Return of the Mac: a view of the Scottish Parliament from retiring presiding officer Ken Macintosh
As the veteran Labour MSP Ken Macintosh left the count at Williamwood High School in Clarkston in the early hours of 6 May 2016, the father-of-six believed that having been first elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, he, like many of his Scottish Labour colleagues, was now out of a job. Kicked out by the electorate.
Then at 4.45am, just a couple of hours after Macintosh had watched Conservative MSP Jackson Carlaw snatch from him the Eastwood seat he had held for the past 17 years, came confirmation that Labour’s Jackie Baillie had held the seat of Dumbarton, albeit with the smallest majority in all of Scotland’s 73 constituency seats.
That little bit of election news changed everything for Macintosh because the Scottish Parliament’s list system meant Baillie’s win pushed Macintosh, who had been fourth on the West of Scotland list, into third place and returned him to the Scottish Parliament.
He chuckles as he recounts a text he received soon after his return was confirmed. ‘We didn’t quite keep Ken for East Ren but we did Return the Mac,’ it read, a reference to his internet busting, carpool karaoke-style video that he had released as his official campaign track a few weeks before polling day that saw him singing along to the 1996 Mark Morrison chart-topper.
It was a little bit of toe-tapping levity in what had been a grim election for Labour which saw them beaten into third place by Ruth Davidson’s Conservative party.
The inquest began swiftly, as Kezia Dugdale – who had beaten Macintosh just nine months earlier to be the Labour leader – faced endless questions on whether her job was safe and who might be the next leader of a party that had been in slow decline.
Macintosh’s attentions, however, were already elsewhere.
“There is no doubt about it that the election itself was the trigger, in the sense that I went from constituency to the list,” he says, on his decision to then put his name forward to be the next presiding officer and by necessity, leave party politics.
“And just being frank about it, that kind of election result makes you reassess what you have to offer, what your contribution can be, and while I’d always been a Labour parliamentarian, I’d always been somebody who works across [the divide].
“I don’t hate other politicians. I don’t hate other MSPs. Quite the reverse, I’ve always wanted the best for this place, I have always wanted all MSPs to be giving their best.”
Macintosh was duly elected to be the fifth presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament – the first Labour member in that role – and having relinquished his political party membership to take on the post, he says it has given him a very different view of politics. Not all of it positive.
“It is remarkable, actually, the sort of overview it gives you. You are literally sitting in a different seat, above the chamber, you are no longer in a political party, you are impartial, and it does give you a different perspective, for good and bad.
“In terms of observations, there are one or two things I would point to immediately.
“So, the parliament, as an institution, has lots of checks and balances and so on, which I believe are working very effectively, but it operates within a political system, and it’s a party system.
“Now, you know that in the 22 years of the Scottish Parliament, there have only ever been two independent MSPs elected to parliament, Margo MacDonald and Dennis Canavan, everybody else has been in one political party or other when elected.
“True, in that second session, we had some very small political parties, but in the main, everybody’s been in a major political party.
“The people of Scotland vote for political parties, and that is because they are practical vehicles to get things done.
“But the party system and the domination of the party system was something that perhaps was not foreseen, and is something that the parliament itself just has to live with and adjust to and so on, but as a result, the tribalism, the division, the febrile nature of things, which I believe we’re currently living through at the moment, is at its worst, certainly in my lifetime.
“Yes, we’ve certainly had divisions in the past, no doubt about it, but I think at the moment, it sort of pervades so many different aspects of the way we conduct our politics, you’re either for or against something, you’re always being asked to take different sides, and so compromise, nuance, interpretation, you know, discussion, rational agreement, are pushed to one side when it becomes more about, ‘are you with us or against us?’
“I can tell you that on a day-to-day basis, it means that I have to temper what I would be willing to accommodate in terms of behaviour in the chamber.
“So if you think about the most high-profile role I have – of chairing plenary debates, chamber debates - I would like, if we were to start from scratch, if we had no past history, and no current expectations, I would like to say that people should never make personal remarks, that we should try and be as fair-minded, and objective, and as collegiate, as possible, in our discussion.
“Having said that, I do accept you should be challenged, I accept the need for robust debate. I’m not saying that consensus is always the answer. Sometimes you just must reach a decision.
“So, it should be robust, but not personal and so on.
“The difficulty now is that it’s exaggerated by several factors, including the fact that we’re coming up to an election, so that heightens the political temperature.
“There’s a lot at stake. And in this context, the expectation is that you must allow a little bit of leeway when passions run high and I am slightly more accommodating of some of the slightly angrier, if I may say, outbursts than I would normally be.
“It’s not because I think it’s good, it’s just that my job is not, as some people think, to put people back in their place and suppress bad behaviour, it is to encourage people to express themselves and to allow them to express themselves and to have that full debate.
“The difficulty with that, of course, is that sometimes they’ll get carried away and at the moment, because the political temperature is up and because we’re living in a world where, on social media, people say things to each other they would never really say in person, that can creep over into chamber debates.
“But it’s not like I’m sitting here with a bunch of rowdy children to control, it is quite the reverse. The parliament is full of passionate, but, for the majority, very respectful adults.
“What I’m suggesting is that the division now can come out in slightly over-personalised remarks, slightly angrier in terms of the tone of debate, than perhaps I would wish for.
“The real problem is the fact that people are being more governed by their feelings than by recognising that actually, we’re engaged in a common endeavour here.
“We’re all trying to create, you know, a better country, formulate what is the sort of future Scotland we want to live in, how do we improve life for our kids and for everyone.
“We’re all engaged in that common pursuit so surely, we can do so rationally or courteously, rather than in this, ‘they’re evil, they’re against us, they’re wrong, they’re the enemy’ kind of language?
“It’s just so defeating, it defeats all of us, and I think it scares the public as well, it puts them off politics and that is not what this place should be about.”
Macintosh is a nice man. Too nice, perhaps, for the current febrile nature of politics. Indeed, that was the one criticism I heard about him when he stood unsuccessfully to be the leader of the Scottish Labour Party back in 2015. He was even nice in defeat.
Macintosh and his wife, Claire, were both successful television producers with the BBC and had been living in London for 11 years before they came back to Scotland in 1997 to work for the broadcaster.
And while he had been a long-time and active member of the Labour Party, he had never harboured any real political aspirations, and certainly not to stand for Westminster.
“It was really only the Scottish Parliament that made me think about standing.
“I’d been a party member for, at that point, 17 years, and I’d gone to London to work for the BBC thinking I’d go for maybe two years and ended up being there for 11 but spent ages trying to get back to Scotland.
“I finally got back to Scotland with the BBC and then two and a half years [later], the parliament came along and, well, the rest is history.
“I’ve now been through all five sessions of the parliament from 1999 and each had their own distinct character.
“And if I may say so, the character was shaped predominantly by the electoral arithmetic.
“I really don’t think you can get away from the fact that those early years were coalitions between Labour and the Lib Dems.
“The second one was that rainbow parliament with six parties there. We then had a minority in 2007.
“These times really shaped the nature and tone of the political discourse, when parties had to work with each other to get things done.
“And then, of course, we had this huge majority, not huge, but a majority in 2011, and in this parliament, too, we’ve got a minority but it’s a very large minority. It changes the political discourse.
“I think probably the most unexpected part of this session, is that it has been shaped by events.
“So, six weeks after the 2016 election, there was the Brexit referendum, then we had the Me Too movement, then we have had the pandemic.
“So if you think about all the politicians coming in to this session and what they wanted to have at the top of their agenda, things like, well, the First Minister wanted to tackle education, and lots of colleagues would say the climate crisis and the environment were the things that we should be dealing with, or tackling poverty, imagine, after all these years, still having to struggle with poverty in a country like ours, – all those agendas got knocked down by events.
“The Me Too movement was a wake-up call to all of us, Mandy, and I think that many of us, and I’ll be honest with you, thought it didn’t apply to us.
“I mean, I’ve always loved coming to the parliament, it’s one of the most supportive environments to work in, the people here are really switched on and there’s so few people here who just come to do their job, it’s about something else, a passion.
“An awful lot of people just go to work to earn the money to pay the bills and all the rest of it and it’s just something to be tolerated.
“The parliament is full of people who are utterly committed, they’re here with a purpose, they know they’re doing something fulfilling.
“It’s a public service they are providing, and it’s a very safe one with lots of very open-minded people here because it started on such a high note of diversity in terms of gender equality.
“We were very proud of our pioneering role in terms of women’s equality.
“So, the Me Too movement was a wake-up call to us all and I suppose the disappointment is that this institution, of which we’re so proud, is just as vulnerable as the rest of society to our prejudices and behaviours and bigotry.
“So, while we like to think of ourselves as progressive people, open-minded, very tolerant, that’s to deny the prejudices we’re brought up with.
“If you’re brought up in a sexist society, and we live in a sexist world, you will have all sorts of ingrained attitudes that you actually have to constantly challenge and you won’t even recognise them half the time.
“And that was what Me Too did, it woke us up to that and it shone a light on us, which was a bit uncomfortable, but it was good. It was good to do that.
“No institution was immune and however painful, we have all learned from it.”
One dramatic consequence of the Me Too movement has been played out in the parliament in the deliberations by the committee set up following the Scottish Government’s botched handling of complaints made about the former first minister, Alex Salmond.
And Macintosh is sensitive to the fact that the parliament itself has been criticised during that inquiry, with members of the committee being accused of weaponising the women at the heart of the complaints for political advantage, with the parliamentary body accused of kowtowing to legal pressure from the Crown Office to remove submissions from its website, and the committee itself frustrated in its attempts to access the facts.
Indeed, the whole affair has led to questions being raised in the House of Commons about the need for the Scottish Parliament to have more powers to hold the government to account.
“Nobody, as far as I can see, no institution involved in this investigation has come out of this undamaged,” says Macintosh.
“It’s a combination of so many factors, but I suppose the scale of what’s at stake, the elections that are imminent, the profile of some of the protagonists at the heart of this, there’s an incredible political heat around what’s happening.
“There’s also a lot of frustration around because it’s overlapping with a court case in which there are still contempt of court orders.
“Everybody has been criticised, one way or another, some of them more justified than others, but all of it is damaging.
“I think the parliament has been quite unfairly criticised, but that said, I recognise that nobody has come out of this very well.”
Macintosh says that it has been Brexit, COVID, the Me Too movement and the subsequent fallout from the Salmond complaints that have shaped this fifth session but being the optimist, he pulls out positives from it all.
He points to the common endeavour to get through the pandemic and the success at the way parliamentarians have responded to remote working. And as the fifth session draws to a close, so too does Macintosh’s political career.
“Once you have been presiding officer, there is no going back to party politics,” he says.
“I did not enter politics to be the presiding officer, you know, I came in to shake things up, to change things, to be able to go out there and speak my mind on behalf of the people and of course, I entered the parliament in 1999 and it was a time of incredible hope about what the world could hold for us.
“It felt like we really were on the brink of a new dawn and when the parliament came in, the whole country got behind the parliament, the weather was gorgeous, everything felt optimistic and positive for the future.
“It’s the classic case of, on one hand, it’s passed in a flash, and the other, actually, it’s not, it is 22 years.
“My oldest son was born on the first of May 1999 and I was elected on the sixth of May, five days later, so he’s now about to turn 22.
“So, that whole generation, and for all my kids, they have not known anything other than the Scottish Parliament.
“And yes, it has changed, it has quite clearly changed, but I certainly believe it has absolutely fulfilled, and never lost sight of, its early promise of offering a new way for Scotland to take control of her own affairs to become a more self-confident, progressive liberal country.
“I think it absolutely has delivered on that.”