Brian Wilson: Let dignity preside in parliament

Tricia Marwick calls the shots in the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood. Picture: Jane Barlow
Tricia Marwick calls the shots in the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THE incident which saw an MSP banned from Holyrood and the media furore does Scotland no favours, writes Brian Wilson

It WOULD be tempting providence to suggest, as some have done, that the Scottish Parliament reached its nadir last Thursday. There is still lots of potential.

The distinguishing feature was the announcement by the presiding officer, Tricia Marwick, that she was banning Michael McMahon MSP from the chamber for the rest of the day for showing “gross discourtesy and disrespect”.

Mr McMahon’s offence had been to shout “You’re out of order” in the direction of Ms Marwick. When she took exception to this, he responded: “I apologise” and Ms Marwick said: “Thank you”. End of matter? Not a bit of it, for this was Holyrood in all its pomp.

The following day, Ms Marwick summoned up the dignity of her office to assert that “I did not clearly hear what the member said at the time.” On that basis, she had second thoughts about accepting his apology and suspended him instead.

I became aware of this great contretemps only because it was lead item on the BBC Scotland news, having been adjudged the most important thing that happened in Scotland that day. If there was a Scottish Six, it could have been the most important thing that happened in the whole wide world.

After we had heard about a man being debarred from his place of work for a few hours, there followed such relative minutiae as a 14-year-old boy being stabbed and hundreds of families having been flooded out of their homes. We live in a wee place with very odd wee values.

I was reminded of the late Matt McGinn’s classic The Red Yo-Yo, in which an exceptionally trivial matter (the unfortunate loss of wee Annie’s red yo-yo) is treated as a matter of exaggerated importance (the police were concerned when the story they learned and they set all their murders aside/the whole of the force was alerted of course, and they went on the telly and cried…”

The problem is that, whereas Matt McGinn was sharing a laugh, Ms Marwick was entirely serious. Disappointingly, our Makar was not on hand to reflect upon this major constitutional event. So I consulted my old friend Hugh Jordan and we have come up with a few verses to mark the occasion:

That man frae Bellshill

He near made Trish ill;

In frustration Mick almost did curse

About SNP mystics

Wi’ phoney statistics,

An example of Holyrood’s worst!

You can deceive or lie,

Trish will turn a blind eye

Or even shout “go on yersel’ ”

But bawl “out of order”

Ye’ll be oot in the corridor

Or might even end up in a cell

There’s lots more but I’ll spare you. Hugh is a journalist (and balladeer) in Belfast, and he told me that there was also the threat last week of a Northern Ireland Assembly member being suspended. The circumstances were that he had objected to a convicted murderess being appointed as special adviser to the Sinn Fein culture minister.

Even in the parallel universe of Holyrood, it might be appreciated that a rather more genuine moral dilemma was at stake than the lèse-majesté of an MSP shouting at Ms Marwick: “You’re out of order.” But the interesting contrast lies in the procedure followed.

The Northern Ireland Assembly voted on whether the assembly member should be suspended, and decided that he should not. As Jim Sillars has pointed out in these columns, no serious legislature behaves in the way the Scottish Parliament did last week, effectively allowing Ms Marwick to act unilaterally out of retrospective pique.

Not even the MP who described the current Speaker of the House of Commons as a “sanctimonious dwarf” was thrown out by the object of that observation. In fact, the only MP I remember being ejected for “gross discourtesy and disrespect” was Leith’s finest, Ron Brown – and he really had to work at it. Even then, MPs had a vote on the matter.

Why does Holyrood so often operate as low-grade farce? Events of the past few weeks offer a few clues. The current crop of ministers, and particularly the First Minister, treat it simply as a platform from which to broadcast their propaganda with minimal regard for detail or accuracy. And, until now, they have never been called to account.

The occupant of the Chair must be beyond reproach in any chamber and it is Ms Marwick’s problem that she has difficulty qualifying for that status. The unfortunate fact is that the party for which she had been an uncritical loyalist, the SNP, used their majority to anoint her at a time when any regard for consensual working would have pointed elsewhere.

First Minister’s Question Time – the only bit of Holyrood that most people occasionally see – is a grim joke run entirely along the lines demanded by Alex Salmond. Questions are treated as no more than prompts for him to shout political abuse at his opponents. His answers typically run to between 300 and 400 words each. He is never stopped by the presiding officer and told to keep it brief. She wouldn’t dare.

To be fair, the questions aren’t much punchier. Labour’s Johann Lamont normally runs to between 200 and 300 words per shot. The net result is a series of over-wordy harangues being met with even longer rants and smart-Alex put-downs. Last Thursday, only two MSPs other than party leaders got the chance to ask questions. It is a travesty, throughout which Ms Marwick might as well not exist.

One of the many dubious claims made for Holyrood was that it would be a less confrontational forum than Westminster. Now we are told that this has been put on hold for two years because of the referendum. That strikes me only as yet another argument against the absurdity of waiting two years for a referendum.

On a more optimistic note, it is worth recalling that Matt McGinn’s cheerful nonsense song – I doubt if he ever meant it to be an insightful satire – ended on a happy note: “when finally Annie announced that her granny had bought her another yo-yo”.

Let us hope, in the same spirit, that Santa will bring Ms Marwick a more effective gavel.