Sketch: MSPs talk planes, trains and electric automobiles

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 11 January 2019 in Comment

The first debate back after the Christmas recess saw MSPs talk about how much they like hydrogen

Image credit: Iain Green

It was the first debate after the Christmas recess and to be honest, it was just nice to see the MSPs all getting along. Well, it was for a little while, anyway. The debate had been focused on low emission vehicles and Michael Matheson, the transport secretary, was celebrating the imminent arrival of the 1,000th electric car charging point in Scotland. It was his favourite charging point.

“That is an important milestone,” he boasted, somewhat hopefully. And it probably is a very nice charging point, as charging points go.

But sadly, he wasn’t able to get far in his praise because Tory MSP Murdo Fraser wanted to intervene. He owns two cars, he told the transport secretary. It seemed to be a point Matheson hadn’t considered.

Murdo Fraser owns two cars, and he wanted to know what Matheson thought about that. “As the owner and daily user of a hybrid vehicle, I applaud the Scottish Government for its – if I can use this pun – direction of travel,” he said, looking pathetically pleased with himself. “However, I am also the owner of a classic car.” Would he still be able to use it after 2030? he asked.

Matheson reassured him that he had no plans to ban petrol cars, before conceding that, once low emission zones have been introduced, “Murdo Fraser might have difficulty in getting his classic car into our big cities in Scotland”.

MSPs from across the chamber watched on. While banning Murdo Fraser from town centres across Scotland may well prove to be a popular policy, it did seem a reasonably threatening way to begin the discussion.

But at least everyone now knew what Matheson was capable of. One word out of you, Liam McArthur, and he’ll ban you too. Same for you, Colin Smyth. Matheson will ban you all if he has to, so help him.

And so, with the chamber suitably cowed, Matheson could move on. Or he would have been able to, anyway, if it wasn’t for SNP MSP John Mason, who wanted to talk about hydrogen. “Is there a place for hydrogen in the mix?” he asked.

John Mason loves hydrogen. And indeed, what about hydrogen? Why had no one mentioned hydrogen? “I’ll get to hydrogen,” Matheson sighed, somewhat wearily.

That was smart. Save the most exciting gases for the end of the speech.

So he could move on. Or he could have, anyway, if Labour’s Daniel Johnson hadn’t popped up to ask if there was “a risk in overfocusing on types of power, whether it is hydrogen or electric, to the exclusion of automation?”

Neither Mason nor Matheson looked particularly pleased with that. Johnson was getting dangerously close to a banning, frankly.

Tory MSP Jamie Greene arrived next to argue there was “no better way to kick-start the new year” than by discussing climate change. It raised serious questions over his approach to Hogmanay.

But, like Matheson, he also struggled to get far. This time it was SNP MSP and environment committee convener Gillian Martin, who wanted to ask if he agreed it was “incumbent on us, as society’s highest earners and its representatives, to lead the way with our choice of vehicles?”

It was unclear how many people have been approaching Gillian Martin to ask for advice on what car to buy, to be honest, and, looking somewhat confused, Greene could stammer “absolutely” before attempting to move on.

The problem, he said, was if an electric car ran out of charge. “What would happen if someone ran out of power in a rural part of Scotland?” he asked, apparently becoming quite panicked. “What would happen if a person found themselves in an area with no phone coverage?” he babbled.

Indeed! What if it broke down? What if you had no phone? What if the car exploded?

Fortunately, John Finnie was at hand. “I like buses and I like trains,” he pointed out. You can also power ferries out of hydrogen, Liam McArthur said. It’s only 13 years until 2032, stated John Scott. After that, Claudia Beamish read out some lyrics from famous songs in an attempt to prove cars aren’t as cool as everyone thinks. “Beep, beep, beep, beep, yeah,” she argued, quoting the Beatles.

“Trains are also vehicles, by my understanding,” announced John Mason, before adding that “hydrogen appeals to me for a number of reasons,” though he never really seemed to explain why.

Buses were as popular as hydrogen. Gillian Martin, for example, used her speech to explain how her son, who recently moved to Edinburgh, had been very impressed with the bus network, in stark contrast to Aberdeenshire. “When I first got elected that seemed to be the major amount of caseload I received from him and his friends, about the buses,” she said.

How much of Martin’s casework comes from her son and his friends? At least the fact she said ‘when I was first elected’ would suggest it’s slowed down. But there was no time to find out, because she then decided to boast about her own car – a hybrid – as part of what seemed to be some sort of unspoken agreement among MSPs.

In fact, not only is it a hybrid, it’s a really good one, apparently. But sadly, by that point, Murdo Fraser, who started the whole thing, seemed to have disappeared. Whether he had been banned was unclear.

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