Tom Peterkin: Tribal Holyrood is no laughing matter

The Scottish parliament building at Holyrood. Picture: Kenny Smith/TSPL
The Scottish parliament building at Holyrood. Picture: Kenny Smith/TSPL
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SCANNING across a bookcase recently, my eyes alighted on an autobiography written by an aristocratic Scottish secretary of a bygone era – James Stuart, Viscount Stuart of Findhorn.

Throughout his life, Stuart moved in exalted circles. As a young man, he was a suitor of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. As his memoirs Within the Fringe recall, he also introduced the future Queen Mother to her husband, the future King George VI, at the first ever RAF ball at the Ritz in 1921.

As an equerry to the then Prince Albert, one would expect Stuart, who became chief whip in Churchill’s wartime government and chairman of the Scottish Unionist Party, to do his share of hobnobbing with the toffs. What was surprising to this reader was his “genuine personal friendship” with Red Clydesider James Maxton of the Independent Labour Party. Apparently, Stuart appreciated Maxton’s off-colour jokes. Or as they were described by Sir Alec Douglas-Home in his foreword to the book – the “revolutionary” Maxton’s “smoking-room stories unfit for the public ear”.

No doubt, their shared interest in ribaldry (and golf) smoothed a friendship between two people with deeply opposing views and backgrounds. Stuart had won a military cross with bar in the trenches. Maxton was jailed for six months for his anti-war attitude and pacifism. They had both shown courage in different ways and there was a mutual admiration.

“Maxton was a truly beautiful speaker who could, at will, reduce the House [of Commons] to silence or tears, rouse to anger or laughter. He never used a note, but he possessed the gift of true oratory,” wrote Stuart. Churchill was also an admirer of Maxton. Stuart remembered an incident after a speech by the Red Clydesider marking the death of Mr Speaker Fitzroy when one great orator recognised another.

“Winston Churchill turned to me on the front bench and said, ‘I wish I could do that’. He then walked across to the bench below the gangway opposite to congratulate him.”

Just down the road from Stuart’s ancestral home, Moray House – now part of Edinburgh University – lies the Scottish Parliament. Some firm friendships must exist across the constitutional divide that splits the Scottish political scene. But they are hard to detect in the frenzied tribal atmosphere that now characterises Holyrood. Politicians across the parties do occasionally drink together in the parliamentary bar. However, seasoned observers have formed the impression that the SNP’s comprehensive victory in 2011 has entrenched political divisions at the expense of camaraderie. Labour MSPs, embittered by the scale of their defeat, are reluctant to mix with the SNP. Similarly, the Nationalists do not feel the need to socialise with Labour. Perhaps the presiding officer should organise a Maxton-style dirty joke-telling session to encourage a bit more cross party mingling.