Motions of no confidence in a government minister are a parliamentary weapon of last resort. Deploying them risks pushing the governing party into an entrenched position from which it refuses to budge.
Evidence of whether or not the minister concerned is guilty as charged becomes irrelevant as defence of the minister, however absurd his or her position may be, becomes its primary task.
Such was the case with the no confidence motion in Alex Neil as health secretary, debated and defeated by 67 votes to 57 at Holyrood yesterday. While the vote ostensibly clears Mr Neil to carry on in office, he still should reflect hard and consider whether he should resign. In deciding whether that is the right course of action, we have to ask three questions.
First, did he put his own personal interest as the MSP for Airdrie and Shotts above those of the wider question of the best way to provide the best service to NHS patients? This latter is what he, as health secretary, is supposed to consider, not the former. And yet Mr Neil insisted on keeping beds for acute mental services at Monklands Hospital, contrary to what health officials insisted was the “optimal” course of action for patients.
Second, did he as health secretary make a decision about the future provision of mental health services in Monklands while he also sought to give the public impression that he had nothing to do with it? Decisions in Scotland’s democracy are supposed to be made transparently and not behind curtains of obfuscation.
Third, did he give parliament a misleading impression of his involvement, or non-involvement, in the Monklands decision? Democratic politics can only function properly when those in power respond openly and honestly to legitimate questions and do not attempt to lead people away from the truth.
If he is guilty of any one of these charges, then he deserves to lose office. In fact he is guilty on all three counts.
The critical event is that three weeks after replacing Nicola Sturgeon, the previous health secretary, who had acted on advice that closure of the Monklands mental health unit would enable better provision in the Lanarkshire area, Mr Neil instructed NHS Lanarkshire to think again.
The evidence is in the e-mail then promptly sent by Mr Neil’s private office to the health department saying that the minister wanted the unit retained. NHS Lanarkshire was not asked to review the decision; it was just told to do it. This e-mail, however, did not emerge until 15 months later after it was forced out of the administration. Meantime, Mr Neil gave the impression he was not the decision-making minister.
This is not ministerial action on the best provision of NHS services, it is not transparent, and parliament was misled. Mr Neil should quit, and help restore the public’s damaged faith in parliamentary democracy.
Reformed character test
The Church of Scotland thought it had weathered the storm over the ordination of gay ministers. Senior figures in the Kirk believed last year’s General Assembly decision in principle to permit congregations to appoint gay clergy had been the defining moment on the issue, and that the Church could move on.
They were mistaken. Conservative elements in the Kirk yesterday staged a last-ditch effort to derail the new stance.
We have every sympathy with those who have struggled with this question. Trying to divine what they believe is God’s will on such a polarising question is an agonising process for people of faith.
Our view has consistently been that it would be a retrograde step for the Kirk in the 21st century to say only some categories of people can have a legitimate calling to be clergy.
Yesterday’s decision suggests that the majority of Kirk members are moving in that direction, which is welcome. Of course, the process is not over, and those who oppose it have made clear their intention of fighting it every step of the way.
This has been a bruising process and there will be more wounds inflicted yet. Departures of ministers, elders, individuals and even congregations, many to the Free Church of Scotland, will continue to happen.
That, however, is in the nature of a reformed faith, where individuals rather than just hierarchies have primacy. Reformation is a continuing process, not a single event.
The alternative to the choice that the Kirk has made – a national church which pushes a minority to the margins – would have been far worse.