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by Brian Taylor
04 February 2023
Brian Taylor: The Scottish Parliament has done its work well. Mostly.

Brian Taylor: The Scottish Parliament has done its work well. Mostly.

The past, we are reminded, is another place, a foreign country. Any journey to such a challenging domain should only be pursued with exceptional caution.  
So it was with a certain degree of trepidation that I undertook a little historical study before committing my thoughts to print.

Initially, my research went well. My immediate focus was the report of the Consultative Steering Group (CSG), chaired by Henry McLeish, published in December 1998 and designed to set the parameters for the Scottish Parliament which was “reconvened” the following year, to borrow Winnie Ewing’s admirable description.

But then I blundered. I chanced also to glance at the very first column I penned for the very first edition of this magazine, published in May 1999, days before the elections to the new parliament.  

The content was fine. Rather good, since you ask. I noted an inevitable mismatch confronting the SNP as a party of independence fighting elections to a devolved parliament. Whose existence they had also championed, contrary to a few concerns in their ranks that it was a Unionist trap.  

For balance, I then recalled that Labour had faced a comparable challenge at the 1997 UK general election in Scotland when party leaders wanted to postpone talk of devolution while everyone else wanted to focus solely upon self-government.  

All fine. Then I caught sight of the byline picture.  

Give me strength. There I was, attentive, serious and neatly groomed, as befits the BBC broadcaster I was at the time.  

But the demeanour? Sonorous and solemn. Grim, even. I looked like a notably stern Scots dominie. Or the “before” picture in an advert for painkillers.  

Not the cheery, cheeky face on the telly you all came to love. OK, some of you. OK, my immediate family and fellow United supporters. 

In haste, I returned to the 1998 report of the CSG, entitled Shaping Scotland’s Parliament. Perhaps I might find solace and inspiration there.  

My aim was a sense of perspective. This 500th edition of Holyrood magazine inevitably prompts historical reflection.   

Hence, to that McLeish report. Henry McLeish was later first minister, of course, but at this point he was minister of state at the pre-devolution Scottish Office, reporting to Donald Dewar.

From a standing start, the Scottish Parliament has become the centrepiece of discourse in Scotland.  

He convened an expert, cross-party panel to consider how the new parliament might operate. Its standing orders, its day-to-day working, its formal structure, its informal ethos.  

On glancing back at the original report, it is remarkable how much has survived.  

The concept of an open, accessible parliament. Support for equal opportunities. The sharing of power between people, legislators and ministers.  

OK, perhaps these are self-evident. But there was the notion that proposed legislation should be discussed in outline, examining general principles before a bill was introduced and scrutinised line by line.  

To achieve that, it was proposed that Scottish parliamentary committees should share the two distinct roles undertaken by select and standing (or bill) committees at Westminster. Familiar now, innovative then.  

Further, it was suggested that there should be a petitions committee to enable people to gain direct access to parliament – and to have their concerns considered and, where necessary, remedied.  

Can anyone now imagine Holyrood without the petitions committee?  

Some things have changed. The 1998 report specified that Holyrood would require a European committee to sift legislation emanating from Brussels. That need has gone.  

I looked again at the opening statement in the report. It said that people in Scotland had “high hopes” for their parliament – and it welcomed the “degree of consensus” that concluded, across party divisions, that it was important to meet those expectations.  

So have those high hopes been met?  I intend to look in a little detail at that notion of consensus. But firstly, perhaps a more general report card.  

I take the view that parliaments do three things: they legislate; they hold the governing executive to account; and they ventilate issues of concern to the people they represent.  

Judged by those criteria, I reckon Holyrood has done reasonably well.    

It has perhaps been a little too eager to legislate, most notably in the early days of its existence. A little too zealous in the deployment of new law-making powers. On occasion, MSPs might have asked themselves whether there was genuinely a gap in the already compendious statute book.  
Much, of course, has been decidedly contentious. From Section 28 in the early days to the more recent disputes over gender recognition.  

The existence of controversy does not, of itself, mean that the individual law is either mistaken or justified, intrinsically right or wrong. Rather, it reflects concerns within wider society.  
One might note that a democratic parliament has an obligation to reflect and consider all views brought before it by citizens or groups with a legitimate interest.  

What is important is that those disparate views are acknowledged and weighed, with an appropriate response.  

On balance, with that caveat about an occasionally over-zealous approach, I believe that Holyrood has mostly fulfilled its legislative duty relatively well.  

My second criterion was scrutiny of ministers and those in authority.  I believe that function has, mostly, been met. There was scrutiny at Westminster prior to devolution. Often rather effective scrutiny.  

Brian Taylor working for the BBC at Holyrood | Credit: Alamy

For example, I remember a Scottish Office minister facing persistent challenges in the House of Commons.  His reply? “Those are good questions. Excellent questions. But not half as good as the questions I’m going to ask when I get back to the department this afternoon!”

There you have the kernel of scrutiny. Minister gets a genteel kicking. Minister goes back to office and administers an equally polite but determined rebuke to civil servants.  

With luck, the subject at issue is then actively addressed – and redressed.  

I believe Holyrood pursues that practice well. Again, with caveats. For example, the scrutiny in the chamber can be a little formulaic, particularly during questions to the first minister. The indignation on display can seem somewhat bogus, even when it may contain a grain of truth.  
But at least the event places the FM in the spotlight, to be judged by the chamber and, much more significantly, by watching and listening voters. I was always very well aware of that wider audience when I presented BBC coverage of FMQs.  

Parliamentary debates can also be a little stilted sometimes, with limited scope for effective or persistent intervention, as speeches are mostly read.  

Ach, enough, Brian, enough. Too harsh. I sound like an acerbic theatre critic who enjoyed the overall production but is determined to pick holes.  

Mostly, the debates and the question exchanges are valid and valuable. Interventions, when they happen, can be acute and powerful. Two and a quarter cheers from me.  

However, perhaps the most effective challenges come in committee.  

Maybe a minister is up against it. Or a civil servant is scrambling to find the relevant information. Or a suggested item of legislation is palpably failing to convince.  

There you can find backbench MSPs at their best. I would commend their collective efforts down the years – and recommend that they continue to see well-researched committee scrutiny as their core task.  

Incidentally, in preparing this piece, I chatted to several senior politicians, mostly leading figures from those earlier days.  

One discussion was with Tavish Scott, a former minister who led the Scottish Liberal Democrats for three years.  

He argued that parliamentary scrutiny should be sharpened to pay much closer attention to the “quango state” which, he told me, was “out of control”.  

He said that the Scottish Parliament was established to address the perceived “democratic deficit” in Scotland – but that quangos operated remotely from ministers, creating a further gap which he said MSPs should seek to close.  

I have noted repeatedly that most senior politicians of my acquaintance are in a lather of honourable disquiet much of the time. That is because the issues with which they are wrestling are complex and tricky.  

To my third criterion then, which was reflecting issues of concern to the people of Scotland. Here, I would offer Holyrood an unalloyed vote of confidence.  

From a standing start, the Scottish Parliament has become the centrepiece of discourse in Scotland.  

It is by no means the only forum. Westminster retains significant power over Scotland and thus retains substantial significance.  

But, sooner or later, everything which affects the Scottish people – from the condition of our health service to the state of our football team – ends up being discussed by MSPs.  
It is, in my view, a healthy system of ventilation.  

Returning to the CSG report, I am struck by that phrase I mentioned, noting “the degree of consensus that exists”.  

This refers primarily to the committee’s deliberations. But I recall Henry McLeish, at the time, seeking to extend that concept to the workings of the new parliament itself.  

It was in no way envisaged that there would be complete agreement. It was not thought that problems would swiftly be resolved by a group hug.  

Rather it was thought that, particularly under a proportional voting system, it might be possible to depart from the gladiatorial approach of Westminster. That issues might be collectively identified, followed by a thoughtful search for solutions.  

Has that happened? Henry McLeish thinks not. He told me that “tribalism is rampant” and that there was “disrespect and discourtesy” on all sides. He emphasised that all parties shared blame.  
He added: “The devolution years have not realised their full potential. You don’t have to dislike or slight a person you disagree with. That leads to a lack of trust – and parliament does not score well on that report card.”  

I chatted also with Mary Scanlan, a former Conservative MSP. While at Holyrood, she developed firm personal friendships across parties, including, notably, with some of a Nationalist persuasion.  

She adds that the Tories weren’t particularly welcome in the very early days, because of their history of opposition to devolved governance.  They had to “build and earn respect”.
But I expect it will not surprise you to learn that she also blames the SNP for the lack of “courteous politics” at Holyrood.  

Her line, the Conservative line, is that any residual “bitterness” in Scottish politics can be traced to the 2014 independence referendum. Mary Scanlan says the legacy of that contest has left Scotland “in a bad place”.  

Henry McLeish does not agree. He says the SNP cannot be blamed for taking the opportunities presented by electoral success, from minority government in 2007 through the majority years and now the arrangement with the Greens.  

He says other parties, including his own Labour party, “fled the battlefield” at an earlier point. He says they seemed afraid of being seen somehow as “too Scottish” or of “abandoning the Union” if they engaged with the evident demands of the Scottish people for more control.  
McLeish told me he hoped Holyrood politicians would stop judging themselves by comparison with Westminster.  

He urged MSPs to seek to emulate parliaments in Europe where all parties participate in decision making, not just the executive office holders. Where majority control was not presumed or contrived.  

Where ministers knew they had to persuade and cajole to make progress on legislation. In short, consensus.  

That view was also expressed in comments from one of the newer parliamentarians, Lorna Slater, a Green minister.  

She recalled that her first speech as an MSP was to urge endeavour to “work together across party lines and do things differently”.  

Slater added: “I still have that optimism and hope. Our parliament is at its best when we listen to one another and benefit from each other’s expertise and insights.”  

She argues further that this aspiration has been put into practice in the co-operation agreement which brought Greens into government and provided the SNP with a working majority.  She says it means the two parties work “positively and constructively to forge consensus”.  

Others see things differently. Some say the pact is designed to narrow discourse, rather than broaden it. That it is designed to sustain a majority and so exclude dissenting opinion.  
Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, went further in a recent speech, condemning what he called “the cosy Holyrood consensus”.  

Ross included Labour in that club. His objective, of course, was to build a profile for his party’s offer, comprising a self-image of the Tories as “non-conformists”. It remains to be seen whether this pitch will enable the Scots Tories to overcome their other difficulties.  

But back to Holyrood history. I turned to Bruce Crawford, who gained a deservedly high reputation for shepherding parliamentary business, particularly during the years after 2007 when the SNP were in power but lacked a majority.  

Few knew at the time whether this parliamentary arithmetic could work at all. As first minister, Alex Salmond tried but failed to reach agreement with the Liberal Democrats. The stumbling block, as always, was the issue of independence.  

Then he turned to the two Greens, securing their limited support to enable the endorsement of SNP ministers.  

In practice, little more came of that transient “pact”. Budget deals tended to be with the Conservatives – who sought thereby to claim credit for concessions. They would not pursue such an approach today.  

Bruce Crawford told me that the search for consensus may have been driven by parliamentary arithmetic – but it was pursued through “building trust and personal relationships”.  
That took time to create. Meanwhile, he was constantly being told by critics that the administration he served would not last.

However, Bruce Crawford is adamant that there are “very strong foundations underpinning the Scottish Parliament”. He said those can be traced back to the CSG report.  
But he argues that both parliament and government could do more to build and sustain relationships in a constant search for common ground, where it can be found.  

A few closing words of my own. People frequently urge politicians to get together and sort things out, to set aside partisanship.  

I sympathise but detect three problems. Firstly, politicians have to pursue a partisan agenda to some degree in order to advance their prospects of re-election. Secondly, fundamental issues – such as the constitutional future of Scotland – are not easily set to one side.  

If you believe that independence would advantage Scotland, then you are scarcely likely to sign up to a project which promotes the Union. And vice versa.  

Equally, you should be prepared to consider individual issues affecting the people of Scotland without always refracting them through the prism of the constitution. From either side.  

Thirdly, those individual issues may resist consensus – but not because the participants are stubborn. Perhaps the topic under discussion is intrinsically difficult, with significant consequences.  

I have noted repeatedly that most senior politicians of my acquaintance are in a lather of honourable disquiet much of the time. That is because the issues with which they are wrestling are complex and tricky.  

However, I believe that Holyrood, in this opening phase, has generally striven to address and remedy the concerns of the people of Scotland.  

Yes, the constitutional issue remains to the fore. Devolution was said to be the “settled will” of the Scottish people. We have perhaps yet to learn the final will.  

But, over the quarter century, this discourse has not precluded the examination of individual, detailed questions. Holyrood has done its work. Mostly. 

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