Comment: We need to talk about the quality of debate in the Scottish Parliament
Last month SNP MSP Willie Coffey was widely ridiculed for what can only be described as a piece of performance art in the Holyrood chamber.
Coffey, the deputy convener of the local government committee was scheduled to sum up a committee debate on planning but since the Green party convener of the committee, Ariane Burgess failed to appear in time, the deputy presiding officer called Coffey instead.
Armed with a speech, no doubt written by the committee clerks (that’s what happens with such speeches) he launched into what can only be described as a comedy classic, an amalgam of the Two Ronnies Mastermind sketch and The Thick of It, waxing not very lyrically on a debate that hadn’t yet taken place.
Coffey’s slapstick episode throws up a number of issues. Debates in Holyrood are ‘follow on’ debates which means they start immediately after previous business. If you have a speaking slot and don’t turn up then tough, you miss your slot and business goes on – no one holds up proceedings for you.
This was infamously the case when former Labour minister Frank McAveety failed to appear for a debate – he was otherwise engaged in the parliament canteen tackling a mince en croute avec pommes frites or pie and chips to you and I. McAveety resigned as a result of ‘piegate’.
So why were proceedings held up for Burgess who came in for much less criticism than Coffey, who at least got there on time?
But what was most alarming was that despite Coffey’s 30 years as an elected politician, first as a councillor and then MSP, he was unable to improvise and think and speak at the same time.
Instead he determinedly read out his pre-written summing up lines. Had he not been stopped we would have been ‘treated’ to six minutes about a debate that hadn’t happened. When I tried to look this up on the parliament’s website I was shocked to see it had been edited out of the day’s proceedings only to appear later after complaints. It is now there in all its glory.
This relatively minor episode does throw up some significant issues.
The Holyrood chamber is a good place to speak in. The acoustics are good, having a lectern for notes keeps papers organised and you have a power source for a computer. But the formulaic way debates are conducted kills spontaneity. Speaking opportunities are pre-allocated and controlled by parties.
The time allowed for backbench speech is usually six minutes, front benchers and ministers have longer. Speakers often refuse to take interventions from opponents as it eats into their speaking time – yet, it is supposed to be a debate for heaven’s sake!
And how much detail, scrutiny or information on an alternative proposal can be put forward in six minutes? This has to change so that debates move away from MSPs reading repetitive lines handed out by their party managers. At least Coffey was honest about it.
I have always been amazed at the lack of time and effort political parties invest in training their elected representatives to speak and debate in public.
Some people turn up in council chambers or parliament having been in teaching or the law or having served as a shop steward or a business leader. For them presenting to an audience comes as second nature and they are very good at it. Others sound like a child discovering their first book.
Public speaking and debating is not easy – to do it successfully requires time and effort. I always made a point of listening to and observing some of the best in the businesses, learning from, not imitating the likes of Dennis Skinner, Tony Benn, and before he completely lost the plot, George Galloway.
I learned how to plan, research and write a speech, the importance of tone and intonation, the impact of emotion and humour and personal experience. I always tried to anticipate likely interventions and have my replies ready.
I learned that things don’t always go to plan and to have a Plan B. If a previous speaker has covered the points I had planned to cover then I felt compelled not to repeat what they had said.
I have lost count of the number of times I have heard MSPs tediously trot out the same lines as the previous speaker because they were unable to deviate from the brief given by their whips. For those whose driving desire is to be in parliament they must have a greater sense of self-respect than to simply read out dull lines provided by their party or lobby groups.
The Scottish Parliament has to always review how it does its business. This episode should bring about a comprehensive review of how debates are conducted and if that brings positive change to make the speeches and debates less tedious and repetitive then we might just thank Mr Coffey for beginning at the end.
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