Sketch: Ceci n’est pas une nightclub
Just when we thought we were done with philosophical questions such as, ‘what is a café?’ and ‘is a scotch egg a substantial meal?’, the Scottish Government has posed another thought experiment for itself: What is a nightclub?
It might seem like a simple question. We all know what a nightclub is. If we saw a nightclub, we’d say, ‘look, that’s a nightclub’.
But as part of plans to introduce vaccine passports from next month, the government is in need of a firm definition. The 2,000-word document setting out the plan even included a section on the definition of nightclub, which ultimately failed to define a nightclub.
It was little help to those trying to scrutinise the plan. The First Minister had previously explained MSPs must have time to consider the controversial proposals before voting – which was why they were published six hours before the debate.
Not one to let things slide, Douglas Ross asked the Deputy First Minister – who we know is fully across the vertical drinking part of his brief – for clarity. “Can he tell the parliament and people watching what his definition of a nightclub is?”
“I will come on to that in due course,” replied John Swinney, who then did not come to that in due course.
Not deterred, Ross tried again, valiantly offering up some of his own speaking time to obtain a definition.
The Deputy Filibuster Minister said: “In the arrangements that have prevailed so far, there has been no necessity to distinguish between nightclubs and pubs and hospitality venues that may open later in the evening and into the early hours of the morning.
“The circumstances that we face require us to more precisely define the distinction, to avoid market distortion, between nightclubs and venues that could appear similar to nightclubs but have a different purpose. That is the subject of further discussion with the night-time industries sector to enable us to come to conclusions which will of course be set out in the regulations.”
Like everyone watching, Ross was clearly puzzled. “I’m really not sure what we are expected to do as parliamentarians, as people who have been sent here to scrutinise the government,” he admitted.
Thankfully, a parade of SNP backbenchers were on hand to support their deputy chief.
First, John Mason helpfully said: “Today we are looking at this in principle and the detail has still to be worked out and we have a Covid Committee which will look at the detail.”
That argument seemed a little dubious given Nicola Sturgeon had accepted the week before that parliament as a whole should get a proper say.
Gillian Martin tried next, frantically Googling for a definition mid-speech, fully at the mercy of the strength of the wifi in the chamber. “I’ve actually got it, I’ve actually got Moray Council’s one here, if you give me a minute and I’ll bring it up on my phone.
“And it says, and I’m taking time out of my speech to do this, but I’ll tell you, it says, ‘where the primary function’, no, hang on, ‘may include dancing, would have more people standing than sitting, would be open from 1am to 5am,’ that’s Moray Council. It’s a list of things. Aberdeenshire Council, I think it depends on the council, because Aberdeenshire Council’s got one as well.”
Fast realising she was sinking, Martin attempted to lighten the mood. “To be honest, Presiding Officer, I really am actually struggling to think of a nightclub that is actually in Aberdeenshire. I’m not familiar with them anymore, being a bit of an old bird that stays at home.” She should ask club connoisseur Michael Gove.
Kaukab Stewart knew that wasn’t going to cut it. She offered: “I have had a wee bit of time to look it up, and the definition of a nightclub: it’s a noun; it is an entertainment venue that is open from the evening until early morning, having facilities such as a bar and a disco, or other entertainment.”
But that hastily Googled definition, as astutely mentioned by Swinney previously, does not clearly differentiate between “nightclubs and venues that could appear similar to nightclubs”.
Ceci n’est pas une nightclub.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Greens got their first taste of the SNP whip. Having previously warned passports “may risk giving people a false sense of safety and potentially make venues less safe”, Patrick Harvie was now in the position of having to defend them.
He said MSPs must “acknowledge that, when the facts change, people should at least ask themselves whether they have made the right judgment”. Facts which may change include, but are not limited to, a cooperation deal and a ministerial salary.
Gillian Mackay, the only Green to get a speech in the debate, had the dubious honour of attempting to explain her party’s new position.
“So today, Deputy Presiding Officer, I…” she began, apparently resisting the temptation to finish that with “… am going to be an SNP backbencher.”