Failings of the committee system are unlikely to be addressed by a Presiding Officer with such strong backing from the SNP
Sensible politicians should always wonder what the other lot are up to. Because the other lot are always up to something. Politics is not simply a matter of producing policies that might appeal to the electorate, important though this is. Politics is a contact sport and one’s opponents must be undermined at every available opportunity.
So opposition MSPs in the fifth session of the Scottish Parliament should have wondered last week what the SNP was up to. As members set about choosing a new presiding officer, it became clear that a fair number of nationalists were all for the coronation of Labour’s Ken Macintosh, once the MSP for Eastwood but now a list member in the West of Scotland after constituency defeat at the hands of Scottish Tory deputy leader Jackson Carlaw.
Macintosh led the field through round after round of voting, seeing off the two previous deputy presiding officers – Tory John Scott and Labour’s Elaine Smith – before overcoming heavyweight candidates, Johann Lamont of Labour and the Tory, Murdo Fraser.
Before the vote, the Macintosh camp had briefed heavily that their man had the backing of MSPs – including senior SNP figures – from across the parliament. It turns out Team Ken wasn’t bluffing.
But what was the SNP up to? Why did so many nationalists want Macintosh to replace Tricia Marwick, the former SNP MSP, as Presiding Officer?
A clue might be found in the briefing that followed Macintosh’s victory. The new Presiding Officer was going to take a cautious and pragmatic approach to reform; he did not share an opposition hunger for change.
This is hugely disappointing stuff.
The absence of a second chamber at Holyrood means parliament’s committees play – or should play – a crucial role in examining legislation and holding ministers to account for their plans. Bad laws should be winkled out and torn up while workable ones should be made better thanks to the rigour of a strong committee.
Unfortunately, the committees have not, in recent years, been at all competent. The SNP’s overall majority in the 2011 election allowed the party to chair and then dominate committees. Scottish Government legislation was, by and large, scrutinised by members of a party with a rule book that forbids dissent. Then there was the matter of the competence of some of those chosen to chair committees. Too often, it seemed that those scrutinising legislation neither understood it nor wished to address their own ignorance.
A particular low point came during a meeting of Holyrood’s European and External Relations Committee back in 2014 when witnesses were called to give evidence about the Scottish Government’s White Paper.
When Professor Adam Tomkins, chair of public law at Glasgow University, told committee members that it was his view parts of the document were legally incompetent, SNP MSP Willie Coffey – not, it is my duty to inform you, considered one of Holyrood’s great thinkers – began shouting him down.
It was an appalling scene that was soon to get worse. While Tomkins struggled to be heard over Coffey’s bombast, committee convener Christina McKelvie, of the SNP, shut off Tomkins’ microphone and brought his participation in proceedings to an end. McKelvie argued that she was empowered to do so when evidence was becoming “contentious”.
Tomkins’ evidence was “contentious” because SNP members didn’t like it, not because it was inaccurate.
So the Scottish Parliament’s committee system is in need of proper reform. Chairs should come from opposition parties, members should be loyal to the committee before the government, even when that might create tensions. Both Lamont and Fraser were acutely aware of this and launched their pitches for the role with pledges to change the system, to make ministers more accountable and committees more effective.
It was hardly surprising then, that Macintosh – a man whose talents were ignored by three consecutive Labour first ministers between 1999 and 2007 – emerged as the SNP’s favourite. The nationalists wanted Macintosh because they reckoned – wisely, I believe – that he’d cause them the least difficulty.
Macintosh has form for resisting change. Last year, during his second failed attempt to become leader of Scottish Labour, he told members that he would call a halt to procedural changes that were designed to remove deadwood MSPs from the party’s regional lists. Macintosh’s pitch to colleagues amounted to little more than a promise to go down with the ship.
Tomkins, once a victim of a Holyrood committee is now a Tory MSP for Glasgow. He is precisely the sort of person who should be chairing a major committee. If the SNP is allowed to ignore candidates of his calibre in favour of party hacks then none of us will be well served.
The SNP should not have anything to fear from the loss of dominance of the committees. While the party ran a majority government and the independence referendum was the focus of its attention, it suited ministers for committees to be toothless. The SNP had to appear completely infallible.
But the result of the 5 May election, which has forced the nationalists to, once more, form a minority government means the prospect of a second independence referendum in the next five years has all but evaporated. This being so, an SNP that now wishes to be judged on the quality of its governance should welcome stronger committees. A powerful, fearless committee doesn’t exist simply to pick apart plans, it is there to make better the legislation passed by MSPs.
The new presiding officer doesn’t just have the opportunity to make the government more accountable, he has a responsibility to do so. Reform is urgent; this is not the time for heels to be dragged.
After ensuring that neither Fraser nor Lamont got within a whisper of winning, the SNP is delighted to see Macintosh in the presiding officer’s chair. Opposition politicians of all parties – some of whom helped him to victory – should ask themselves why this is so.