Back to the floor
There is, without doubt, a great deal of prestige attached to serving in the job as Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament.
But by taking on the high-profile job, MSPs have to put aside, in public at least, their own political allegiances and agendas.
It is no surprise then, that what Alex Fergusson most looked forward to as he returned to regular parliamentary duty after last year’s elections, was being able to take the floor in the Holyrood chamber and debate matters once more, particularly when discussing rural issues.
The chance to speak up for rural Scotland is what first brought the former sheep farmer to politics, first as a South of Scotland list MSP, then representing Galloway and Upper Nithsdale and now the altered constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries.
“I came to this Parliament because I wanted to be able to speak up on rural issues,” he said, “and there is a slight frustration when you’re sitting in the chair of the Parliament – particularly in rural debates – and you hear other members talking about something that, if you were sitting in the benches you would be trying to intervene, or point out why you didn’t think that they were talking a great deal of sense.”
He adds: “There is an element of frustration about that, although I didn’t find it terribly difficult.” However, he says: “What I am enjoying is just being able to take part again in these debates, being able to make the points on behalf of what I perceived were the best interests of rural Scotland but also my constituents as I do so.” It is possible, he says, to raise these issues while still in that position, but only behind the scenes, never publically.
Fergusson became the Parliament’s third PO in 2007, after the election that saw the SNP form Scotland’s first minority government. He had hesitated before putting himself forward, because he had just been given an “enormous vote of confidence” by the voters, taking his slim 99-vote majority, to a more healthy 3,333.
“I was just delighted to be back in the Parliament because I had assumed I might not be, given the national trend of politics. “The whole swing was towards the Scottish National Party. I had no notion, genuinely, and no idea that I might even think of being offered the role of Presiding Officer, or being asked to put my name forward, until after the election.
He adds: “It wasn’t so much a reluctance to take on the job, it was a reluctance to be seen possibly saying to my constituents, ‘Thanks for [the] vote of confidence for returning me into Parliament, but I’m off now to live in Edinburgh and I’ll see you in four years’ time.’”
But after consulting with his predecessor George Reid, people in his constituency and his own team, he decided it would be possible to take on both roles. “The fact I got back into Parliament again, although with a very different boundary this time, suggests I didn’t entirely fail.” This current batch of MSPs is the fourth since devolution. Each one has been overseen by a different PO, something which Fergusson sees as a positive.
He says he is pleased to have broken an invisible barrier, by being the first to stand again as a regular member of the Parliament.
“I think what I have achieved by standing again successfully is to break what was in danger of becoming a tradition that you did four or five years as Presiding Officer and then rode off into the sunset.
“Had that become a tradition, I think it would have been a bad one, because in a parliament of only 129 people that’s quite confining. I hope one day somebody will stand again as an MSP and then stand again as Presiding Officer and do two terms.” He speaks with genuine passion about his time as PO and says: “It was a massive privilege and I loved it. But four years was enough and I felt that was right for me.” His successor as PO is Tricia Marwick, picked from the ranks of the ruling SNP, but she has since proved not averse to pulling up members of her party for not following parliamentary rules.
Fergusson says she has put “her own stamp” on the role and has the interests of the Parliament at heart, but said it was not helpful for predecessors to make comment or pass judgement.
Now that Fergusson is his party’s spokesman on Rural Affairs, Environment and Climate Change, a huge and varied brief, he says that the current government is doing a “reasonable job” for rural Scotland.
“I always felt that compared to a Labour-run government, the SNP would do a comparatively good job on rural matters, because it has a much broader base of support across Scotland and much of that support came and still does come from rural Scotland.
“I thought in the period of minority government they did a pretty good job. That is not to say I agree with everything they have done or are doing, but I am not going to stand here and say they have made a bad job of rural issues. They haven’t.” However, he says there are issues, many of which will be coming up before his committee, that show there is room for improvement; one is the government strategy on land use.
“The forestry industry is hugely important in Scotland nowadays,” he says. “It’s very modern, it’s very competitive, there’s been a lot of investment made to put our sawmills and our whole production sector right up there in Europe with the best that there is. Yet, we have a production gap that suggests we’re very close to the peak of our commercial forestry production.
In other words, the planting has completely failed to keep up over the last 25 to 30 years.
“What that whole woodland argument encapsulates is increasingly intense competition that there is for use of Scotland’s land. Do we major on food production, biomass, timber production, wind development? How do you fit all these things together? We have a land-use strategy that is great in principle, but like many principles, not the easiest thing in the world to deliver.
“If I have a criticism of the Scottish Government it is that it is very quick to promote and publicise targets, across the board of anything that you care to mention – carbon capture, renewable energy, forestation, food production. But they are all competing, and where I have difficulty with the Government’s strategies is how they all come together and how you deliver them because I’m not sure it can be done. “I think a lot of it ends up being rather aspirational and eventually the lid has to come off that pot.” One of his big concerns is ensuring that rural Scotland is given a fair deal.
This year Stranraer was rated by a Scottish Agricultural College survey as the fourth most vulnerable place in Scotland and has recently lost its ferry port to nearby Cairn Ryan.
While he says it has been good news for local jobs that Stena have stayed within Loch Ryan rather than moving further afield, there needs to be action taken to help Stranraer in particular and he has raised the issue in Parliament.
He highlights particularly the “abysmal” transport infrastructure on the 98 miles between Gretna Green and Stranraer and says that, while there has been progress made by the SNP, it has been “incredibly slow”.
Broadband too is a big issue and he wants to see more effort to improve connections to rural areas.
He adds: “What worries me about that corner of my constituency is that it is very remote.
Stranraer is very remote, Wigtownshire is very remote and we are not connected in the way the Borders is so closely connected to Edinburgh.
“There is a lot of economic flow from Edinburgh to the Borders but we don’t get that flow from Glasgow, we’re too remote, we’re too far away.
“I think we accept the fact that in Wigtownshire, Toyota aren’t going to come in and put a car factory in Newton Stewart, he said: “Nobody is coming over the hill on a white charger to save the economy.
“We are very dependent on small and medium-sized enterprises – individuals setting up small, web-based businesses to kick start that economy. They are there and willing to do it, but they’re less willing to do it when they find that three days out of five they lose their internet connection.”
Ultimately for him there is no better place to live than in rural Scotland, as long as they are not put at an “unfair” disadvantage.
“Rural Scotland still provides the most wonderful working environment, a wonderful work-life balance and, given the right opportunities, people will flock to live and work there and I think we should be doing everything we can to try to encourage that.”