Alex Cole-Hamlton: Sluggishness is my word of the year for Scottish Parliament

Holyrood has passed a meagre six acts of parliament so far this year - one of which was the annual budget - which feels a little thin to me, writes Alex Cole-Hamilton

Around this time of year, the authors of the various dictionaries pick their words of the year. This year, the lexicographers have all turned to terms revolving around AI and the technological leaps that could herald some of the biggest changes to the way we live our lives since the arrival of the internet.

Taking a leaf out of their book, if I were to pick one word to describe the last year at Holyrood, it would probably be “sluggishness”.

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Holyrood has passed a meagre six acts of parliament so far this year.

There are some caveats. Major pieces of legislation require a significant amount of scrutiny and care before they can be passed. And in any case, new laws are not necessarily the cure for every challenge we face in society.

Nonetheless, for the Scottish Parliament to pass just six pieces of legislation in a year - one of which was the annual budget - feels a little thin to me.

2023 will effectively be the most sluggish legislative year at Holyrood, when you take into account that MSPs were starting from scratch when they arrived in 1999. The Scottish Government don’t have their problems to seek, but you wouldn’t know it.

Experts, from the Auditor General to esteemed think tanks, have been warning for years that serious reform is necessary, on everything from the economy to education and health. But the only thing moving slower than the gears of government are the diggers on the A9 and the ferries still in the shipyard.

We’ve seen reforms paused or scrapped because in one way or another they just aren’t up to scratch and, whatever their original intentions, would do more harm than good – the deposit return scheme, highly protected marine areas, the doomed ministerial power grab over social care and more.

It was Homer Simpson who said, “if something’s hard to do, then it’s not worth doing.” The SNP/Green Government’s equivalent is, “if something’s hard to do, give it to a working group or do another consultation”.

Let’s take last week as an example.

On Thursday, the Education Secretary delivered a long-awaited statement on violence in schools. Ask any teacher and they will tell you it’s worse than ever. My colleague Willie Rennie propelled it up the political agenda when he spoke out about a shocking assault at a school in Fife all the way back in January.

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We had hoped we might hear commitments to more support staff in schools, more educational psychologists, to bring down waiting lists for help. Instead, we got a five-point plan where the first point was, ‘write another plan’.

On Tuesday, the question of secrecy was back in the news. It has dogged the SNP all year, from lying to journalists about party membership numbers to deleting Covid WhatsApps, questions about that iPad, false renewables statistics, the list goes on. Any other government would seize the opportunity to press the reset button.

We had hoped we might hear plans to expand FOI or for a new duty to record to end the culture of unminuted meetings. Instead, ministers proudly announced that after, you guessed it, another consultation, they would not introduce any primary legislation to update information rights before the end of the current Parliament in 2026.

This would matter less were the Parliament engaged in more fruitful matters. Yet, too frequently time in the chamber is taken up by grandstanding and committees, so important to good scrutiny, divided strictly on partisan lines. Post legislative scrutiny, working out whether the legislation Parliament has previously passed is accomplishing its goals, has frequently fallen by the wayside.

The Scottish Government would rather debate powers than make best use of the ones we already have.

This somewhat stunted, sluggish movement raises questions about what devolution has come to mean under the SNP.

I do not believe that the SNP have ever really tried to make devolution work. You could say that it is simply not in their interests to make it work. After all, they are the party of smashing up the UK. If devolution were to work successfully under the SNP, the argument for independence is weakened.

The problem with the Braveheart politics of the SNP is that it is all about spinning a narrative, not about solving problems. It is a gross simplification of how our political system has the potential to work, and work well.

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They have failed to close the attainment gap. They have overseen rocketing NHS waiting lists on everything from A&E to cancer and mental health.

Rather than doing anything to meaningfully tackle these problems, the SNP waste precious time by holding parliamentary debate after parliamentary debate on breaking up the UK. Getting on with the job of governing plays second fiddle.

Next year, devolution will have been in place for 25 years. From the smoking ban to freedom of information laws, free personal care to the repeal of section 28, Scottish Liberal Democrats have delivered pioneering legislation that uses the powers of the Scottish Parliament to improve people's lives.

Today, I am so proud of Liam McArthur for consulting with groups on all sides and bringing forward his Assisted Dying Bill at Holyrood, which, if it passes, would give back control to terminally ill, mentally competent adults.

How about a Clean Water Act to force the government address Scotland’s sewage scandal?

It's a shame that the tired SNP seem to lack this vision, lack a drive for a better future for devolution, or even federalism. We are all worse off because of it.

With an election just around the corner, I would urge everyone to think long and hard about how we can make devolution work in the way it was intended.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is MSP for Edinburgh Western and leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats