I reckon it’s been about ten years since I last watched a Scottish Parliament debate all the way through from the opening speech until decision time. Back in the early 2000s I was paid (I use the term loosely) to distill such things for a commercial television station. They took place on the Mound back then, in a Chamber of which I remain very fond.
Perhaps memory cheats, but I remember those afternoon debates being quite good fun, with substantial contributions from all parties and none. By contrast, yesterday’s debate at Holyrood on ‘Scotland’s future’ (for which read ‘independence’) was not an edifying experience. I only stuck it out for the full two hours and five minutes to give you, dear reader, this brief account.
Alex Salmond was at least on better form than he’d managed at First Minister’s Questions earlier in the day. He rattled through his speech, responding to interventions with aplomb. When Ruth Davidson mentioned twitter, he buoyantly reeled off each party leader’s number of followers. He had most, natch, while I was pleased to discover that Johann Lamont is some way behind me.
As for the independence argument, the essence was that if Holyrood could already manage to deal with climate change and a range of domestic responsibilities, then why shouldn’t it have responsibility for running everything else? It was a clever pitch, although Salmond’s innate conservatism soon kicked in as he went out of his way to emphasise that, er, most things should stay exactly the same.
Johann Lamont picked up from where she’d left off at FMQs, accusing the First Minister of baseless “assertion” while turning his own line about “self-evident truth” on its head. This was all well and good, although her substantial argument for the Union didn’t appear to have advanced much beyond “stronger together, weaker apart”.
Thereafter it sometimes felt like I was watching the Parliamentary wing of the CND. Linda Fabiani declared “not in our name”; in clear and measured tones Humza Yousaf described his disgust at Scotland being forced to “carry the baggage of the UK”, while in a polished winding up speech Nicola Sturgeon got the obligatory cheer for reminding her troops that independence would mean waving goodbye (eventually) to Trident.
A few members spoke about their families, wielding favourite grandfathers and recently born children as arguments for or against independence. There were, too, woolly assertions, the otherwise passionate Linda Fabiani, for example, arguing that independence would offer a welfare system that was simpler, fairer and made work pay. Tellingly, she didn’t actually say what it was.
The former Tory leader Annabel Goldie was heard in curiously respectful silence as she ticked off the SNP for dismissing everyone who asked legitimate questions about independence as “blundering” or “scaremongering”. SNP backbencher Kenny Gibson, meanwhile, was the Brian Cox of the debate, ranting for his allotted time against the “North British parties”, our “Etonian Prime Minister” and, bizarrely, Labour’s penchant for “cutting taxes for millionaires”. His own party’s plans for corporation tax had obviously passed him by.
Labour backbencher Drew Smith gave perhaps the best speech from the opposition benches, advocating “Home Rule within the UK” while arguing that the SNP couldn’t bang on about being positive while being negative at the same time. Rather proving Smith’s point, the SNP backbencher Stewart Maxwell wielded the hackneyed line about Mrs Thatcher not believing in society, while Claire Adamson reminded the Chamber about the loss of Scotland’s “indigenous” steel industry. The solution, she added, was “self-actualisation”. I still have no idea what she means.
As Scottish Green Party co-leader Patrick Harvie rattled through a two-minute long speech I was reminded of Holyrood’s tiresomely restrictive debating practice. He warned the SNP that a play-it-safe approach on independence might also “fail to inspire”. Margo MacDonald, meanwhile, injected a bit of oomph and passion before she was cruelly cut short. “Stronger together?” she spat incredulously in the direction of the Unionist benches. She even got some grudging applause from her former party colleagues.
Tory deputy leader Jackson Carlaw took the term “winding up” literally, gently teasing the SNP about last Friday’s “yes” campaign launch, alluding to yours truly in the media gallery (by this point the only one), and calling (sort of) for Newton Mearns to be granted Home Rule. Finally, Nicola Sturgeon praised a “good fiery debate” (she was being diplomatic) while spitting out the word “Tory” as only the Health Secretary can.
Then, for the first time, the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of independence. If it was an historic moment it didn’t feel like it in the Chamber. And that was the problem, at no point had the debate over the future of Scotland truly come alive, just depressingly familiar arguments (from both sides) trotted out for the amusement of a few cynical hacks and no more than fifty members of the public. This, I fear, is the shape of things to come, a two-and-a-half-year battle between banal Unionism and equally banal Nationalism.
Posted by David Torrance