Could the SNP be losing its charm?

You might find it hard to believe, but this here burd has been hovering over devolution since its inception/reconvening in 1999.  I really have seen them all come and go, heard it all before, and am often amazed at having any smidgeon of idealism left.  I do – I have plenty, probably more than it deserves frankly.  One day, I’m sure, I’ll be stuffed and mounted in a suitably obscure nook and cranny in Holyrood.  This burd woz here.

The earliest days of the Scottish Parliament were like an adult version of How do they do that.  Suddenly a sharp and invasive light was being shone on the workings of government and politicians were lining civil servants up to explain themselves and their arcane workings.  Learning to be accountable – or at least to give sufficient semblance of it so that the parties and their sniffer dogs would go away – was something they learned fast.  They had to.

There were a number of stushies and scandals in the early days.  The biggest was something or other to do with exams and the SQA.  I’d go and google it if I could be bovvered but it is a sign of how things were in those frantic early times that the headlines were dominated for weeks by an issue that caused the nascent Labour-Liberal Democrat administration no end of pain but which now, few can remember the detail of.  Whatever, accountability for errors was demanded and truly received.  Various mandarins’ heads appeared on plates, the quango was reformed and we all moved on.

It’s hard to believe – it’s the kind of tale that historians will recount incredulously, I feel – that we lost a First Minister due to nothing very much at all.  Henry McLeish fell on his sword not because  of double accounting of office sub-lets, rents and parliamentary allowances, but because he could not explain himself on the telly.  I can recall his appearance on BBC Question Time with every toe-curling utterance;  by the time Dimbleby had finished with him, I was literally in the foetal position.  But to have an FM resign over this?  Yep, welcome to the bright, new shiny dawn of Scottish politics where we expect whiter than white and the ability to string a sentence together.

Then we lost a Conservative leader over claiming the odd taxi erroneously for parliamentary responsibilities when he had in fact been on party business.  That little episode was accompanied by the frantic rustling of expense claims all over the old PHQ (it’s now the Missoni Hotel) as staffers and MSPs combed through years’ worth of theirs.  There was also an awful lot of emptying of piggy banks as rogue taxi journeys were suddenly repaid.

When McLetchie finally did the decent thing and took the fall so no-one else had to – good job really or we might not have had an MSP left – the collective sigh of relief was tangible.  No one, least of all McLetchie who seems like a pretty honourable and straight up and down man to me, had ever claimed a taxi journey not quite for purely parliamentary business deliberately;  but that wasn’t the point.  Blood was scented, the political hack-pack got its dander up, and a resignation became inevitable.  In Scotland, like the best, wee country in the world we had become, we like our scandals wee as well.

Over the years, everyone settled down into a rhythm and it all became rather anodyne.   And something key changed the political dynamic, in that the SNP decided to focus on the pursuit of power instead of settling for harrying in opposition.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Once in power, the SNP, having largely forged its political craft in opposition, knew exactly the kind of pitfalls and traps it had to avoid.  Its ability to manage the agenda was made easier thanks largely to the redoubtable and remarkable talents of Kevin Pringle, for whom sleep and holidays are anathema.  Labour, meanwhile, has struggled to work out which way up one opens the box marked opposition and changes in the ranks of political journalists and the loss of specialist correspondents, as well as introspective concern for their own industry’s fortunes, seemed to sap the media’s energy for political dust-ups.

All these – and many more – factors have conspired to provide the SNP with a charmed life.

How else to explain how the SNP escaped unscathed from having the most MSPs, including high-ranking government ministers, of any of the parties to use (and some might say, misuse) the parliamentary allowance scheme which allowed them to purchase flats in Edinburgh, pay the mortgages at the taxpayers’ expense and then sell them, pocketing the often huge capital gain in the process.  Some deigned to offer to pay the capital gains tax – has anyone bothered to check if they did?  We did nothing wrong was the cry at the time, but it didn’t seem very right either.

Currently, we have a brew of incompetence and intransigence of potentially enormous proportions in the failure of the education system and its serried ranks of vested interests to implement in any meaningful fashion the Curriculum for Excellence.   A few weeks ago, the Education Secretary assured us the final and vital phase relating to a switch in exam qualifications would go ahead.  Then he was forced to throw some money at it to help make this happen and now, he has had to offer schools the opportunity to delay if they need to.  Today, the teachers’ unions are bleating for still more concessions.

This is the major flagship education reform of our time.  It is huge and has been nine years in the making.  Work started on implementation as soon as the SNP came into power, five years ago.  And still we are not ready.   To be fair to Mike Russell, he inherited this mess rather than made it and is doing his best to sort it out.  But failure to get this right threatens the life chances of a generation of Scots – it is that serious.   And yet, no one has suggested that heads need to roll.   He is clearly deploying a policy of appeasement in order to get the job done but surely at some point, there needs to be accountability.  The problem is that having learned how to be accountable, many have spent these middle years of devolution mastering the art of how to bury the evidence and get away with it.

Health might prove a turning point.  This week, we’ve had not one but two stones skimmed across the political pond, and they are creating a bit of a bounce.  In the Health Secretary’s back yard, Labour alleged that old people were being left to shiver without blankets in hospital.  Nonsense cried the Government, but then Labour presented the First Minister with Exhibit A – the pensioners in person – this week in Holyrood.  One example does not a scandal make, but if Labour can find more hospital patients experiencing the same indignities, they might be on to something.

If they want to land a blow on the Health Secretary, they have their work cut out.  What’s the best way to diffuse a potential timebomb?  Announce it yourself.   Hence, Nicola Sturgeon, whose political streetsmarts were always way beyond her relatively tender years, laid bare the false accounting of waiting times going on at NHS Lothian and condemned it utterly.  Labour is now asking for an audit in other health board areas.  Deliberate massaging of key health policy is unforgiveable and if there has been wholesale fraud – in its truest sense – then an awful lot of senior health managers and chairpersons might want to start clearing their desks.

At last, Labour is showing small signs of getting its act together in being able to nose out potential scandals that might stick.  To date, the Scottish Government has shown huge skill at delivering on manifesto headlines, even if the reality behind the scenes is much less clearcut.   It has bossed the news agenda to a remarkable degree (despite what the SNP rank and file might think); its attitude to government enthused many government officers and that helped things along.  This gloss, in particular, is wearing thin and implementation “issues” are starting to appear.  Crucially too, the SNP has also enjoyed a very large dollop of luck.

So far, the wind has been set fair for this Scottish Government;  it will be interesting to see how it copes with a change in direction and these, and other as yet unidentified, squalls on the horizon.

Passion needed in the Scottish Parliament

The burd has blogged before on the need for the Scottish Parliament to up its game, so I was delighted to read that Bruce Crawford MSP intends to reform Holyrood, focusing not just on processes and format, but also its culture.  Hurrah!

As the Cabinet Secretary for Parliamentary Business points out:  “the review cannot be allowed to be an exercise in what best suits the politicians.”  And one only needs to read the companion piece in Scotland on Sunday on banning faxes and printers to understand why.

According to Alex Johnstone MSP, making MSPs share printers and faxes is fundamentally flawed.  “The potential exists… for members of staff to be queuing up at printers, while leaving telephone calls from constituents unanswered.”

Frankly, some MSPs have an over-inflated sense of their own importance and need to catch themselves on.  If this is the kind of matter that gets them all worked up, then Bruce Crawford’s proposed review has arrived just in time, emphasising the shift in culture required, away from navel-gazing on the trappings of office to more outward-focused activity that highlights and justifies their role in our society.

In Scotland and the UK, we pay little heed to what goes on in the European Parliament but we could learn a thing or two about making the chamber and the discourse dynamic and fast-moving.

How about the one minute contribution?  With so many MEPs wanting a say these days, the European Parliament introduced a rule for some debates allowing members to speak for only one minute and boy does that focus minds.  No flummery, no asides, just straight to business, making for effective and punchy contributions.  It would suit short, topical debates of fifteen minutes with an opening statement by whomever has laid the motion, followed by one minute contributions by members.

We could – should – still have longer debates for big themes and especially Stage three of bills.  Currently, these generally come across as a collective sigh of relief from all protagonists at having got to this point at all.  Yet, arguably, this stage is the most important of all, particularly when a bill has been amended furiously throughout stages two and three and ends up a very different beast from its original form when placed before Parliament.

What Chamber sessions need are flexibility and a schedule of debate lengths and formats to suit a wide range of business.  Mixing it up would add tempo, currently lacking on most days.

Others have suggested that there is a need to accommodate the topical, to enable more emergency statements and debates.  Look at last week’s big news stories.  An emergency debate, not just a short dialogue at FMQs, on the redundancies at the Daily Record and Sunday Mail would be valid.  As would one on the huge hikes in energy prices announced by Scottish Power.  Cabinet Secretary for Finance, John Swinney has announced through the media that he is seeking an urgent meeting with Scottish Power, but it would be far better for him to do so through the Scottish Parliament  and gather the views of MSPs on what issues and points he should be raising with the energy giant.  He could then return to Holyrood to make a statement and collectively, the Parliament could determine how to proceed – a committee inquiry, representation to the UK Government, bringing forward energy efficiency and fuel poverty measures.  It would make for a much more rounded approach to a current but longterm issue and helpfully, indelibly links the roles of government and Parliament in providing Scottish solutions.

Another way to address the topical would be to allow interventions at the start of plenary debates from members, as they do in the European Parliament. Currently, our parliamentary week starts with a prayer or other spiritual address.  Which is nice and actually, usually well worth a read.  But it settles the mood into serene when our Chamber sessions are crying out to be noised up a little. A little bit of passion on issues members care passionately about wouldn’t go amiss.

Take this example from last Thursday’s voting session in Strasbourg.  There were two interventions, one on the failure of Brazil to extradite an Italian wanted on mass murder charges, followed by a poster protest by MEPs, and one from a female MEP calling on the Parliament to reinforce its family friendly credentials.  What the video clip does not show is the MEP referred to breast feeding her newborn baby as she prepared to vote.  Both interventions met with resounding applause and were effective because they included visual actions as well as warm words.

Holyrood prides itself on its supposed family-friendly culture but it lags behind Brussels and Strasbourg.  One modernising proposal is to lengthen Wednesday sessions beyond their current finishing time of 5.30pm.  For years, I have opposed such a move but recently- yes the burd can and does change her mind occasionally – that has shifted.

For every West coast MSP who can hop on the  train and be home in time for bathtime or to help with homework, there are many others from much further afield who every week have to say farewell to their families for two, sometimes three days, leaving such parenting staples to their partners, conscripted/willing grandparents and child carers.  Frankly, it ain’t fair.  And if a longer session on the Wednesday evening meant more business and more work conducted through the Parliament rather than outside it, it would be a compromise well made.

In any event, there are more meaningful ways to demonstrate the Parliament’s family-friendly credentials.  Encouraging more MSPs to bring their young families to work with them, including into the Chamber, as well as praising MSPs for taking their full parental leave rather than gossiping nastily behind their backs would be a start.

As the man suggests, changing the culture is just as important as improving the processes.

They’re all gradualists now, right?

Alex Salmond is King of all whom he surveys.  As he casts his eye across the expanse of his parliamentary group and struggles to recall names and match them to constituencies, he will be met with beatific smiles.  The group of 69 contains many who did not even dare to dream of election this time last year and now find themselves as their people’s representative and champion, pinching themselves regularly to convince themselves it’s real.

Well done and good luck to them all.  The First Minister too deserves the hero worship that is undoubtedly beaming his way right now.  He can do no wrong, the electorate seas literally do part for him.  Whatever the question is at this stage, the answer is yes or no depending on what the First Minister wants.

A more cynical commentator than the burd might suggest that Alex Salmond has taken advantage of his omniscience amongst his group to bounce them into a shift in strategy on independence.  No newbie was likely to pipe up with an impertinent question or remark at the first group meeting at which this shift was discussed, not if they want to survive and indeed, rise through the ranks in the next five years.  If truth be told, most were probably oblivious to what was being said, the sound of the Returning Officer’s announcement still ringing in their ears and desperately trying to remember how to get from pod to toilet and back again without causing a puddle.

But five years is a long, long time in politics.  Can Alex Salmond rely on such unity of purpose and thought from all 69 members throughout this historic second term?  The burd has her doubts and far from seeing this as a bad thing, it would be good for the Parliament and the SNP itself.  Discipline is important but so too is internal debate and discourse.  At the very least, the dynamics of a group are well served by having a few prepared and thoughtful enough to play devil’s advocate.  It makes for better decision-making all round.

The SNP group is diverse if not totally representative of the people.  But there are three characteristics worthy of comment at this stage.

First, the group has a significant number of councillors from all over the country some with many years’ experience of opposition, like Richard Lyle and David Torrance, others like Derek Mackay and Kevin Stewart, with experience of administration.  From the off, there are 16 out of 69 members carrying a dual mandate at least until next May which may limit the contribution some of them can make, simply due to time restraints and workload.  But it does also give them an understanding of why discipline is necessary but also of the mischief that can be caused within a large group.  More helpfully, they bring with them an insight into the potential impact of national government policy on local service delivery.  They might not always see eye to eye with Government proposals and their representation elsewhere will certainly give them a different perspective to offer.

Second, there is a significant number of people who have reached an age and a level of achievement in their own lives, by their own efforts, that they will feel confident enough about being their own people.  They are largely men – but might also include the wonderful Jean Urquhart – who have established their own businesses or had highly successful careers and have coupled those experiences with their belief – sometimes long held, often only shaped by their experience – in Scottish independence.  A Ministerial career would be nice but they’ve had – still have in some cases – successful interests elsewhere and actually their driving force will be the desire to take Scotland forward to independence.  Many of this group will not have expected to find themselves in Holyrood and will be mindful that a shift in the electoral wind could dump them back out at the next election.  They won’t want to waste their big chance to achieve their life’s dream.

They might all be gradualists now but some could become impatient if the route path to independence remains as rocky and indistinct as is currently being expressed.  Or they feel that the switch to independence lite is the wrong path to take.

Third, whisper it, but this parliamentary group contains a significant number of NPKAF – Nats Previously Known As Fundies.  Apparently the old debates between fundamentalism and gradualism are dead and buried but the shift towards independence-lite and away from full fat independence might just re-ignite them.  There are many who will see the pragmatism in what Alex Salmond and the leadership are proposing for now, but old habits die hard.  Most believe in an innate patriotic nationalism that still expresses itself in the old songs and in notions of freedom.  It might be well buried for now but again, frustration and impatience, particularly if the new strategy starts to garner negative headlines, could see it bubbling to the surface.

And make no mistake, Alex Neil, for all his constructive role since election in 1999, is close to many in this segment of the parliamentary group.  He will be keeping them close and offering a friendly ear and shoulder to lean on as they find their way into parliamentary life.  He is a wily enough character to know to court this segment – just in case.

But for the moment, everything in the Nationalist garden is rosy.  A few will be waiting anxiously by the phone today, hoping to receive a call from the great man himself.  He does after all have riches to choose from to fill his senior Cabinet and more junior ministerial positions.

His tactical nous on taking Scotland on to independence has seldom been wrong and his MSPs will trust his judgement implicitly.  For now.