Eddie Barnes: Political passion is all very well, but let’s have less venom and more wit

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MORE than ten years ago, former presiding officer Sir David Steel railed against the press for making unwarranted attacks on the Scottish Parliament, describing it as “bitch journalism”.

These days, his current successor, Tricia Marwick, appears to be more concerned with bitch politics.

The mood is turning sour at Holyrood. Yesterday, Labour MSP Michael McMahon was booted out for the day after telling Ms Marwick her decisions were “out of order”. He declared he had been motivated by concern that the very integrity of the place was under threat.

Labour is livid at what it sees as Alex Salmond’s contempt for the parliament.

He “lies instinctively”, one astonishingly worded press release put it this week.

It all prompted under-fire education secretary Mike Russell to accuse his critics last night of “dishonouring” the debate through their conduct.

Bad blood between opponents is hardly new. Holyrood politics, dominated by the fratricidal Labour-SNP war, spills more than its fair share.

But added venom has been added by the dominance of the SNP within the parliament –which has allowed opponents to accuse the governing party of arrogance and bullying – and, most obviously, the run-up to the independence referendum.

Together, they have added a fresh bucketful of gore to the exchanges.

The heightened tension has prompted Labour to harden its attack lines significantly in recent months, seizing on a series of uncharacteristic lapses by Mr Salmond’s administration.

The SNP has fought back hard in return. It is now getting very personal, with near daily accusations across the chamber that their opponents should be “ashamed” of their views and should apologise for holding them.

Too many speeches are characterised by misjudged snarkiness. Independent MSP Margo MacDonald now views First Minister’s Questions as little more than a pointless shouting match.

Ms Marwick sought to set a bar on standards at the end of last month, warning MSPs that, with international interest focusing on Holyrood, they had to “set the correct tone” in debates. Members, she added, should “consider very carefully their choice of words and the tone in which they are delivered”.

This week, her patience clearly snapped, and Mr McMahon was ordered to the naughty step.

A cooling-off of the political debate is unrealistic, however, with the temperature likely to go only one way ahead of the referendum.

What is required is not less passion, but more judgment and wit. Given the level of feeling in the referendum battle, however, it looks like the red mist is here to stay.