Euan McColm: Awkward MSPs who keep Holyrood on its mettle

The debating chamber at Holyrood. Picture: PA
The debating chamber at Holyrood. Picture: PA
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THEY’RE dropping like flies. Over the past few weeks, a number of members of the Scottish Parliament have announced that they will not seek re-election next May. That’s it. Time’s up.

In a number of cases, we will not miss the absence of the departed MSP. There are, none of us need be reminded, some distinctly unsatisfactory characters clogging up the Holyrood debating chamber and the decisions of some to call it a day will do our democracy no harm.

It would be easy for me to name those second-raters, perhaps make a few snide remarks, and go for the cheap laugh.

But let me change the habit of a lifetime and, instead, talk about two departing members whose absence from the Scottish Parliament will make it very much the poorer.

Duncan McNeil and Annabel ­Goldie could not, on the face of things, be more different characters. He, the Labour MSP for Greenock and Inverclyde, is a former union shop steward who started his career as a boilermaker. She, a Conservative list MSP for the West of Scotland, is a former lawyer who, when she’s not in the Scottish Parliament, sits in the House of Lords.

If one was to pitch a culture-clash rom-com, then McNeil and Goldie might make perfect characters. He, with his staunchly working class background and she, with her (outwardly) prim demeanour, would crackle and spark around each other before, inevitably…

Despite their differences – and, when it comes to their politics, these are substantial – McNeil and Goldie have much in common. Many supporters of Scottish independence would, I am sure, suggest that what connects them is a shared belief in the maintenance of the United Kingdom, and that would be true.

But, more importantly, these two are clever, independent of mind, and willing to address difficult issues where others might be happy to go with the flow.

Scottish politics is transformed, these days. The rise of the SNP – a perfectly fascinating phenomenon – has changed the culture.

Scottish Nationalist politicians are a disciplined lot. This, of course, is a good thing for the SNP. But with its focus on keeping members in check – its MPs face disciplinary action for even daring to question a party ­decision – it risks creating a new generation of political drones, of custom-made lobby fodder.

Those who are awkward for the sake of being awkward are hugely tiresome but we do need politicians who will ask difficult questions not just of their opponents but of their own parties.

When, 12 years ago, the then Labour health minister, Malcolm Chisholm, began a process of reorganisation of the NHS, McNeil was a loud and angry voice of dissent. There would be, he argued, a devastating impact on services within his constituency and he was prepared to ignore group discipline to make his anger known.

Not long afterwards, Chisholm was replaced as health minister and there is no doubt that his uncertain stewardship – exposed by McNeil – was a key factor in that particular piece of reshuffling.

Later, McNeil caused outrage when he said it was time to discuss the issue of contraception among drug abusers. Shouldn’t we, he asked, be doing all we can to encourage addicts not to have children who would be born into bleak existence?

Critics rounded on him, accusing him of being a totalitarian, even a eugenicist. Privately, however, he was to admit that he knew his remarks would cause controversy and he had made them deliberately in order to open up a discussion about the plight of children in deprivation.

Goldie became leader of the Scottish Conservatives in 2005 when the late David McLetchie stepped down amid a row over expenses. Her party had been battered and bruised by the controversy of the preceding months and it might not have been a surprise had Goldie decided to take a low-key approach.

Impressively, she was having none of that.

There had been a tendency among some Scottish Conservatives to present themselves as something they were not, to soften their positions, conceal their ideology. Since Labour had successfully spent the preceding years ensuring Tory equalled evil, this was an understandable strategy.

But Goldie was unashamedly, defiantly Tory in her outlook while bringing a compassionate edge to the way the party did its business.

And so, she was fiercely opposed to the SNP’s policy of free prescriptions for all. Not because she wanted to take from the poor or some such clichéd notion, but because she believed that the money used to fund the policy (which disproportionately benefits the more affluent) would be better left in the NHS drugs budget. Goldie also pushed debate on addiction, demanding we confront the problem of how children who grow up in chaotic households go on to lead chaotic lives. Rather than simply condemning more and understanding less (as the former Tory prime minister John Major once advised), Goldie was thoughtful and progressive.

In the end, of course, she could not turn around her party’s fortunes. Goldie – just as is the case with her successor Ruth Davidson – was often told by voters “I like you, it’s just a shame you’re a Tory.”

At the last count, there were 14 MSPs set to retire next May. In their places, we may find new stars, new free-thinkers, who put their constituents before their parties. Even better would be to find some who are willing to speak uncomfortable truths rather than simply to pander to voters’ prejudices.

Since it looks likely that the SNP will return to power in a second majority government, the need for clever opposition MSPs is great, not just for their parties but for democracy.

We could do a great deal worse than to find politicians of the calibre of Annabel Goldie and Duncan McNeil. They represent the very best of Scottish politics and I will miss their presence at Holyrood. «