Parliaments have many duties. To be the forum where people’s voices are heard. The place where the government is held to account. An arena for the debate of ideas.
By any measure, I have to say with regret as a Scottish parliamentarian that our institution has not fulfilled its duties in recent times, or been allowed to fulfil them. For the people to respect our parliament, those elected to it must respect it too, and I fear the current Scottish Government does not. They seem to regard our parliament as something to be negotiated through, rather than negotiated with.
Take the deposit return scheme. There is no question that at some point we are going to have one, and that it will be UK-wide. It will be a good thing, too. But the Scottish Government’s attempt to create one has been an expensive fiasco which, we understand from the minister responsible, Lorna Slater, could be dropped this month. She will doubtless blame Westminster rather than admit her own failings.
But at every turn when Ms Slater has appeared at Holyrood, she has not taken her appearances as an opportunity to garner support, or explain her position. She has instead sought to tell us that the scheme she may be about to scrap is going swimmingly.
The words of John P Mackintosh are inscribed in the Scottish Parliament that “it is not beyond the wit of man to devise the institutions” to meet the demands of the Scottish people. Yet it would appear to be beyond the wit of Ms Slater and her colleagues to devise a deposit return scheme.
The idea of the Scottish Parliament was to bring power closer to the Scottish people, yet Ms Slater seems remote from the people, or indeed from reality. I doubt that the Scottish Parliament will be allowed to do the job it was set up to do and properly scrutinise why she failed.
The Gender Recognition Reform Bill is very similar. Opinion polls show that most Scots believe that people should have the freedom to live their lives as they wish. That is one of the things that makes Scotland an innately welcoming and civilised place. But polls also show that most of us do not believe men should have the power to declare themselves women. The gender bill is out of step with Scottish public opinion, yet its defenders will tell you it was the most consulted-on piece of legislation the Scottish Parliament has ever passed, as is if process establishes principle.
Scotland was renowned for building the finest ships in the world. Now we cannot build even two ferries. The yard ‘saved’ by the Scottish Government has had its reputation trashed. The minister responsible says that the second vessel being constructed at Ferguson Marine is not value for money, but he will spend more taxpayers’ money on it nonetheless.
Much opprobrium is poured onto the ‘Westminster village’. Yet north of the Border, there is a danger of Scotland being in the grip of the ‘Holyrood hamlet’, a parliament which operates more like a students’ union, where the coordinated applause of the government backbenches can drown out real debate.
It is quite right that we have rules that MSPs cannot call each other “liars”, but there are other words and phrases I would like to see proscribed. I would start with “I’ll take no lessons” – a phrase popular with SNP First Ministers. The ad hominem attacks which preface government ministers’ answers to opposition questions do not serve us well. We deserve better.
Last week Douglas Ross confronted the First Minister with firm evidence that his colleague, Jenny Gilruth, had abused her position as a minister for her own political benefit at a considerable cost to the public purse. But despite us having the forum for such questions to be posed, answers were there none.
Now, of course, the next deflection is to say things are worse at Westminster. But whether that is true or not, it is not a justification. This is our parliament and we should set our own standards. The disrespect for parliament by the Scottish Government has a real impact on public policy. The idea that it is a trial to be got through, toyed with, rather than engaged with, is one of the reasons why, in 16 years of government, the SNP has achieved so little. This is a government which lives for the moment rather than the future.
Whether you agreed with her or not, in 11 years in government Margaret Thatcher brought profound change to the UK. In a decade in power, Tony Blair did the same. Well into its second decade in power, the SNP trumpet the baby box.
The hand-to-mouth approach of the SNP has meant that years in government have been misspent. Nicola Sturgeon’s desire to mislead her faithful by saying the referendum is just over the next hill to get through that year’s SNP conference has meant that our public services have lacked a long-term vision and we are now paying the price as a nation.
It is said that politics is showbusiness for ugly people. My fear is that the stage for our politics, our parliament, has been allowed to become an ugly place when it should be somewhere where truths should be confronted.
Many people in Scotland campaigned for a Scottish Parliament to better hold our government to account. Instead, we have a parliament that struggles to perform that function, that instead allows absurdities from the ferries to the Gender Recognition Reform Bill to go forward. But it is not beyond the wit of anyone to make it work if there is the will. And that needs to start with Scottish ministers showing it proper respect.
Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife