Ken Macintosh on what he has learned since becoming Presiding Officer

Written by Ken Macintosh on 13 July 2016 in Comment

The Scottish Parliament's new PO sets out his priorities

I have been surprised by how different I have found the perspective of parliament from the Presiding Officer’s chair. Both literally and metaphorically, in the chamber the PO is above the political fray with a detachment that is perhaps more akin to my old job as a BBC producer than that of an active front or backbench MSP.

Fairness, balance and trust have become my priorities rather than manifesto commitments, and issues such as the length of questions and answers in the chamber have assumed an importance I would not previously have given them.

I think my surprise is simply the result of experiencing a post with which I thought I was already familiar, but I wince now thinking back to some of my own contributions over the past seventeen years as an MSP. 


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More than anything, my brief time as PO has made me even more conscious of the importance of tone and language in the chamber.

All MSPs have a duty to serve their constituents, to scrutinise policy and to promote the beliefs and values of their own particular party. That means that politics is always passionate and often combative, but when that spills over into something more hostile and aggressive then we are all the poorer for it.

We need look no further than the tragic events in Birstall and Orlando in recent weeks to see the horrific consequences which spring from the politics of hate. Much closer to home, many of us have worried about how tribal and divisive Scottish politics has become over the past decade or more.

It is a crucial part of Parliament’s role to set the tone and language of debate around politics in Scotland and if we want that debate to be conducted in a respectful manner then Holyrood must lead the way. 

As Presiding Officer my job is essentially to give MSPs their place, to ensure the Parliament works for them and gives them a strong platform to get their message across. In a nutshell, it is to help Parliament find its voice.

I have made no secret of the fact that I hope our voice this session will be warm, constructive and collaborative. So, while I look forward to robust exchanges in the chamber, I also hope those exchanges will be thoughtful and respectful. True gentleness is a sign of strength not weakness. 

I think the early indications here are encouraging and in my few short weeks as Presiding Officer I have already seen a real willingness to work together co-operatively.

Members across all parties readily accepted my proposal to extend the length of First Minister’s Questions to 45 minutes and I found the negotiation with both party leaders and business managers on our new committee structure remarkably consensual.

The new bureau and corporate body are working well (quickly reaching agreement on the need to address gender imbalance) and I’ve been hugely impressed by the positivity and enthusiasm of our 51 new members. 

With a turnover of nearly 40 per cent at the election, this session has seen the biggest intake of new MSPs since the Parliament was established in 1999 and it has without doubt had an impact.

There is, quite frankly, a buzz and an energy around Holyrood creating an atmosphere which reminds me of the first days of devolution and I hope this new found positivity will permeate through to the conduct of our business. 

I had envisaged that the new powers coming to Holyrood this session would lead to a renewed focus on the important work of our parliamentary committees. However, the result of the EU referendum has challenged many assumptions about our future political agenda. 

I still hope that during this session we can work together to make Parliament’s voice more distinct, authoritative and trusted. People will always confuse the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to get our message across that Parliament’s role is separate.

One of the best ways of achieving that is through public and civic engagement and so promoting access to the Parliament, genuinely trying to share power with the people we represent will be one of my top priorities for this session. 

Openness, accessibility and the sharing of power were in fact part of our founding principles, but the real challenge is how we translate these principles into reality.  The Parliament doesn’t belong to political parties or even to MSPs and public access to decision makers is the hallmark of the type of participative democracy we all said we wanted in 1999 when the Parliament was established.

By the end of my time as Presiding Officer, the Parliament will have turned 21 and will have been an established fixture in Scottish public life for more than a generation. With that coming of age I hope comes a voice which is hopeful, mature and compassionate. 

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