Spotlight: Does the parliament of Scotland finally look a bit more like Scotland?
On the surface, little has changed. Parliament looks much the same as it did after the 2016 election.
Despite the weeks of televised debates, the millions of leaflets pushed through letterboxes, the swanky digital billboards, the stunts, the dances, the photo ops, just three of the country’s 73 constituencies changed hands.
But this is not the same parliament. There are 42 new and newish faces entering Holyrood this session, 43 if you count Douglas Ross, who was first elected in 2016 but left for Westminster a year later.
That’s roughly a third of all MSPs. There were more new and newish faces in 2016, but there is something different about this cohort.
After 22 years, Scotland’s parliament, arguably, is starting to reflect a little bit more the demographics that make up Scotland.
Notable firsts include Labour’s Pam Duncan-Glancy a permanent wheelchair user. Parliament’s youngest member, the SNP’s Emma Roddick, lives with a borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
We finally have Holyrood’s first women of colour, the SNP’s Kaukub Stewart (pictured above) and the Tories’ Pam Gosal – who also happens to be the first Sikh MSP.
In all, there are six BAME politicians in the chamber – three times as many as there were in the last session.
“Parliament certainly looks more representative of Scotland’s population, which has taken far too long,” Talat Yaqoob, the co-founder of Women 50:50 told Holyrood.
A more representative parliament, could, she added, help “deliver better policies that work for communities who are usually ignored or excluded, particularly women.”
In the last parliament, there were 84 male and 45 female MSPs. In this session, there’s now 71 men and 58 women.
Progress, though not quite equality.
“We still have many communities including black communities who have never had visible representation in our parliament,” Yaqoob said: “So there is a long way to go yet and we cannot take progress for granted.”
Because there is no shortage of work for the SNP government, now entering its 14th year in office, likewise, there will be no shortage of work for the MSPs holding them to account.
The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on our schools, businesses, and across our key sectors including tourism.
The catching up necessary in our health service alone is staggering. At the end of June 2020, 8,913 people had been on hospital waiting lists for a year or longer. By December, it was 39,001.
Then there is Scotland’s shameful drug-death rate. Nicola Sturgeon’s admission during the campaign that she took her eye off the ball was stark. She won’t be allowed to do so again.
We also have the delayed COP26, now coming to Glasgow in November – the enormity of which is unlike anything Scotland has ever seen.
One official told Holyrood it had “the potential to be the defining moment of Scotland’s recent history”.
There are also some tough decisions ahead for our MSPs, including those delayed from the last parliamentary session.
Plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act, which proved controversial before, could get an easier ride from the new chamber.
This parliament – and the SNP benches – are almost certainly less critical of the Scottish Government’s self-ID proposals.
But the one topic that will dominate this session, as it did the campaign, is indyref2.
If the vote showed anything, it is that Scots are utterly split down the middle on the constitutional question.
Pro-independence parties, the SNP, Greens and Alba, took a combined vote share of 50.1 per cent on the list ballot, but 49 per cent on the constituency.
However, there is a pro-independence majority in the parliament. The SNP and Greens take up 72 seats, while the pro-UK parties are on 57.
In her victory speech, Nicola Sturgeon said it was clear Scotland had voted for independence.
When the crisis has passed, she promised, it would be time to give “people in Scotland the right to choose their future.”
In a phone call to the Prime Minister, she said the question of a new referendum was now “when, not if”.
The SNP plan is to again request a Section 30 order from the UK Government to devolve the powers necessary to allow a legally watertight vote.
If, as expected, Downing Street rejects that request, the Scottish Government will introduce and pass a bill so that the “necessary arrangements for the referendum can be made and implemented.”
If passed in Holyrood, the UK Government would then have four weeks to launch a legal challenge against the vote.
If they don’t, the vote is legal and goes ahead.
If they do, and the Supreme Court rules against them, the vote is legal and goes ahead.
If they do, and the Supreme Court rules in their favour, the vote is illegal and doesn’t go ahead, and the UK Government then has to explain why they’ve kiboshed the referendum.
Will ministers in London take the Scottish Government to court? The answer, so far, has been vague.
Michael Gove dismissed the issue as an “abstract debate”.
Asked specifically if the UK Government would take legal action, Gove said: “I’m not getting into the whole question of court and litigation and all the rest of it, because if we start theorising in the area then we are sucking oxygen out of the room when we should all be concentrating on recovery.”
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross ran a campaign focused nearly exclusively on the constitution. Despite holding on to his 31 MSPs, the whispers about his leadership started quickly.
Much of the criticism was aimed at the negativity of his approach. Tory MSP Liz Smith urged her colleagues to adopt a more upbeat five-year strategy, which would include the party being “stronger on positive ideas about education, health, transport, environment and local government.”
Meanwhile, the Labour benches, notable over the last decade for tearing chunks out of each other, seem to have come out of this election in a much more comradely fashion –despite losing two MSPs.
After some decent personal polling, and a general feeling of a campaign gone well, Anas Sarwar looks set to be far more supported – or at least briefed against less – than Richard Leonard or Kezia Dugdale.
Both the Tories and Labour could have easily been an seats down. Their respective wins on the Glasgow list and the South of Scotland list could have been delivered by a fake party, set up by a BNP linked group, that managed to take in votes meant for the Scottish Greens.
Independent Green Voice had no campaign and no online presence. They existed solely on the ballot paper. They won 2,210 votes in Glasgow and 1,690 in the South of Scotland.
Polling expert Mark Diffley told Holyrood that if all those votes had gone to the Scottish Greens, they’d have been two seats.
The Scottish Greens are fizzing. They’ve said the Electoral Commission has serious questions to answer over “blatant electoral deceit”.
While the constitution may have dominated the campaign, the two new political parties set up exclusively to campaign for and against independence were annihilated.
George Galloway’s All For Unity took in just 23,299 votes, less than one per cent.
Alex Salmond’s Alba polled 44,913 votes, a meagre 1.7 per cent.
Despite the low support, Alba insists the theory behind their existence has been proved.
1,094,374 Scots voted for the SNP on the regional ballot, and yet the party returned just two list MSPs.
Had they voted SNP 1, Alba 2, the former first minister’s party could have won 31 seats, they claim.
The problem for voters, it seems, was the messenger. Salmond’s popularity, even among independence supporters, has hit the floor. According to the Lord Ashcroft poll published earlier this month by Holyrood, the former FM is even less popular than Boris Johnson.
Salmond insists Alba will go on and will fight next year’s council elections. We may not have seen the last of him and his bonnets.
However, it is his old protégé who has come out of this campaign triumphant.
That’s quite something given that less than two months ago there was a real possibility she was very nearly forced out of office.
The First Minister’s position is now arguably the most secure it has ever been. •