Interview: Tricia Marwick on her reform agenda

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 12 July 2016 in Inside Politics

Mandy Rhodes speaks to the last Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament on how she was cut from a different cloth

In many ways, Tricia Marwick was a pioneer. She was the first woman to be elected Presiding Officer in the Scottish Parliament but she was also the first working class, state educated, non-university graduate to have that job. 

Her legacy has been to start a radical reform process in the Parliament that is continuing under her successor, Ken Mackintosh, and as she left the post, she declined the chance of an honour from the Queen saying she didn’t want to be a hypocrite.

Marwick, who has opposed the honours system throughout her long political career, officially stood down as PO following May’s election, revealed that she declined an invitation from a “senior Conservative politician” to put her name forward for a gong.

She said: “I do not criticise those who accept an honour. That is a matter for each individual and I understand the great joy and pride it can bring.

“However, it is not for me. I would be a hypocrite to now accept an honour when I have opposed the honours system all my life.”

She added: “I have had many meaningful honours in my life. To be one of the first MSPs, to be elected for my home constituency of Central Fife and then to serve as the Presiding Officer. That is recognition and honour enough for me.”


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When she was elected as PO in 2011 she was not everyone's most obvious choice to succeed the mild mannered Tory MSP Alex Fergusson.

And while some of the early criticism smacked simply of snobbery and sexism, with an historic SNP majority returned to the Parliament, there were some legitimate concerns about having an MSP from the party also as PO. Some feared an SNP bias, compounded by a view that Marwick was too much of a party protagonist.

“Interestingly, just after I became the PO, I was up in the bar having a drink and a journalist said to me, of course, we won’t believe you are impartial until you give Alex Salmond a hard slap in the face,” she says. “I just looked at him and said if you think for one minute that I am going to gratuitously put down the First Minister to prove something to you in the press that I don’t think I need to prove then you can think again.”

Marwick maybe a pugnacious debater but she is also a real stickler for the rules. She likes discipline and she respects institutions, particularly that of the Scottish Parliament, which she loves with a passion. 

She described her election as PO as “the proudest moment of her life”. However, things could have been very different. In what she describes as “probably a typical woman” or a “working-class thing”, she had originally intended to just stand as deputy PO. She only changed her mind at the last minute as it became clear that the SNP would not stand in her way and when she discovered who the other candidates were.

“I just thought to myself, I can bring a lot to this and there’s things I want to do,” she says. “I think I surprised a lot of folk … but with the greatest respect to the other candidates, I looked around and thought ‘you’re not as good as me’ and I just went for it.”

Marwick was clearly the most experienced candidate. She had been an MSP since the first parliament in 1999, but she had also played a vital role in the mechanics of parliamentary business having been variously: deputy SNP business manager, business manager and chief whip and was also a key member of the business bureau and the corporate body. 

Armed with this expertise, she then stood against her own party colleague, the equally outspoken Christine Grahame, and Labour veteran politician, Hugh Henry, and won. Some 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 power-grab'. 

“I think a lot of people just weren’t fully aware of the work that I had already done in the parliament,” she says “I had been on the corporate body for four years and I had worked consensually with all the MSPs and officials to do the best for the parliament.

"I’d been a business manager in the very early days and I had built up a very good friendship with Tom McCabe, who was the Labour business manager at the time and again, I simply thought that part of my duty as business manager was to help make the institution work, so while I had maybe been seen as tribal in the chamber or even in the bar, in reality, I had done a lot of consensual work across the parliament and I think people had just not seen that side of me.

“Being able to cast off your party affiliations, to an extent, just frees you up and it’s why, for example, I have argued that we need elected conveners. [They] would derive their authority from the parliament in the same way that the corporate body members derive it from the parliament. 

“I also think it helps to have been a party business manager. 

“Very rarely do you get somebody like me who had done both. I can’t think of anybody else who has done both of these jobs. 

“My view is that either corporate body or business manager or both is ideal training to be the Presiding Officer. Not least because a), on the corporate body, you know where the bodies are buried, and b), on the bureau, you understand the process and procedures and that’s really important in dealing with the political parties. It’s also very important when you are dealing with the officials that you have got a very clear understanding about what standing orders, for example, are. I would say that was a prerequisite.

“The skill I’ve had to pull on the most … has been the ability to be consensual but you also need to be able to step into the fray when required and try and pull them all back.

“I don’t know if perhaps being a woman helps but you’ve also got to have the thing that most people do not associate with being a woman and that’s being tough. 

“I think every Presiding Officer has brought their own style to it and they have brought their own strengths. I think we’ve all brought different things and the parliament that we’ve been Presiding Officer for has always been a different parliament.

“I think experience is the most important attribute you can bring and particularly experience of this legislature.”

Marwick was criticised initially by the parliamentary media for allowing members to talk too long and heckle too loudly. 

The turning point came when she 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. Thereafter, Marwick seemed confident in the job.

Then she chastised Joan McAlpine SNP MSP and then Salmond’s closest aide, for failing to turn up to ask a tabled question. The MSP was forced into a humiliating public apology to members in the chamber. And one of her most dramatic putdowns was when Labour’s James Kelly refused to sit down when he repeatedly tried to raise a point of order. He was barred from parliamentary business and dramatically escorted from the chamber.

Marwick says throughout her term as PO, she firmly adhered to the Parliament’s rule book and a code of conduct which requires members to be 'courteous and respectful'. She says it’s also about applying “a good, old-fashioned, working class sense of good manners”.

Born and brought up in Fife as one of seven siblings, Marwick was first elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999 as a list member for Mid Scotland and Fife before contesting the Central Fife seat subsequently, then winning it in 2007. This significant breakthrough for the SNP in Labour's Fife heartland kick-started the massive support for the SNP in 2011 when Marwick was returned to the new Mid Fife and Glenrothes seat, joined by a record number of other SNP members representing the Kingdom of Fife.

Being a Fifer has shaped Marwick's politics. She grew up in a political household, her father was a miner and active Labour Party member, although when pushed, would say he was first and foremost a trade unionist - and her mother was also in the party. She was 11 when her father allowed her to stay up and watch the 1964 general election results unfold and see Harold Wilson elected. Although she didn't join a political party until she was 30, she hasn't missed watching an election night since.

Marwick says her political affiliations were forged in the tribal politics of Fife at the time where fights on the streets of Cowdenbeath were more often than not between Communists and Labour Party members than between the SNP and Labour, which were tame in comparison.

Indeed, the Communist Party secured Marwick's first ever vote and despite huge pressure from her father, she remained 'unconvinced' by Labour.

However, that all changed with the 1984-85 Miners' Strike. Unlike many of that generation, the bitter dispute further politicised her but away from Labour and towards the SNP. Her two elder sisters, Maureen and Alice, were already SNP members, which had horrified their father and indeed Alice [McGarry] was Fife's longest serving SNP councillor having been first elected in 1986.

Marwick only joined the SNP late in life because she feared 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 put up posters in the window in support of their daughter. By 1996 and then living in Alice's ward, shortly after Marwick's mother had died, he at last softened and agreed to vote for his daughter in the forthcoming election. Sadly, he died a month before the election. 

For someone so embedded in party politics, how did she feel as PO, literally having to put party to one side and not be involved in the independence referendum.

“I don’t think people actually realised how difficult that was. Certainly in the chamber and in the parliament I was impartial because it was important to protect the institution from either side of the debate. We banned any use of parliamentary resources so, for instance, the committee rooms weren’t used at all for anything to do with the campaign - I was not going to have the Yes campaign and the No campaign shouting at each other across committee rooms. 

“However hard it was for me, though, it was crucially important to protect the parliament during that time but watching the referendum unfold and not be actively involved in something I had wanted all my political life, was hard and particularly when we were in the last few weeks of the referendum campaign and there was all these programmes on the TV and my husband …my daughter … my sisters …my son …and everybody that I knew was out campaigning.

"I was in my bed watching the programmes and crying myself to sleep because I just couldn’t go out and that was … the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life.

“We had had discussions in the parliament about if it was a Yes vote and if it was a No vote because obviously there were huge implications in either case for the parliament. I had said the week before the vote that I didn’t think it was going to be close. I thought there was going to be at least 10 per cent in it - 55-45 but I didn’t know which direction. 

“When we came back afterwards, I wasn’t very sure the first day what it was going to be like, whether the SNP and the government were going to be so depressed that it was going to be difficult to gear them up and equally if it had been a Yes vote, would we then have a combined opposition who would be devastated? I saw myself having a role after the referendum of trying to bring everyone together, if it was needed. As it turned out, it wasn’t needed because although the government were on the losing side, I think the expression of the people and the huge increase in the SNP membership actually gave the government a wind. 

“For those of us who lived through the 1979 referendum, waking up the day after that referendum … there was this huge depression, Scotland was depressed for a long, long time. I thought that it would be like that again but it wasn’t like that at all. I think the parliament itself came together really quickly. I was really proud of it.

“Personally, one of the hardest parts was watching Alex stand down as leader. I was crying as I watched because I didn’t expect it. Twice in my life, Alex Salmond surprised me, the first time was in 2000 when he stood down as leader and I didn’t see it coming…That caught me by surprise and this caught me by surprise.

"I looked at him doing that press conference and I thought he did it very well. He obviously felt that his race had been run, that there was nowhere else he could go, or … nothing else he could do. He had done what he had to do and it was time to pass on the baton and in lots of ways, I felt like that about standing down as PO. I’ve been in the parliament since 1999 and I just think it was time for me to hand on the baton. I think you need to know when it’s time to go. I think Alex Salmond recognised that and I think I recognised it.

“I had decided quite early on that I really didn’t want to come back as an MSP because no PO has run for another term and to be honest, I simply could not have done what Alex Fergusson did and come back and been an ordinary back bencher. You certainly couldn’t be a government minister, you certainly couldn’t chair a committee, so you are left on the back benches and that would have been something that I just couldn’t do. 

"I think in lots of ways I have been the lucky Presiding Officer. I was…lucky …because not only did I have five years in post, I also had the little matter of the referendum so while I was unable to do anything … it gave me the opportunity to think … about where we go as an institution and I had very clear ideas based on my own experience of the reform that was needed. 

“I think the legacy that I have left is that the reform process has started and I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that reform is going to be centre stage in the next parliament.” 

 

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