Christine Jardine: ‘Rainbow Parliament’ has lost a lot of colour

Rosie Kane makes her oath to the people. Times have changed since 2003. Picture: PA
Rosie Kane makes her oath to the people. Times have changed since 2003. Picture: PA
Share this article
Have your say

IT WAS a casual remark by a current MSP after a recent debate on independence, which sparked the thought.

As she was lamenting what she described as the tribal politics of Holyrood, I wondered what had happened to the “Rainbow parliament” of which we had all been so proud.

Ten years ago this May the biggest and broadest selection of MSPs we have seen to date took their seats at Holyrood: six party groups and four singleton MSPs.

When you look at the breakdown of 2003, and compare it to 2013, it tells its own narrative of Scottish politics.

It reflects the move away from a diversity of debate and an administration built on compromise to confrontational politics dominated by an omnipresent issue: independence.

In 2003, the Labour Party had the biggest quota in the chamber with 50 seats, almost twice the SNP figure of 27. Then there were the Conservatives with 18 and the Liberal Democrats with 17.

But significantly that last figure was matched by the “others”.

The Greens had seven MSPs, the Scottish Socialists six, the Scottish Senior Citizens’ party had one and there were three independents: Dennis Canavan; Dr Jean Turner; and, of course, Margo MacDonald.

A decade later Margo is now the only independent and the Scottish Socialists and Citizens’ parties have disappeared completely from the roll call.

There’s been a significant change too in the balance of the other parties.

SNP and Labour are now so dominant that the three others – Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Greens – added together hold less than a fifth of the seats and fall far short of either of the big two.

And the SNP has that prize which we were led to believe would be impossible for any one party to attain: an outright majority.

Ten years ago I remember debates resplendent with different ideas and challenging questions. The chamber and everything that happened in it seemed to reflect the diversity of Scotland itself.

Who will ever forget the swearing-in of Rosie Kane and her “oath to the people” that mirrored the gritty uncompromising socialism which still prevails in parts of Glasgow and the West of Scotland.

Or the colourful presence of the Green Party’s Robin Harper, which reminded us daily that not everyone buys into the main parties’ vision of politics.

It seemed our parliament was a fulcrum of creative ideas and people.

And the idea of private bills and public petitions seemed to offer unprecedented access to the body politic for ordinary citizens.

Not so much these days.

Who can remember the last time a debate in the Scottish Parliament seemed to come directly from the public?

When was there last an issue raised that did not fit neatly into the agenda pursued by the main parties?

And when did we last have a First Minister’s Questions which did not descend into a showboating opportunity for the SNP leader in front of his loudly applauding followers.

Now it seems our parliament is dominated by the pursuit of a single idea and has lost its accessibility.

That change is not simply a presumption on my part but seems to be backed up by 
the facts available on the Scottish Parliament’s own website.

In its second session, between 2003 and 2007, there were nine private bills introduced, between 2007 and 2011 there were two, and so far this session none that I could find, although there is time yet.

But why and how did our parliament lose its broad base?

During the parliamentary election campaign of 2011 there was an understanding by most of the people I met, at hustings and on doorsteps while campaigning, that we would be returning a diversity of opinions to Holyrood.

We would likely return to coalition administration.

In the Highlands I shared platforms not just with the SNP, Conservative and Labour candidates but representatives of the Greens, the Scottish Christian Party and Ukip.

I know that standing elsewhere in Scotland were the Socialist Labour Party, Respect, Solidarity, even the Pirate Party.

Yet none of them achieved enough support for even a single list seat.

It would be too simple to say that the appeal of the SNP was so great and the Nationalists’ campaign so professional that it swept all before it.

Those were certainly factors, but not the only ones. If they had been, the change would have happened overnight at a single election.

Instead what we actually saw was the idea of the “Rainbow Parliament” reaching its peak in 2003 and declining at both of the subsequent elections.

In 2007 the remnants of Tommy Sheridan’s Socialists disappeared along with the Senior Citizens.

And in 2011 power became even more concentrated in the big two, SNP and Labour.

The common factor in those two elections was a huge increase in the number of smaller parties.

In 1999 and 2003 there had been only a handful of “alternative” views on offer.

By 2007 there were 26 of what could be called protest parties.

The alternative vote had become so splintered that there was no longer an opportunity for any of them to attract a substantial vote.

Cynics might argue that the period of the “Rainbow Parliament” was simply the novelty of a new electoral system and the chance to do something different.

Or some who were originally sceptical of devolution might go as far as to say that we didn’t know what the Scottish Parliament was capable of, maybe even didn’t take it seriously as a legislature.

Now we do.

But it’s not just that. Certainly our parliament at Holyrood now has a far more powerful voice than we originally imagined.

Michael Moore’s Scotland Act 2012 has delivered powers which will see Holyrood responsible for raising more of the money spent in Scotland through taxes levied in Scotland.

Most significantly, however, is that since 2007, and that original SNP minority administration, the debate has been increasingly dominated 
by Scotland’s constitutional future.

At that same debate in Dundee where I was first prompted to reminisce about the “Rainbow Parliament” the audience talked about the need to focus on social issues.

Many of us who observe the parliament would say that the government at Holyrood appears to have its eyes on only one prize: independence.

All other goals seem secondary.

Now that we know the date of the referendum there is little prospect of that changing. Certainly not for the next 18 months.

Perhaps once the dust has settled on the referendum, however, and we all turn our attention to the 2016 Holyrood elections, we might start to think again about what sort of parliament it is we want.

Do we really want another four years of one party, whichever party it might be, dominating the agenda and the direction we take?

Or will we look again for the prospect of a diversity of opinion, creative debate and constructive compromise that we saw in our early parliaments.

I hope so.