Tom Peterkin: MSPs show they can say more than '˜yah-boo' at Holyrood

Minority governments, once derided for being weak, can make sound decisions, writes Tom Peterkin.

Constructive debate? In Holyrood? Whatever next? (Picture: AFP/Getty)
Constructive debate? In Holyrood? Whatever next? (Picture: AFP/Getty)

Amid the yah-boo politics of First Minister’s Questions and the interminable rowing over Brexit, it was something of a departure to witness some low-key and, dare I say it, constructive exchanges on the Holyrood floor this week.

It is perhaps a little unfair to characterise proceedings in the Scottish Parliament as a sort of tribal spat-fest, but it is true to say that much of the politics there is conducted in an adversarial manner.

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So it was rather refreshing to report on a session which saw MSPs get on with the job of producing legislation in an efficient manner which recognised differences of opinion while seeking an effective solution.

The legislation in question was the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill which MSPs spent most of Tuesday afternoon and early evening amending and finally voting on as it passed its final parliamentary hurdle.

The Bill may lack the political theatre of party leaders getting tore into each other or the drama of the hugely regrettable harassment scandals, which have been such a depressing feature of recent life at Holyrood.

Nevertheless there were important issues at stake and broader lessons to be learned when MSPs discussed how huge tracts of the countryside should be managed and, in particular, the devolution of forestry to Scotland.

From the opposition parties’ point of view, it also happened to be a session that saw them inflict a notable defeat on Scottish Government attempts to centralise the work currently done by the Forestry Commission by taking it under direct government control.

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MSPs defeat SNP plans to abolish Forestry Commission's role

Critics of Nicola Sturgeon’s Government have long been wary of the centralising tendencies of her and previous SNP administrations. In this case, there were fears that taking forestry under Government control would effectively abolish the role currently played by the Forestry Commission, the body which manages 33 per cent of Scotland’s woodlands. Founded by the 14th Lord Lovat and celebrating its centenary next year, the Forestry Commission was set up to alleviate timber shortages across the UK and became one of the largest landowners in the country.

The activities of the Forestry Commission have not always escaped controversy but, over the last century, it has built up extensive experience of managing woodlands and has been at an arm’s length from ministerial interference.

In the run-up to the debate, a host of organisations, including the Royal Scottish Forestry Society, the Woodland Trust, the Institute of Chartered Foresters, Ramblers Scotland, Reforesting Scotland, and the Forest Policy Group had expressed fears that the commission’s expertise would be lost if the Scottish Government’s plan was adopted. Therefore Labour’s Claudia Beamish produced an amendment which would set up an agency to maintain a similar model to the existing Forestry Commission in the new devolved arrangement.

It was a neat solution which won enough opposition support to overturn the government’s centralising proposal by a couple of votes and served as a reminder that Ms Sturgeon is leading a “minority” administration.

It was also a good moment for Holyrood, despite the disappointment felt by Fergus Ewing, the Rural Economy Secretary who was charged with piloting the Bill through parliament and whose plans will not come to fruition in the way that he had hoped.

“I know that the minister might not feel that way, but I assure him that Parliament has been working at its best” was the view of the Lib Dem MSP Mike Rumbles. “The fact that the minister does not get all his own way has to be a good thing. I welcome the fact that Parliament has, today, asserted its authority over the Government’s wishes.”

In turn Mr Ewing’s response was gracious, promising to “absolutely respect and deliver the will of the parliament”.

There have been other instances of parliament asserting its authority over the government. For example last year the parliament overturned the Scottish Government’s proposal to create an overarching body to run Scotland’s enterprise agencies, another centralising move that would have effectively ended Highlands and Islands Enterprise in its current form.

But perhaps the most obvious example of parliament flexing its muscles was just a couple of weeks ago when opposition MSPs ganged up to scrap the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act on the grounds that it unfairly targeted football fans.

For the SNP’s opponents this was a classic case of MSPs overcoming a minority government to repeal bad legislation which had been rail-roaded through Holyrood by Alex Salmond’s pre-2016 majority.

These moments, however, feel as if they have been few and far between given the Greens’ willingness to prop up Ms Sturgeon’s minority.

One way of looking at the parliamentary arithmetic is to see it as something that can be exploited to give the government a bloody nose. A less yah-boo attitude would be to use it in a more constructive way to seek cross-party consensus and improve legislation.

That sort of approach was how the founding fathers of devolution wanted Holyrood to work. Inevitably, the sound and the thunder has meant that it has rarely been like that – with the possible exception of the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill.