Sketch: MSPs take a trip down the rabbit hole

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 18 May 2018 in Comment

A debate on whether the Scottish Parliament should consent to the EU withdrawal bill gets bogged down in a discussion of woodland creatures

Adam Tomkins called it the “dullest constitutional crisis in history”, which is really unfair, because everyone knows that’s Prince Charles.

But maybe we’re just used to them now. New constitutional crisis? Same as the last constitutional crisis. It’s like watching an old film that was once considered shocking and realising just how much tastes have changed.

In this case, the crisis in question was the dispute between the Scottish and UK governments over the effect of Brexit legislation on devolved powers. It’s all quite confusing, but basically, MSPs are worried the EU Withdrawal Bill would allow Westminster to rule on devolved areas without Holyrood’s consent. So the vote was to decide whether MSPs should consent to giving consent to Westminster being able to rule without their consent.

And to be honest, with every party but the Tories worried about the legislation, it was pretty easy to see how it would play out.

Which is not to say we didn’t learn anything. For example, as Mike Rumbles informed Tomkins, explaining his party’s position: “We do not want anyone to construe that we would give our consent to the UK Government’s bill to leave the EU in the first place.”

Aha! The Lib Dems are opposed to Brexit! He admitted it! Tomkins looked delighted, boasting: “The cat’s been let out the bag!” somewhat drily.

This led to a brief moment of confusion, probably because of the idea that anyone would refer to Mike Rumbles as ‘the cat’. He’s certainly not very cat-like. In fact, you would really have to question what had gone wrong in a cat’s life to leave it looking like Lib Dem MSP Mike Rumbles. If anything, he looks more like a shaven bear.

But no, Rumbles wasn’t the cat in this analogy. Rumbles was the bag from which the cat escaped. It was a confusing start, and so it was reassuring to see things return to normality, with Neil Findlay using his speech to list all the things he was unhappy about, while Richard Leonard sat nearby, bobbing up and down like a pigeon.

Findlay’s plan, it seemed, was to push for cross-party talks in search of agreement, though not everyone looked convinced by that. Patrick Harvie seemed particularly troubled, possibly because the Greens only have six MSPs, making it statistically more likely that if any such meeting takes place, then he would have to attend it. It’s either that or pretend the meeting is about land reform and trick Andy Wightman into going.

But you can’t trick Andy Wightman all the time, and Harvie seemed to realise that. Explaining his concerns, Harvie announced that he was opposed to Conservative policy, which he described as “broadly despicable”.

“However, I had still thought some Tory politicians were basically rational and decent people whom I could respect, despite their promoting a political ideology that I detest. I’ve therefore been astonished by the speed at which they have thrown in their lot with the Brexit extremists.”

Harvie doesn’t like the Tories. It was an incredible admission. By this point, the cat wasn’t just out the bag, it was cartwheeling around the chamber.

After that came the open debate, with Ash Denham using her appearance to shift discussion away from cats and onto rabbits. “Out in the real world,” she said, “if we ask someone what they think of an explicit refusal being taken as a consent decision, it becomes clear just how far down the rabbit hole the UK Government has taken us.”

Scotland: too wee, too poor, too stupid, and now apparently trapped down a rabbit hole for reasons that make no sense. It’s embarrassing, frankly. But not everyone subscribed to Denham’s analysis, with Murdo Fraser blaming “the carping tone we have heard from the SNP this afternoon” for the current impasse.

If the Scottish Parliament has an abundance of anything, it’s carping. There’s more carping in the Scottish Parliament than in your average carp pond. But Fraser wasn’t done. Pointing across the chamber, he politely bellowed that the SNP “should be ashamed of themselves!”

Ah good. First carp got a mention, and now the first public shaming of the day. It really was a comprehensive speech, though it’s hard to escape the feeling that if every session just started with a group shaming then we’d save a lot of time later. MSPs could make a circle of shame and chant it at each other, or do a kind of shame procession, after the Time for Reflection, so that everyone could be well and truly ashamed of themselves before the political discussion began in earnest.

But at least things calmed down after that, with Christina McKelvie suggesting the UK Government might take away all devolved power from Scotland, Adam Tomkins screaming something sarcastic about “imperial masters”, and Gillian Martin accusing Liam Fox of “tying himself in knots” in his attempts to court Donald Trump.

Silly fox. Should be raking through bins, or devising far-fetched schemes to steal from a local farmer, not tying himself in knots.

And up till that point, the Brexit debate had mainly focused on cats escaping from bags and rabbits escaping down rabbit holes, with a late mention for the Fantastic Dr Fox. It was like the Animals of Farthing Wood, but with a marginally heavier emphasis on constitutional politics. Though to be fair to the Animals of Farthing Wood, at least they actually travelled somewhere. In this case, the ‘Animals of the Scottish Parliament’ finished where they’d started. The vote went ahead and consent was refused.

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