Marwick, a feisty, chain smoking, no nonsense Fifer, with a reputation for being as sharp with her finger pointing as with her tongue, was not everyone’s most obvious choice to succeed the mild mannered, Tory MSP, Alex Fergusson, in the role of Presiding Officer.
Aside from the fact that she was considered an ardent SNP MSP in a parliament now dominated by a significant SNP majority, some viewed Marwick as too much of a party protagonist, too much of a thorn in the side, a tad abrasive, and doubted how someone perceived of as being, more often than not, in the thick of political discourse, could render herself sufficiently neutral to become a conduit leading to consensus rather than an agitator for change.
But then Marwick, and the role she now performs, are much misunderstood. Far from being some anarchic character, she is actually someone who plays by the rules; she likes discipline and she respects institutions, particularly that of the Scottish Parliament. True, she does have a gob on her, does a good turn on political diatribe and she is nobody’s patsy but what she may lack in finesse, she more than makes up for with a passion for the Parliament and what she sees as the privilege bestowed upon the elected members within it.
Not only does she takes the job of MSP seriously, she has also played a vital role in the mechanics of parliamentary business having been variously: deputy SNP business manager, business manager and chief whip but also a vital member of the Business Bureau and the Corporate Body. She has been terrier-like in her defence of the responsibility to constituents, is a proud Fifer – “we’re different” – and is not afraid to rearrange her loyalties to suit the rights and wrongs of an issue as she sees it. Indeed, looking back through the records, you discover that at the heart of Marwick’s motivation lies: her constituents, Fife and fair play.
During so-called ‘Lobbygate’, she backed Jack McConnell in terms of no wrongdoing and she abstained rather than vote with her party against Wendy Alexander when she was under investigation by the Parliament for potentially accepting illegal donations during her leadership campaign. She also bucked the SNP party line when she very vocally backed Diageo’s controversial plans to invest in its Levenmouth bottling plant at what many, including her party leader, the First Minister, saw as at the expense of other parts of Scotland, most notably, the Johnnie Walker site in Kilmarnock.
And during the committee stages of the scrutiny of the Scotland Bill, she was almost incandescent with rage in her criticism of the opposition parties using it, as she saw it, as a point-scoring exercise rather than as a considered investigation into the legislative implications for Scotland.
On a more sweeping level, during the last parliamentary term, she made clear that she believed the committee structure as a whole, and indeed the Parliament itself, had lost its way.
It was with this background that she then stood for Presiding Officer against her own party colleague, the equally outspoken Christine Grahame and Labour’s veteran politician, Hugh Henry, and won. Some with, one suspects, an undercurrent of raw snobbery, doubted her ability from the beginning while others just thought it was a fix and would mean that the SNP would hijack all parliamentary business. Henry described it as “some kind of powergrab”. A little over a year in the job, Marwick’s critics have been silenced.
After a fairly predictable initial bad press from the lobby, which collectively criticised her for allowing members to talk too long and heckle too loud – her first FMQs saw the leaders speak for well over 20 minutes before backbenchers got a look in – Marwick has found her voice. The turning point was possibly immediately after summer recess last year when Marwick volubly reprimanded Labour’s Helen Eadie who, after repeatedly accusing the First Minister, Alex Salmond, of “wilfully misleading parliament”, was angrily told to sit down by the PO after refusing to desist and continuing to speak over her. Since then Marwick has not been backward in coming forward, most recently chastising, in the strongest possible terms, the SNP MSP and First Minister’s closest aide, Joan McAlpine, for failing, not for the first time, to turn up to ask a tabled question. The MSP was forced into a humiliating public apology to members in the chamber.
Did the PO feel pressure to come down harder on an SNP member to prove her neutrality?
“Nope, I don’t think so,” she says, dismissing the inference that she wouldn’t just play by the book. “I can remember a couple of weeks after I became Presiding Officer, a journalist said to me that they would not truly believe I was neutral till I slapped round the First Minister and I said, ‘if you think I am going to gratuitously slap around the FM, or anyone else for that matter, to prove my neutrality to you, you can think again’.
“I think the problem was that the first person I put down in the chamber was a Labour member and the following week, it was three but anyone who treats the Parliament with discourtesy will feel the full wrath of me because the Parliament must be treated with respect and courtesy and people must make sure that they are acting on behalf of their constituents or the people they represent and when they are in the Parliament, they must give the institution respect and it does not matter to me what party they come from because I will not tolerate a lack of respect.”
And so for those who ever doubted it, Marwick has shown she is perfectly capable of being non-partisan. What guides Marwick through the political minefield is a good oldfashioned, working-class sense of good manners. And while Marwick admits that she may not always agree or believe in everything that visitors to the Parliament may represent, she has a role to carry out and she firmly adheres to the rules of the Parliament and a code of conduct which requires members to be ‘courteous and respectful’. She also understands, even if others do not, that it is not her job to hold the Scottish Government to account, it is her job to facilitate others doing so and to do that, she has already begun a radical reform of the way the Parliament operates including an overhaul of the working week and use of committee structures and times.
However, things could have been very different. In what she describes as “probably a typically woman” or “working-class thing”, she had actually originally intended to just stand as deputy PO and only changed her mind at the last minute as it became clear that the SNP would not stand in her way and who the other candidates were.
“I think the fact that in the run up to the election that I was thinking of going for the deputy Presiding Officer probably showed a lack of confidence on my part and I think that is a typically woman thing; that I am not good enough, in fact not just a woman thing but a working-class thing; I am no’ good enough, I’ll get found out, I can’t hack this, there are all these people better than me…
“It was only when I saw some of the other names being floated that weekend that I realised that I really wanted to run for Presiding Officer because I had a lot more experience of Parliament than others; I had served on the Bureau with all the business managers from 1999 to 2003 and in the years previously, I had been on the Corporate Body and it became clear to me that I had the experience. I knew how this institution worked and I had held a range of jobs since 1999 helping to build this place that would serve me well in the role. I also knew that I wanted the unique opportunity as Presiding Officer to drive this institution forward. It would be a lie to say that I was entirely comfortable with where the Parliament was. I felt it had lost its way and the committees were not as effective as we wanted them to be and as a parliament that is inevitably going to have more powers, no matter what happens with the referendum, I felt we had to have an institution worthy of those powers.
“I realised that with my experience, I was in the best position to drive that all forward and the reality is that once I became Presiding Officer, I was surprised at how comfortable I was. I was just so comfortable in terms of process and procedure and the running of the institution and I can honestly say that since I became Presiding Officer, I have been fazed by nothing.
“I think in lots of ways I have been the lucky Presiding Officer. The first PO was David Steel and he had to essentially preside over a new institution, and George Reid was the guy that ended up actually getting this place built and Alex Fergusson was the PO that had to deal daily with a minority government and so much of his time was taken up with negotiating with all sides and I am the lucky PO because not only do I have five years in post but I don’t have these other pressures and so I can look at this institution based on the experience I have within the Parliament and then look to how we can drive the Parliament forward. That is very exciting.
“I think it’s true that lots of the other issues have gone away and I can concentrate on the institution itself and that was not possible before. I have said quite openly that our committees weren’t working particularly effectively and the Parliament wasn’t working as it should and in terms of the reforms that have just gone through, then the Parliament will work much more effectively. I am also working with the conveners’ group to try and encourage the culture change that needs to happen so the committees are much more responsive, more topical and are getting ministers in to hold them to account and not just when legislation is going through but that the committees are initiating their own legislation, for example. All these things, the committees can do already and that doesn’t need change to the standing order; that needs changes to culture and what I am trying to do is encourage the committees to have the confidence to do that as members, as committee conveners and as clerks, the confidence to move forward and be innovative and make sure the Parliament continues to be relevant and responsive and topical.
“I think prior to the election and of the Presiding Officer, a number of people had said similar things about change but I am not sure that they believed such change was possible and the danger is that if you have had a parliament for a long time, you can either grow that parliament or allow a situation to continue where everyone is so comfortable that nothing changes. I think people were getting too comfortable in their little niches and particularly now we have so many new members, it was time to look again and not necessarily do things radically different because this is not a revolution, it is an evolution, but to say to the committees that they have the powers to do x and y and it is not my job to hold the Government to account; it is my job to facilitate other people to hold the Government to account, for the oppositions and the backbenchers, they have to hold the Government to account, not me. What I have to do is to encourage the institution to develop in such a way that holding the Government to account is perhaps easier than it was in the past.”
The reforms could well prove to be Marwick’s lasting legacy. Until she became the PO, she says the greatest moment of her life was being elected to the Scottish Parliament.
“To be able to say I was one of the first MSPs ever elected to a Scottish Parliament, because remember, pre-1707, no one was actually elected and to be one of the first women ever elected to a Scottish Parliament because obviously, pre-1707, there were no women, was a huge thing to me. You can talk about a lack of confidence but I never expected to get elected to this place in the first place and I was so thrilled.
“This Parliament means so much to me and if people had really looked at where I had come from in terms of being assistant business manager then business manager as things were set up and then on the corporate body, then they would have seen that this job was what I wanted to do, to actually be part of the workings of the Parliament.”
She describes her election to PO as “the proudest moment of her life” and during her acceptance speech, she thanked her husband, Frankie, by name. It was a rare glimpse into Marwick’s family life. She refuses to allow her political involvement to become personal. She has never used pictures of her husband, children or grandchildren on campaign material and other than that one public mention of her husband of 42 years, she keeps that door firmly shut. I ask her why.
“Frankie has never actively encouraged me to stand for election or anything else, he is not political, but when I have decided to do something then he has always been by my side supporting me and what was interesting about me thanking him that day was that I thanked him and named him and my two kids and my grandkids and I named them, and there has never been pictures of my kids or grandkids in election leaflets or anything else and they have never before been named by me like that but this was a really important moment in my life and I knew by naming them, it would be in the Official Report for ever and I wanted that for my grandchildren.”
Born and brought up in Fife as one of seven siblings – six girls and one boy – the 59-yearold was first elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999 as a list member for Mid Scotland and Fife before contesting the Central Fife seat in subsequent elections before winning it, to her obvious delight, in 2007. This was a significant breakthrough for the SNP in Labour’s Fife heartland and clearly opened the door to the huge surge at last year’s election when Marwick was returned to the new Mid Fife and Glenrothes seat joined, by a record number of other SNP members representing the Kingdom, a fact which she obviously takes great delight in.
“We are different, Fifers are different, and perhaps something that people didn’t recognise about me was that if you look at the things I have done that have been cross party, it has been about Fife and Fife issues. The MSPs of Fife, regardless of party, have always worked closely together on issues that concern them and on many occasions, we have put over a Fife view, like on the bridge tolls, for example, which eventually led to Scott Barrie resigning as whip, we work together on these things and Fifers have a great history of working on things together when it suits us and when Henry [McLeish]was elected First Minister, I shook his hand and told him I was proud of him because he was a Fifer.”
It is being a Fifer that has shaped Marwick’s politics, an interest that started at an early age. She grew up in a political household, her father was a miner and active Labour Party member – although when pushed he would say he was first and foremost a trade unionist – and her mother was also in the party. She was just 11 when her father allowed her to stay up and watch the results of the 1964 general election unfold and see Harold Wilson elected. This was a seminal moment and although she didn’t join a political party until she was 30, she hasn’t missed watching an election night since.
Marwick talks movingly about how her political affiliations were forged in the tribal and sometimes brutal politics of Fife in the 70s and 80s but says the fights on the streets of Cowdenbeath were more often than not between the Communists and Labour Party members rather than between the SNP and Labour, which were tame in comparison. It was in fact, the Communist Party that secured Marwick’s first ever vote and despite huge pressure from her father, she remained “unconvinced” by the Labour Party. However, that ambivalence changed into something more tangible in the 1980s with the Miners’ Strike. Unlike many of that generation, the bitter dispute did further politicise her but only to galvanise her support of the SNP. Her two elder sisters, Maureen and Alice, were already members of the SNP by that time which had horrified their father and indeed Alice [McGarry] is Fife’s longest serving SNP councillor, having been first elected in 1986.
“I was absolutely appalled by the Labour Party and particularly Kinnock over the Miners’ Strike,” says Marwick. “It was my view that the party had distanced itself from the miners and I felt I couldn’t support them. Kinnock was terrified, it seemed, at being tied in with the miners or associated with Scargill and I am not saying that everything Scargill did was good, he was a rogue, but there had been a ballot in Scotland of the miners and they were on strike and what happened in England was quite different but Kinnock effectively allowed [Ian] MacGregor and Thatcher to walk all over the miners. There were people in our community who were starving, actually starving. There were mothers with kids with absolutely no financial support but for the likes of the courage of Fife Council who, like Strathclyde, gave out free school meals and the like. It was heartbreaking, watching families being torn apart, just shocking, and that was the final straw for me. It was the Miners’ Strike that pushed me towards joining the SNP.”
One of the reasons Marwick hadn’t joined before was her fear that it would break her father’s heart and she says that when her sister, Alice, stood against Gordon Brown in 1987, her father refused ‘point blank’ to let their mother even put up posters in the window in support of their daughter. By 1996 and by then living in Alice’s ward, shortly after Marwick’s mother had died, he at last softened somewhat and agreed to vote for his daughter in the forthcoming council election. Sadly, he died a month before election day which not only resulted in Alice being unable to get out and campaign properly but meant he never did once vote SNP. Marwick says they can now laugh at the irony and that leads on to her sharing a rare family insight, that her niece, Natalie McGarry, who is convener of Glasgow SNP, has trumped them all by admitting that her new boyfriend is a Tory – Glasgow’s only Conservative Councillor, David Meikle. She laughs at what her father would make of that political union.
For someone so embedded in party politics, I wonder how she now feels as Presiding Officer, literally having to put party to one side, particularly at such an exciting time for the SNP.
“Firstly, I don’t have a party any more. I resigned from the party immediately as Presiding Officer, even though there is no requirement to resign, everyone before had done so and while I recognise that it is very exciting for the SNP to be in the position they are in now, in lots of ways, I feel quite distanced from that. I don’t go to branch meetings, constituency meetings, conferences and so on and so a whole social network goes and that is probably the most difficult thing for me and if I didn’t think I had an important job to do as Presiding Officer and I have, in terms of developing the institution, I would have regrets but I am focused on the job I am doing and there are others in the SNP who are doing what they do. I have no regrets about the decision to do this; it is not a job I expected and I am a very ordinary person doing an extraordinary job and I am content.
“It has only been a year,” she stresses. “The high so far was being made the Presiding Officer and the next high was the opening with the Queen. I felt huge pressure in the run up to that when you know every single eye is on you, that you have a television audience and I put so much thought into what I was wearing, what I would look like, never mind whether I would make a huge mess of the speech and I have to say, the speech went fine, hair was good and the outfit was good and after I got over that I have not panicked about anything since.” I say that I am a little surprised at some of her acceptance of tradition, of place and so on. If asked, I would have assumed she would not hold much truck with Royalty, pomp, ceremony and the like. I guess I viewed her as a strong, opinionated woman, a bit of a radical.
She laughs. “I do like institutions,” she says. “I respect institutions, I like order and I understand that there are rules but as far as the Queen is concerned, I have never publicly said what my view is and have always taken the view that if the Queen or anyone else is invited to this Parliament then they are entitled to be treated with respect. When I was growing up in Fife and it was New Year and someone came into our house and I asked why they were there and my mother said to me, ‘when people come into your house you treat them with courtesy and respect’. That is what we do here when we invite people to this house that regardless of our individual views, they are treated with courtesy and respect and it doesn’t matter whether I am royalist or a republican, I have a role as Presiding Officer and I will carry out my role absolutely honestly and diligently and whether it is the Queen or anyone else, I will just do my job. A lot of it is down to good old-fashioned manners which is why I am so hard on members in the chamber about courtesy. There is no time for self-indulgence here. The MSPs are not here to represent themselves, they are here representing the people of Scotland and that is a privilege and there is a job to be done.”