Sketch: Emergency measures and Humza Yousaf's approach to coughing
Watching the Scottish Parliament debate the emergency legislation, brought forward in response to the threat posed by COVID-19, it was hard to escape the sense of how much was at stake.You could see it everywhere – on the faces of the cabinet members present, through the voices of the opposition, in the remarks from the chair.
Clearly this is a frightening time, and there is a good reason for that. The Scottish and UK governments have started agreeing with each other.
It’s a chilling fact. You know you’ve got a pandemic on your hands when Nicola Sturgeon brings herself to wish the Prime Minister well.
The opposition, meanwhile, is largely supportive of everything the Scottish Government is doing. They were polite to each other. Conciliatory and constructive. Almost friendly.
It was terrifying.
In fairness, Mike Russell used his opening remarks to try and offer some reassurance to an anxious public, by promising the current good will is likely to only last six months, though an option remains open for that to be extended if necessary.
“The bill makes dramatic changes to our laws that many of us will find uncomfortable and challenging, and I don’t shirk from that,” he explained. “I find them very difficult too, but I am satisfied that they are necessary and proportionate, given the scale of the challenge we face. The changes this bill makes are far reaching, but they will not be forever.”
The goodwill won’t last forever. That’s something, at least. You never thought you’d miss them all shouting at each other, did you? Well it turns out the sight of them all being grudgingly polite was far more unsettling.
After that Humza Yousaf set out the justice aspects of the bill, while offering a masterclass in presentation. He had been halfway through explaining that the Scottish Government had dropped plans for jury-less trials, following concern from opposition and legal professionals, when it happened.
People are worried we’ll start getting weird
It was unexpected, clearly. A shock. A surprise development. An intervention like no other. That’s right: Humza Yousaf had to cough.
Now clearly Yousaf is a pro. You could see signs of the cough building on his face as he spoke. The slight hesitation. The gulp of air. The quick blink. With sports everywhere cancelled, watching Yousaf coughing in slow motion, over and over, is arguably the best entertainment in town.
It was a key moment in his career. He had just microseconds to react. And while poor technique will show up under pressure, this obviously wasn’t the man’s first cough. With one swift, fluid movement he turned and released it into his elbow. A second started to follow later but it didn’t even make it out of his larynx.
It was textbook World Health Organisation stuff – the sort of cough you’d be willing to show Jason Leitch – and even the solicitor general, sitting behind him, was unable to hide her admiration. It sent a lesson to coughs everywhere.
Of course, in normal circumstances, this would have been a golden opportunity for the opposition to try and score points. To try and poke holes in Yousaf’s cough technique. To claim his reaction was too slow. That his elbow was at the wrong angle. That the cough was another showy Scottish Government PR move and Yousaf should get on with the day job, and cough in his own free time.
But not here. Not now. There wasn’t a peep. Nothing. They nodded along.
In fact, there were good performances from all across the chamber. Andy Wightman, for example, spoke while wearing what appeared to be a flashing shirt, though it was unclear if this was a result of wearing block colours on parliamentary TV or a deliberate new look he’s cooked up during isolation.
It’s likely to be the former, but it would be nice to think the Green MSP – whose approach to fashion is probably best summed up as ‘peace-time Hobbit’ – has been spending his time working on a glamorous new style.
And of course, this is one of the concerns over social distancing and self-isolation – that politicians and commentators alike will become increasingly eccentric through a lack of social contact. People are worried we’ll start getting weird. That we’ll start fashioning clothes out of disco lights or write 296 words on Humza Yousaf’s approach to coughing.
These concerns may not be baseless. But routine is the key, and so it was reassuring to see Labour MSP James Kelly take to his feet and offer some reassurance, by approaching the debate in exactly the same way he always does everything – by droning on and on, with change in neither pace nor intonation, relentlessly.
“Never before have we seen such powers being passed in a day,” he said. “So, it is important that we look at not only the review timescale, but the process that underpins the reviews.”
It will clearly take a lot more than a global pandemic to force Kelly out of a monotone. Aliens could land and the man would still be speaking in a flat, numbing voice about the Scottish Government’s bungled relations with the extra-terrestrial community.
And so, in a way, there was hope, and in some ways it was nice to see them agreeing with each other. Just so long as it’s temporary.