A hole in Holyrood
The Piegate scandal - involving mutton pies, lies and beans - confirms the irrelevance of the Scottish Parliament.
I have fond memories of attending entertaining, knockabout debates at Strathclyde University Union in the early 1990s, when guest debaters included the likes of Labour MP George Galloway (now renegade anti-war MP), Militant firebrand Tommy Sheridan (now Member of Scottish Parliament and leader of the Scottish Socialist Party) and Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond (now bidding to be SNP leader again).
A decade on, Scottish politics still has that student union feel about it, but with none of the entertainment value. The establishment of a Scottish Parliament in 1999 was supposed to signify a new maturity in Scottish politics. Not only does the parliament seem to have limited powers, but its members (MSPs) also seem to suffer from diminished political vision. Turnout in the 2003 elections dipped below 50 per cent, indicating that none of the parties has been able to convince the public of the parliament’s importance.
The proposed return of Salmond to the SNP leadership is an indication of how Scottish politics has stagnated in recent years. After Labour came to power in 1997, Salmond supported the government’s plans for devolution, though many in the SNP had traditionally opposed anything short of full independence. However, having established the SNP as the main opposition in the Scottish Parliament, (against a Labour/Liberal Democrat government), Salmond surprised everyone by resigning the party leadership and then choosing to stand again for his Westminster seat rather than switching to the Scottish Parliament as expected.
It is hard to see the decision as anything other than an implicit recognition that for all the hype about Holyrood, real power and real politics (such as it is) remained in London. But this would have been difficult for Salmond to say out loud, given his backing for the parliament’s creation, and his decision put him in an awkward position in relation to his colleagues. When the SNP’s wet blanket leader John Swinney resigned in June 2004 after disappointing European election results, Salmond was tipped to return, but he insisted, ‘If nominated I’ll decline. If drafted I’ll defer. And if elected I’ll resign’ (1).
But that was before Piegate. Days later a scandal erupted when it emerged that culture minister Frank McAveety had misled the Scottish Parliament over his failure to appear to answer questions. He claimed that he had been unavoidably detained by ministerial business. It transpired that in fact he had been in the canteen with some journalists enjoying mutton pie and beans (a traditional Scottish delicacy). The cringe-making debate that followed would have shamed any student union. That such a trivial matter should dominate national politics is bad enough. What’s worse is that the debate was a fair reflection of the standing of the Scottish Parliament.
Piegate illustrates the difficulties of creating a new institution out of nothing. The momentum behind the Scottish Parliament began in the 1980s when Scottish voters consistently backed Labour, while English votes kept Margaret Thatcher in power. It was assumed that Scottish politics would mean socialist politics. By the time Labour finally came to power in Westminster, though, and was in a position to fulfil its promise of devolution, that socialist tradition was in tatters, and Labour had adopted many key Tory policies. Instead of embodying a distinctive set of political ideas, then, the new Scottish Parliament was trumpeted for its own sake.
While contemporary British politics is hardly dynamic and the level of debate is hardly any better in London than it is in Edinburgh, Westminster does at least have centuries of tradition to engender some degree of respect for what goes on there. In contrast, much has been made of the more informal and ‘modern’ character of the Scottish Parliament. Scottish Socialist Rosie ‘Citizen’ Kane famously took her oath in tight jeans and an off-the-shoulder top. But the lack of pomp only makes the banality of Scottish politics more apparent.
Political columnist Bill Jamieson recently argued in the Scotsman that: ‘Those who made such play of scrapping the procedures that buttress good behaviour and reinforce respect for the institution can hardly complain if they end up with ministers who put pie and beans before parliament – and who can lie with impunity.’ (2) But it is not the lack of rules and procedures that undermine the parliament’s credibility so much as its lack of purpose. If even MSPs treat the parliament as a bit of a joke, it’s because they know it doesn’t really matter. Architecture pundits look forward to the day when the parliament is abolished and the building (which cost £431million, 10 times more than originally estimated) can be put to a more worthy use.
In justifying his volte face over the SNP leadership, Alex Salmond explained, ‘I did not anticipate that after waiting 300 years for a Scottish Parliament that it would allow itself to sink so swiftly into something approaching disrepute. I did not expect that such a failing Labour Party with such mediocre leadership would have been able to cling to power in the face of such a changing political landscape’ (3).
Sadly, Salmond himself has little to offer other than a bit of charisma, and even that’s relative. With the issue of independence permanently fudged, the SNP itself is a bland, vaguely Euro-style, social democratic party with no distinctive policies. And tellingly, Salmond has no intention of giving up his seat at Westminster. If re-elected as leader, he intends to have his deputy Nicola Sturgeon lead the party at Holyrood. There were even shades of Piegate last week when the putative saviour of Scottish politics announced that he would miss the first of the leadership hustings because he had to open a curry house in his constituency (4).
One can’t help but feel that he has his priorities spot on.
(1) Salmond launches leadership bid, BBC News, 15 July 2004
(2) Why parliament is demeaned by pies and lies, Scotsman, 26 June 2004
(3) Salmond launches leadership bid, BBC News, 15 July 2004
(4) Scottish National Chapati, Daily Record, 22 July 2004
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