Veteran Nationalist Alex Neil’s example shows how MSPs’ duty as parliamentarians matters, writes Scott Macnab.
When the veteran Nationalist backbencher Alex Neil took it upon himself to tear a strip off bosses at the Scottish Police Authority last week, it was more than just the usual political knockabout.
The justified anger driving Neil’s line of questioning seemed to grip his colleagues on the public audit committee.
They railed against a culture of secrecy within the organisation and the whole event became one of those rare occasions at Holyrood, with Parliament exerting its authority over the executive of the day through one of its key organs of state – the police – and laying down a marker.
And it was happening in brutal terms. “You are not running the Kremlin,” Neil thundered. SPA chairman Andrew Flanagan cut a helpless figure as he sought to justify his decision not to share a letter with fellow board members from the head of the watchdog body which inspects Scotland’s new national police force.
The conduct itself may not seem such a cardinal transgression, but it called into question issues of openness and transparency which the organisation had already been widely criticised over. Neil raised concerns over a “secret society” at work in the SPA making decisions in private which are then nodded through in public.
Repeated attempts from Flanagan and his chief executive John Folley to claim they “do not recall” events surrounding the background to the episode were met with short shrift from the Airdrie and Shotts MSP who remarked: “There must be something wrong with memory around the SPA – everybody seems to have a bad memory.”
It was no surprise when Labour and Tory representatives on the committee joined the attack, but nationalist backbenchers Colin Beattie and Willie Coffey then ditched any notion of SNP cheerleading to join in the attack.
After years of criticism that Holyrood committees had lost their bite, this group of MSP had found their teeth again.
The real test will come when it is senior SNP ministers sitting in front of them answering questions on contentious issues. Would they be so brave if John Swinney was in their crosshairs?
Mr Neil’s uncompromising style last week could not be more different from the approach taken by the same committee towards the police three years ago. On that occasion we were left with the bizarre situation of having two versions of the same report being published into proposals which would bring about the create of one national force, Police Scotland.
The main report which had the endorsement of the SNP majority on the committee backed the proposals, while a second “minority report” was published by opposition MSPs which was altogether more critical of the change. It resulted in allegations that a culture of “slavishness” was developing among the SNP dominated committees.
This position came into focus again earlier this year when former First Minister Lord McConnell complained of a “non-challenging” approach from MSPs in Parliament making it “too easy to hide” for Government ministers they are supposed to be holding to account.
Political parties in Scotland had too much control over MSPs, if not at the expense of their duty to constituents, but in that equally important obligation as parliamentarians holding the government of the day to account. Backbenchers are quick to turn up the rhetoric when complaining about UK Government policy, such as the current anger over the “rape clause.”
But when a bit of steel is needed to defy the excesses of the Scottish Government, too many MSPs simply don’t speak up.
When was the last time a Scottish minister was forced to resign after being hauled over the coals by MSPs in Parliament?
It has not happened in almost two decades of devolution and Scotland must be unique around the globe in this respect. The committees were once seen as the “hidden strength” of Scotland’s devolved system of government, both in holding ministers to account and often setting the political agenda of the day through their own groundbreaking inquiries.
A decade ago when a crisis unfolded in Scotland’s justice system over the reliability of fingerprint evidence of Scotland’s forensics services, it was the justice committee at Holyrood which seized the moment with a lengthy inquiry revealing the extent of the flaws in the system which were still in place.
Similarly, Alex Salmond was left squirming after grillings by committees in Parliament when he was First Minister over his links, now famously soured, with US President Donald Trump over his Scots golf course and financial losses at The Gathering. The situation changed after the SNP won its majority in 2011, allowing the party to secure majorities on all committees and with it came a perception that criticism of ministers was distinctly less forthcoming. Compare this with Westminster where committees in the House of Commons have acquired a fearsome reputation in recent years.
Rupert Murdoch found himself “humbled” as he was called to give evidence over the phone hacking scandal, while BBC chiefs also found themselves hauled over the coals on the issue of executive pay. Bosses at Amazon, Google and Starbucks have also been left reeling after grillings over tax.
The last Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick sought to address the problem when she out proposals for committee chairs to be elected by blind ballots to ensure their independence and less control for party whips, but this was voted down – by MSPs themselves. But it seems her successor Ken Macintosh won’t take no for answer.
He has set up his own commission under the auspices of former BBC Scotland chief John McCormick aimed at creating more of a “distinct” identity for the Parliament in the mind of Scots. Mr Neil and Labour firebrand Neil Findlay have both complained to McCormick about the supine nature of their colleagues in the chamber.
But perhaps the example set by Mr Neil last week shows the issue at stake is not the way the system is set-up, but the attitude and determination of individual MSPs to hold the powerful to account come what may.