Change places: The MSPs standing down ahead of the 2021 elections
It feels much longer than six months since Ruth Davidson announced her resignation as Scottish Tory leader.
Her speech, confirming the news, was short and to the point, with press and broadcasters crammed into a small central Edinburgh hotel to watch as she explained it had been the “privilege of my life” to take charge of the party, but that “much had changed” since she had won the Scottish Conservative leadership.
“As I look to the future,” she said, “I see the Scottish election due in 2021 and a credible threat from our opponents to force a general election before then.
“Having led our party through seven national elections and two referenda, I know the efforts, hours and travel required to fight such campaigns successfully.
“I have to be honest that where the idea of getting on the road to fight two elections in 20 months would once have fired me up, the threat of spending hundreds of hours away from my home and family now fills me with dread. That is no way to lead.”
A media scrum followed, photographers fought for space, and Davidson slipped out a side door. Briefings to the lobby made it clear there was little chance of Davidson standing for election to the Scottish Parliament again.
I want to be able to spend more time with my family, to watch my son grow up and to be more involved in local issues, things I cannot presently do
Then, after backtracking on plans to go into a lucrative job in public affairs while sitting in parliament, reports emerged in February that the Edinburgh MSP was being lined up for a seat in the Lords, though Davidson herself has insisted while she is open to the idea, she still doesn’t know if she is in line for a peerage.
But for the rest of the Scottish Tory cohort, who are probably enjoying lower profiles than Davidson, this is a time to consider whether they would like to return to the Scottish Parliament after 2021, assuming the electorate gives them the opportunity.
It’s a difficult decision, with politicians expected to either commit fully to an exhausting, stressful and unpredictable job for five years, or drop out entirely, and several Scottish Tories are thought to be swithering, even if Peter Chapman is the only one, other than Davidson, to have confirmed to his party he will not run again.
The Tories do not have strict central deadlines – nor do the Lib Dems – and it will likely take until the summer before a true picture emerges of the MSPs who will attempt to retain their places, and those that will pursue different paths.
The Greens, in contrast, have already decided, with each of the party’s current MSPs now confirmed at the top of their respective lists, with the exception of John Finnie, who got in a couple of days before Davidson to offer clarity on his future plans.
He said: “Throughout my time in parliament, I’ve put my home region of the Highlands and islands and my constituents at the forefront of my work.
“Driven by my interest in social and environmental justice, I have been pleased to secure a number of concessions and legislative changes to improve the lives of people in the region.
“The climate emergency our planet is facing means that, more than ever, Green policies are required. I know there are others who can ensure they are promoted, and delivered, for my home, the Highlands and islands of Scotland.
“Meanwhile, I look forward to having more time to spend with my family.”
While the news he would stand down represented a blow for the Scottish Greens, few could begrudge the Highland MSP for feeling “the time is right to step aside and let others bring their energy and ideas to what is a demanding job”.
And there is, of course, a huge range of reasons for MSPs quitting. Neil Findlay, for example, was brutally frank in his reasoning, while announcing his decision last May. As he put it: “Today I resigned from my positions in the Scottish Labour Party – I will stand down from parliament at the election – there is a big world outside the Holyrood bubble, life is too short to be involved in endless internal battles with people who are supposed to be on the same side.”
It was an unusual statement, but then the Scottish Labour Party can, at times, operate according to a logic of its own.
Others, such as Mark McDonald – now an independent, but elected for the SNP – will have their own reasons for standing down. But for most, Finnie’s reasoning will surely have come closer to explaining their own decision-making.
The SNP declares earlier than most parties, with candidates expected to make a decision on their future plans by 20 March. As a result, a fairly lengthy list has already emerged of those who can confirm they will not contest the election.
And some are pretty unsurprising, with Stewart Stevenson, Michael Russell, Bruce Crawford and Richard Lyle all declaring their intention to leave parliament. The youngest of that list, Crawford, is 65 and would be 70 by the end of the next parliament.
The convener of the finance committee, and one of the SNP’s most highly rated backbenchers, Crawford is another whose presence will be missed by his party. The others, too, will leave gaps of experience.
Meanwhile, as Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, Mike Russell has held a critical position for the Scottish Government, both in terms of its response to Brexit and a possible second independence referendum.
Yet he too felt it was time to step down – from parliament, if not from public life. Russell said: “I will be 67 this summer and 72 at the end of the next Parliament.
“Argyll and Bute is a massive area to cover – with 23 inhabited islands and a large swathe of the mainland – and I am getting to the stage of thinking that someone younger would be better able to fulfil all the demands of the constituency.
“It is, I think, much better I say that now than wait for someone else to do so.”
Yet while Stevenson, Russell, Crawford and Lyle’s resignations will be significant for the future of the SNP – as well as Nicola Sturgeon’s cabinet – the news Gail Ross would stand down too came as far more of a surprise.
But, with one of the most remote constituencies in Scotland, and a child at home, Ross felt unable to continue to divide her time between Holyrood and home.
She had already called on the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee to examine the possibility of members attending meetings via video, and voting remotely, as a means of bridging the divide between her political and personal life. As her statement made clear, despite its credentials as a progressive, inclusive workplace, the parliament is not an easy place for those with family responsibilities. As she put it: “If we are to encourage into politics more young people with families who live far away from Edinburgh, this has to be considered.”
She said: “The decision has been reached due to the demands of travelling to Edinburgh and being away from home for sometimes five days a week, every week. I want to be able to spend more time with my family, to watch my son grow up and to be more involved in local issues, things I cannot presently do.
“The sheer size of the area I represent also means that I am having difficulty in reaching every part of the constituency on a regular basis and I am not able to represent my constituents in the way they deserve and rightly expect.”
She added: “It has not been an easy decision to make and I wish to sincerely thank everyone who has supported me in my journey through council and then parliament.
“It has been a huge privilege to represent the place where I grew up and although the job has sometimes been very challenging, these years have been some of the most rewarding of my professional career.”
And so, some have declared and some have yet to do so. Ahead of the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, 24 members announced they would stand down and not seek re-election, though it is likely more names will emerge in the coming months.
Russell, Stevenson, Crawford, Dornan and Lyle will likely be replaced by candidates from all-women shortlists, boosting women’s representation and potentially driving up the proportion of female MSPs beyond the current 35 per cent mark.
But while some leading figures may have stepped down, it seems unlikely they will disappear from the public eye altogether. Some, like Russell, plan to write – he has a special outdoor office for the task – while it seems unlikely that campaigners such as Findlay will not emerge in other avenues of public life.
Meanwhile, with questions over a potential second referendum continuing to dominate, some of the SNP figures leaving look likely to play new roles in any future independence campaign.
These figures have experience spanning from five to 20 years, and their presence will surely be missed, by their own colleagues and opposition parties alike.
The composition of the parliament, like Scotland’s politics, continues to operate in a state of flux.