Former Scottish Parliament Presiding Officers on the devolution years

Written by Staff reporter on 13 July 2016 in Inside Politics

The role of the Presiding Officer in the Scottish Parliament is an evolving one, Holyrood talks to three of the previous MSPs who stepped into the hot seat 

Scottish Parliament Presiding Officers - Scottish Parliament

Q1  Why did you want to become Presiding Officer?

Lord Steel of Aikwood (DS): It was quite a late decision to stand for the Scottish Parliament – my local constituency had already selected a candidate, hence my standing on the Lothian regional list. However, I was persuaded by Jim Wallace and Donald Dewar that the new institution needed an experienced person as PO, but of course as it was a secret ballot, no guarantee that I would get the job.

George Reid (GR): People forget now that devolution was in real danger in 2003.  The negative headlines, day after day, about the runaway costs and delays at the Holyrood campus were eroding confidence in the Parliament. I wanted to get a grip so that MSPs could move in, and then move on. 

The 2003 election produced a rainbow parliament, with six parties and three independents. I hoped that my record of working across party lines in the two referendum campaigns and the government Steering Group for Holyrood would enable me to be an inclusive, “firm but fair” PO. In the event, my election was unopposed. 

Alex Fergusson (AF): I didn’t! I had gone into the election in 2007 defending a majority of 99 against a strong SNP challenge. Having taken myself off ‘the list’ I was just relieved to be returned to parliament with a significantly increased majority – I had no thoughts of anything other than being the MSP for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale. So the role of Presiding Officer came and found me, not the other way round.


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Q2  What do you think you brought to the role?

DS: A long experience of Westminster plus chairing the Scottish Constitutional Convention. In my youth I had presided over the Students’ Representative Council at Edinburgh University – which was how I knew Donald [Dewar] of old in inter-university debates.

GR: I’d been an MP, a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a regional MSP and had just won Ochil as a constituency MSP. I’d had a life outside politics as a broadcaster and director of the International Red Cross in wars and disasters worldwide. And I’d learned a lot as David Steel’s deputy. 
I was very conscious, though, that trust – the essential underpinning of any PO – has to be earned. 

AF: That is really for others to judge, but I am particularly proud of the community engagement programme that we established, reaching out to ‘hard to reach’ organisations and communities and teaching them how parliament can be used to further their aims. It was about empowerment, and it worked.

Q3  How difficult is it for a politician to put to one side their party politics and take up the role of the PO? 

DS: I have always been a cross-party person (e.g. the anti-apartheid movement, and reform of the abortion laws, Lib-Lab pact, etc.), so I thought that important and not at all difficult. Glad that my successors followed suit.

GR: If John Swinney had been in a position to form a government in 2003, I would probably have soldiered on inside the SNP. I was 64, however, and the chance of gaining office was gone. As 

PO I became, I suppose, a man of transition. 

AF: I didn’t find putting party politics to one side particularly difficult. Having convened the Rural Affairs Committee from 2001-03, I was happy that I could conduct meetings as a neutral chairman, and I don’t think I was ever the most party political individual in the first place! It wasn’t an issue for me.

Q4 One former PO told me that it was actually painful having to leave behind a political party – not even attend party conferences – which you have been so closely involved in. How did you deal with that?

DS: You must be joking! Party conferences were never a great joy to me, fond though I am of my party.

GR: I had been required to be neutral and impartial for over 25 years as a broadcaster and director of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva.   

I was elected by Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, Green, Scottish Socialist and independent members as well as the Nationalists, and my duty was to honour that.  My wife and I still maintain personal contacts with a lot of friends in the SNP and other parties, of course. 

AF: Not attending party conferences was, for me, one of the bonuses of the role! I’ve never particularly enjoyed them and would always rather have been back in my constituency when attending them. The toughest bit was ensuring that I could still represent the best interests of my constituents while simultaneously carrying out the privileged role of PO.

Q5 How different is it sitting on that side of the chamber and seeing how politicians can behave?

DS: I never sat anywhere else, unlike my successors.  

GR: I can do the yah-boo stuff if I have to, but I am never that comfortable with it.  There’s too much testosterone floating around in legislatures – one reason I have always supported fair shares for women members. 

AF: Sitting in the Chair of Parliament is as different as it ever could be from sitting on the benches of the chamber. It is quite natural that MSPs would want to display their approval or otherwise for what is being said, but the secret is not to let that approval or disapproval get out of hand. During my period in office the minority party of government (SNP) only had one seat more than Labour, so it could get quite heated on occasions. I think that, on the whole, reasonable order was maintained.

Q6  Were there times when you found that neutrality really tested and if so, how did you deal with it?

DS: No, but I recall one tight decision I took against the Lab-Lib coalition government and some of them were very unhappy.

GR: Not really. I’d had plenty of practice in my Red Cross years, dealing with delicate situations and some pretty unsavoury politicians in failed states. In any case, the legal advice from the parliamentary staff is clear and precise.  

AF: I don’t ever recall my neutrality being tested. Having a minority government meant that every decision was a compromise of sorts, and that maybe eased some of the pressure on my neutrality that might have existed otherwise.  

Q7 Is the role of the PO a naturally evolving one and how do you see it changing with the new powers to the parliament? 

DS: Yes, I think it does and will evolve and I have been impressed by the way the three who followed me dealt with it.  

GR: Journalists and academics have focused too much on the public role of the PO in the chamber. S/he actually has five roles, potentially more important than the Speaker at Westminster: 

Facilitation: edging the bureau towards consensual decisions, a central role in a hung parliament.

Management: having a real say on the use of finance and facilities.

Representation: promoting the Parliament at home and abroad as its public face.

Governance: managing issues as the interface between parliament, people and place.
Constituency: looking after the people who elected you.

AF: I think the role of the PO is relatively settled, though each session of parliament will bring its own challenges. However, the basics of the role are well established and understood, while being flexible enough to embrace and encourage changes where necessary. 

Q8 How would you describe your particular period in office as PO?

DS: Rather traumatic especially coping with the building of the Parliament, but great fun, especially entertaining leaders from Westminster who came to see how well and differently we did things, for example, our petitions system and education centre.

GR: There was the corporate challenge of getting Holyrood finished and the political challenge of ensuring fair shares for minority parties, independents and backbenchers. 

Holyrood was a management failure of gigantic proportions. The politicians had expressed outrage, meddled and run for cover. The staff, architects and contractors were embattled. 

I think the best thing I did as PO was to apologise to the people of Scotland, be totally transparent about progress on a monthly basis, bang heads together and cap payments, do my own critical path analysis, and cut out fripperies like the Zen Garden. Until we moved in, we couldn’t move on. 

Compared to that, chairing parliament was pretty straightforward, though I had the occasional tiff with the whips about not following their suggested list of speakers and always ensuring fair shares for the Greens, Socialists and independents.  

AF: Fascinating – it was a minority government with a parliament that could, and often did, split evenly on a vote. That gives the PO the casting vote, which I had to use quite often. My guiding rule was that I would not use that vote to endorse change. The only time it was a problem was when parliament divided evenly on the budget – meaning I had to vote down a budget of some £33 billion! Fortunately, a plan B was instigated and the budget bill was passed the following week.

Q9 What were the highpoints during your time as PO?

DS: The state opening, obviously, but also the visit of President Mbeki from South Africa, as we had campaigned together so often when he was in exile in the UK.

GR: A vast sigh of relief when the Queen opened Holyrood in 2004. And a chance then to say what I believe in – that we have a future for our past if we commit to an enterprising and compassionate Scotland.  

I am also pleased that I kept my nerve, against considerable opposition, in insisting on the full publication on the internet of MSP expenses. When the Commons were mired in sleeze some years later, the Scottish Parliament was seen as clean.

I also invested a lot of effort in opening Holyrood to the people and to the world: starting the Festival of Politics, the Futures Forum and making the chamber available to the G8, the Microsoft Government Leaders’ Conference, the Carnegie Medals for Humanity, the Nordic Union, refugees and young people.  

AF: The advent of minority government was the highlight of my time in office. I believe Parliament, as an institution, was at its most effective with a minority government, and I have always given credit to both government and opposition parties alike for making it work.

Holyrood’s 10th anniversary was pretty special, with HM the Queen attending out birthday ‘party’, and visiting Malawi for a week with Annie Lennox wasn’t exactly an onerous task either!

Q10  What were the low points?  

DS: The remorseless increasing costs of the new building. Donald Dewar once said to me during one of our many private dinners: “We must not play pass the parcel with this project”, to which I replied, “you have already played it”. (He had chosen the site, the architect and the contractor.)

GR: When the beam came out of the ceiling in March 2006. I was boxed in because the Health and Safety Executive removed the pins, but would not say why apart from warning me to stay schtum because there might be a criminal prosecution. The anti-devolution press again rolled out the hostile headlines. 

AF: I really don’t recall any, although my role in a certain Scottish FA Cup semi-final draw wasn’t my finest moment! Mind you, if few people knew me before that incident, almost everyone knew me afterwards, so perhaps every cloud does have a silver lining!

Q11  What would you see as the achievements of the Scottish Parliament during its 17 years? 

DS: Undoubtedly bringing governance closer to the people and giving us self-confidence as Scots.

GR: Simple. Every opinion poll indicates that three times as many Scots trust Holyrood to put their interests first compared to Westminster. It has become the focus of our public life. 

We now have a whole panoply of legislation appropriate to Scotland’s needs. We have trailblazed petitions. Our committees get out of Edinburgh and into our communities. We have a distinctive profile internationally. Still some way to go, though...

AF: I think that is best for others to judge, as there are many achievements in terms of legislative changes – gay marriage, smoking ban, land reform, etc. However, I do think the fact that Holyrood has become so firmly cemented within the democratic structure of the UK in such a relatively short space of time is a notable achievement in itself.

Q12  Is there an ‘old POs’ club’ where you share wisdom and pass on expertise to the next person in the hot seat and if not, should there be?

DS: Not really, and I am not sure there should be. George Reid stood against me for the post, and was one of my deputies before succeeding me. I don’t know that many people knew we are very old friends from student days.

GR: I’ve had two phone calls in ten years asking for my advice. That’s how it should be. In general, I’ve no wish to be part of a Conseil des Sages, past my sell-by date, offering opinions from the sidelines.

AF: No ‘old POs’ club’ – though I would prefer the term ‘former POs! When I was in office we initiated a ‘devolved POs’ club’ with my counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland which met three times a year. It was really helpful, and Speaker Bercow was keen to become involved after his election at Westminster, which he did. It was a useful initiative.

Q13 Who did you have to speak to the most in terms of ‘reprimands’ and what was the most common misdemeanour? 

DS: Very rare – Tommy Sheridan and Colin Fox publicly and Alex Salmond privately.

The two Scottish Socialists tended to want to break the rules, and Alex had to be reminded there is no such post in our parliament as “Official Opposition Leader”.

GR: I introduced the concept of Yellow Card, Red Card – you apologise and, if you don’t, you get one last chance before you are put out. I think this has worked pretty well. 

Four of the Scottish Socialists thought they could disrupt parliament on its last day before the recess in 2005. They didn’t calculate that I could invite the Standards Committee to convene immediately and report before the 5pm vote. Their passes, salaries and allowances were withdrawn for a month. I doubt whether there will ever again be such a parliamentary disruption. 

AF: Only one candidate there: Lord George Foulkes, the self-appointed backbench baiter of Alex Salmond, was elected on the list in 2007 – much to his surprise, I suspect! He brought with him some of the worst ‘heckling’ habits from the House of Commons, and they didn’t really fit at Holyrood. Hence almost daily reprimands. Over-enthusiastic heckling was the most common misdemeanour by far and there were very few ‘misdemeanours’ outside the chamber itself.

Q14  Were there moments of humour sitting in that hot-seat?

DS: Yes – I recall the visit of the president of the Russian Duma, and when I showed him the switches on my desk including the one I could use to cut off a speaker (e.g. Sheridan), he said, “we have nothing so Stalinist in the Duma”.

GR: I came out of Queensberry House one day to be attacked by two little old ladies with umbrellas shouting,“Murderer! Murderer!”. I had suggested that the only way to stop pigeons shitting all over the campus was to buy a couple of hawks. 

AF: You have to have humour in the hot seat – it can often deflate a potentially inflammatory situation. The trick is knowing when to employ it.

Q15  Should the Scottish Parliament have a second chamber now that it has more powers and how do you think that could work?

DS: I believe that we should have a reformed House of Lords, a senate elected by the institutions of the UK, and if so, the Scottish contingent could meet in Edinburgh at little extra cost and act as a revising chamber.

GR: A second chamber is neither practical nor desirable. I do agree with Trish Marwick’s views, however, on the need for greater scrutiny. I hope the Audit Committee will engage thoroughly in its new role of post-legislative scrutiny.  

At the same time, I think the Parliament should be more robust about the quality of legislation which it passes. Apart from the ongoing saga about minimum pricing of alcohol, there has never been a successful challenge to the laws it has passed.  

AF: While the last Session of Parliament (2011-16) highlighted a very real issue in terms of scrutiny and accountability, due to the governing party having an overall majority in the chamber and therefore on all committees, I am not convinced that a second chamber is the answer. Perhaps it is time to review the make-up of some of the subject committees to ensure that their scrutiny role can be properly carried out – although that is not easy when the influence of the party ‘whip’ is as strong in committees as it is in the chamber itself.

Q16  What do you see as unfinished business in terms of devolution? 

DS: We are nearly there – see previous answer above.

GR: As a lifelong incrementalist I always saw the Scottish Parliament gaining more and more powers until the last step to sovereignty was easy and obvious. Ideally, within the EU and a confederal Britain a bit like the Nordic Union which, one day, might be joined by a united Ireland.

The chaos caused by Brexit makes things messier but will accelerate Scottish independence.   

AF: I have always believed that devolution is an evolving process, as the new powers that will come during this session show. I wouldn’t wish to single out any unfinished business as such, but I have no doubt that the evolutionary process will continue.  

Q17 Have you now rediscovered your ‘inner political animal’? 

DS: Yes, I suppose I am lucky being in the UK upper chamber and able to press for reforms there – my bill to enable retirement from it was a small but significant step.

GR: I don’t think I’ve changed in over 40 years of public life. At my first election as an MP in 1974 I described myself, much to the annoyance of some in the SNP leadership, as a European Social Democrat committed to the return of Scottish sovereignty. The Labour Party at the count shouted “Pinko! Pinko!”. But that remains my position.

AF: As the only PO to have returned to the benches after my time in office, I can say that I found it harder than anticipated to get fully into party political mode. However, towards the end of the session the Government was introducing legislation with which I profoundly disagreed, and party politicking became much easier! I was delighted that my party did so well in May’s election, but have no regrets at taking my leave from Holyrood.

Q18  What happens to former POs?  

DS: We do get asked back to events from time to time, which I enjoy. I have a pass but as I never worked in the new building, I get easily lost. 

GR: With a nod from the Scottish Government, I was appointed to a whole range of public positions which required me to remain neutral – Lord High Commissioner and Lord-Lieutenant of Clackmannanshire, for example. 

I also became a UK Electoral Commissioner and led a number of tricky strategic reviews of governance in the Northern Ireland Assembly, remuneration in the National Assembly for Wales, and of the National Trust for Scotland. And I returned to my old humanitarian trade by reporting to the EU Presidency and other bodies on conflict in the Caucasus and Transnistria. 

Then I got bladder cancer and had major surgery. I resigned all positions. But doors shut, doors open. I’ve made an excellent recovery and, quite unexpectedly, I was offered a teaching professorship at the University of Stirling where I now run the UK’s first MSc course in Humanitarian Studies. 

I’m content. I’ve done my bit. I helped Scotland get its parliament back and to bed it down. I thought all I had to do now was dig the garden, walk the dogs, amuse the grandchildren and be nice to Dee, my wife for 48 years. But the disaster of Brexit means I shall be campaigning to keep Scotland in Europe...   

AF: I’m sure we’ll all have different experiences post PO-ship, but in general, like unpicked grapes, we will just slowly wither on the vine!

Q19 What is the best bit of advice you could pass on to the new PO?

DS: Be yourself and grow your authority by being seen as impartial. And keep your sense of humour.

GR: Being PO can be lonely. Make sure your private staff are high flyers with whom you can share confidences, who like a good laugh and who will tell you straight up if they believe you’ve got something wrong. 

AF: Be yourself, don’t be frightened to seek advice, and enjoy it – it is a great honour and an immense privilege. Although I didn’t actively seek the role for myself, with the great benefit of hindsight I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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