing industry. Angus Robertson’s Powerpoint presentation at a fringe meeting ahead of last year’s great NATO debate at SNP conference – and indeed the motion setting out what a post-independence defence function would look like – should have addressed all this.  Perhaps it did and we’ve all forgotten. That’s what happens when you allow carefully crafted policy to be hijacked by a totem issue.

Also perplexing is why those what lead the rest of us yay-sayers persist in shaping the future of an independent Scotland around our continuing relationship with rUK. It instantly allows those who’d rather we stayed whole to rebut any claims about how that relationship might be founded; they, after all, as the larger partner reckon they hold more of the cards – and how does that sound familiar?

Yet, earlier in the week, Nicola Sturgeon was quite brilliant in holding up the Norwegian example as one that might provide a blueprint for Clyde shipbuilding post independence. Far from gaffing as Euan McColm suggests, I thought the Deputy First Minister was first class standing in at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday. She expressed sympathy for jobs lost, including at Portsmouth, and relief at those saved; she brought Johann Lamont into the conversation, talking of what they shared as neighbouring MSPs; she highlighted the Norway example – again; and she called out the UK Government for daring to suggest that if Scotland votes yes, the Clyde won’t get to build those frigates after all, by quoting the UK Defence Secretary’s musings on collaboration with Australia on future defence procurement contracts. A vital contextual matter which Euan McColm conveniently ignores in his opinion piece.

In fact, the one criticism I would have of the Cabinet Secretary for Capital and Infrastructure’s handling of this situation this week is that she hasn’t fully exploited the failure of UK elected representatives for Govan and Scotstoun to do anything to diversify the order book and create a sustainable future for those workers.  Could someone, somewhere please ask Ian Davidson what exactly is it that he has done for those shipyards as the MP for the area for 21 years, other than appear like Banquo’s ghost whenever there’s bad news?

I share Kevin McKenna’s distaste for the behaviour of UK politicians this week:  if anyone has treated Scotland’s shipyards like a political football, it’s them.  And I’d also call out the GMB Official John Dolan for talking down the prospects for work post-independence.

In a week in which GMB Scotland declared its support for a No vote in the independence referendum, based on a series of consultative meetings but no workforce ballot, his remarks have surely to be qualified politically. After all, he’s speaking as a paid official of that union, not as an elected office-bearer from the workforce to either GMB Scotland’s regional council or indeed, its manufacturing branch. If, as he says, he’s speaking up for the workers, where’s his critique of successive Labour and Tory UK Governments which have allowed the prospects of Govan and Scotstoun to wither to the extent that their very future hangs on orders for two frigates that are still at least two years off having a rivet bolted on to them?

The crux of the matter boils down to this: who do Scots and indeed, the Clyde shipyard workers, families and communities trust to speak up for them and stand up for their interests more? An SNP Scottish Government or a Conservative-Liberal Democrat UK coalition government or even, Labour opposition politicians?  The polls all suggest the former but such is the fear-mongering going on in the referendum debate, the Scottish Government and its Ministers have been pushed onto the defensive again. This despite the evidence plain for all to see that a once mighty industry and workforce has been allowed to wither away almost to nothing by the failure of UK Governments to generate a blueprint for a sustainable future.

They need to find a way to stop this happening. There are no certainties for Govan and Scotstoun either in the UK or as part of an independent Scotland. There are only opportunities, possibilities and yes, threats and challenges. The SNP has already pointed out the positive example of Norway’s thriving and vibrant shipbuilding industry as one which could be mirrored here with a Yes vote.  Now put the ball back in the UK parties’ court:  beyond two frigates, what else has the UK got to offer the Clyde?  And what is it that Labour would do differently if elected in 2015?

Peeling the Bill Walker onion

There are so many layers to the Bill Walker story, it’s like peeling an onion.

Of course, he should never have been a parliamentary candidate, never mind an MSP. But somehow he got through. That should give the SNP and the other political parties pause to consider the rigour of their selection procedures, so that they might be certain that they do all they can to minimise the risk of future Bill Walkers. Given what we know now about his behaviour and refusal to accept responsibility for his actions, a modicum of value-based interviewing, of setting up scenarios to test the approach and attitude of aspiring parliamentarians would surely have found him out. A little less focus on the party credentials of putative candidates and a dollop more on the person and their characteristics before them might result in quite different people coming forward and being chosen to stand.

There are suggestions that some folk in the SNP knew about him much earlier than when he came to the attention of the Sunday Herald and subsequently, the police. There’s already an indication that journalists intend to pursue this line of enquiry, as well they might. The Sunday Herald’s Tom Gordon is already on to it, though his twitter- and door-stepping of someone who had just lost their mother was unedifying. I’m not sure Bernstein would have approved.

But if it is to avoid a witch-hunt led by the slavering political pack, roared on by opportunist opposition MSPs, the SNP needs to take ownership of the situation. The party needs to announce an internal inquiry, investigate every nook and cranny, uncover every layer of who knew what and when. And be seen to do so.

At the very least, it owes the women whom Bill Walker abused physically and emotionally, one while still in her teens, an explanation. The party does not need to lay bare its findings for media edification but if it finds itself wanting, to own up and say what it is doing to change that. And put the onus back on other parties to do likewise: after all, they all have their own bodies they’d like to remain buried.

We must not allow the media to become Witchfinder General as a result of the Bill Walker situation.  Unless we want the parliamentary equivalent of the Stepford Wives. Because Holyrood comprises people, there are bound to be others with stuff in their past, they’d rather we all didn’t know. They are, after all, just like the rest of us. Many of us have life experiences we work hard to forget but those experiences tend to make us who we are, if we have bothered to learn from them.  We are all fallible and gullible;  we can all be vulnerable to the most venal of emotions and actions and actually, we need a legislature which reflects life’s rich tapestry. The alternative is too awful;  indeed, many of us already bemoan just how many professional politicians with no experience of life outside the party presently occupy the parliamentary benches here and in that other place.

The issue is whether there are some like Bill Walker in denial about their current behaviour.  Had the man showed any remorse and responsibility for his actions, had he talked openly about his abusive nature and what he had done since – anger management classes, mediation, therapy – to control his behaviour and create different relationships, had he even pled guilty and spared his abused ex-wives the pain and trauma of having to relive their experience in open court, then our reaction might have been different.  Yet, right to the last, he has continued to blame others for his actions: he is resigning not because he is a convicted abuser of women and children but because the media onslaught made it impossible to continue.

His offensive behaviour continues in the present and he has no place in parliament.  Just as there might well be others whose antics in their personal life run contrary to the grain of public policy and what society has deemed to be acceptable.  Clearly this is tricky territory but the parties are duty bound to have a long hard look at their current crop of parliamentarians and assure themselves – and us – that there are no more Bill Walkers in their midst.  Not for what they might have done before and atoned for, but for what they are doing presently.

That might sound and seem harsh but the Scottish Parliament too requires to provide for anyone struggling with demons. Does it offer a confidential counselling service which MSPs might use?  Does it acknowledge that it has a duty of care to members and their staff?  Is there even a whistle-blowing service for staff who because of the nature of their work might uncover stuff about their bosses they don’t know what to do with and might not feel able to share with their parties?

What duty of care does the Scottish Parliament recognise to Bill Walker’s staff? They will lose their jobs from this;  chances are, given his refusal to acknowledge wrong-doing, that he wasn’t the most pleasant of bosses to work for. He possibly verbally abused and bullied them. Is someone somewhere offering and providing them with support if they need it?

The same applies to the women who bravely came forward to relive their experiences in court, to see justice done. Those who work in this sphere know from what women and children tell them, that the experience of giving evidence in court can be like being abused all over again. Until court proceedings are concluded, there is a sense of life on hold and afterwards, they are all too often left on their own to pick up the pieces. That’s where organisations like Scottish Women’s Aid and the Rape Crisis Centre come in – one hopes that someone has put the women involved in touch with them.

There is always the potential for good to come from a terrible situation like this.  We haven’t had a focus on domestic abuse and violence in the home for a while. It’s there or thereabouts but in recent years, Holyrood has got rather good at congratulating itself at how well we address and respond to this social ill. Yet, the statistics suggest we’re not doing nearly enough. Cases are rising, and worryingly, there are increasing numbers of young people affected, but convictions remain stubbornly low.  A parliamentary inquiry seems timely to explore the issues, what we are doing and what we might want to do differently.

There is great work out there focusing on prevention, to encourage the next generation in particular, to form healthier relationships – it would be good to showcase this and ensure that it is adequately resourced. But as with alcohol, there’s a need for Scotland to tell itself a few home truths, and that is that there are far too many families across the spectrum in Scotland where violence – in deed and discourse – is the norm.  Until we are prepared to acknowledge collectively that we have a problem, we are still far from finding a solution.

In the meantime, there’s a by-election to be prepared for. For the anoraks, the jockeying has already begun with speculation over who might be candidates. There is a suggestion that Labour will field an all-woman shortlist and at least one woman’s name is circulating as a possible SNP contender. Who knows, might the Lib Dems tempt Sarah Teather to come northwards?

Already some are agreed that it would make for a powerful symbol for all the candidates in this contest to be women. And already, this suggestion has been met with the tedious response that the candidates should be the best people for the job.  Just as Bill Walker clearly was, then.

But this by-election allows our political system to say something meaningful to the people of Dunfermline in particular and to Scotland more generally, that there is no place for violent abusers in our Parliament or indeed, anywhere in our society,  but plenty of room for more strong, impressive women. Indeed, some of us are even prepared to campaign across party lines to achieve such an outcome.