The Scottish Parliament does not always cover itself in glory. Yesterday saw one of its least impressive days to date.
To provide some necessary context, yesterday saw the consideration of Stage 3 of the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Bill – for readers outside of Scotland, Stage 3 is the last step in Holyrood’s legislative process before a bill becomes law. This is the second piece of emergency legislation responding to the COVID-19 pandemic to pass through the Parliament. Thankfully, some positive elements were included: thanks to opposition MSP amendments, the legislation incorporated a support fund for social care workers, provisions to ensure that firms that don’t pay their fair share of taxation don’t get state support, scrapping the absurd restrictions to freedom of information and securing improvements to bankruptcy provisions.
However, a series of progressive and ambitious but wholly necessary amendments from Green and Labour MSPs – relating to trade unions, tenants’ rights and social care workers – fell by the wayside: because the Tories and SNP united to block them.
Anyone familiar with the nitty-gritty of Scottish politics at Holyrood, rather than just the theatre at Westminster, will know that this is not a particularly rare occurrence. The SNP and the Tories work together far more often than casual observers of Scottish politics might think (Alex Salmond’s first government mostly relied on Tory support to pass its budgets), despite their polar (and often loudly trumpeted) opposition to each other on certain issues, most notably that of Scotland’s constitutional future. Yes, different parties often work together for all sorts of reasons – that’s politics. But watching amendment after amendment being struck down yesterday afternoon boiled my blood: not just because their exclusion from the bill leaves far too many vulnerable people at risk, but because they are set to get away with it again unless something changes.
Mike Russell, the Cabinet Secretary for Constitutional Relations and a well-known advocate of lofty and progressive ideas such as privatising the NHS, took delight in arguing against a series of amendments brought forward by Labour MSP Neil Findlay. The amendments focused on giving trade unions access to workplaces, ensuring that firms in receipt of public money must pay their workers at least the living wage, and on bringing forward national collective bargaining in the private social care sector. Mr Russell’s two-pronged approach consisted on the one hand of describing these suggestions as old, tired and irrelevant, and on the other hand of repeatedly asserting that failing to support the amendment wasn’t the same as failing to support the argument. But what is the point in devolution if you don’t want to be radical or do things differently? Does the ambition of Scottish Ministers extend no further than being slightly better than arguably the worst UK Government in history? As Neil Findlay said in the chamber, it might be in the Tory Party’s DNA to oppose trade unionism but it shouldn’t be something we should expect or accept from the supposedly progressive Government of Scotland. Nevertheless, the SNP whipped their MSPs to vote the amendments down.
Even more disappointing than this was the approach taken by the SNP Minister for Housing, Kevin Stewart, towards Green MSP Andy Wightman. Mr Wightman, a well-regarded authority on land reform and a highly respected legislator, brought forward a number of amendments aimed at protecting tenants, stopping evictions and preventing the accrual of crippling housing debt. These proposals had widespread support within civic society, notably from Scotland’s tenants’ union Living Rent, but also from large sections of the grassroots of the SNP, as well as being the official policy of their student wing. Not only were these again thrown out thanks to Nationalist and Tory MSPs voting hand in glove but the dismissive behaviour of Mr Stewart, whose Icarus-like ascension to ministerial office shows how highly the SNP administration value unquestioning loyalty, was one of the worst displays I have seen in Holyrood, and would have been better suited to an conference fringe than to the chamber of our national parliament. I understand that Mr Stewart has now apologised to Mr Wightman but it was still a spectacle to behold..
It’s a simple falsehood that the Scottish Parliament does politics in a better, more collegiate fashion than other legislatures. While people often (rightly) bemoan the performing seals in the Commons you only have to witness the petulant barracking that Andy Wightman received from SNP and Tory backbenchers while he was speaking to his amendments to realise that Holyrood can be no better. Holyrood has also been sluggish and often resistant to new ways of working since the start of this crisis. When the Welsh Parliament was passing legislation via Zoom, Holyrood was going on recess. When the House of Commons was holding hybrid meetings, the Scottish Parliament was dragging its heels on setting up a COVID-19 committee. And even though those in the shielded category are being told to stay at home, MSPs could only vote on this legislation by being in the chamber. Scottish society often likes to pat itself on the back for having such a modern and reforming parliament, but this crisis has revealed just how hollow that sentiment can be.
I often speak to my friend Maria Fyfe, who was the Member of Parliament for Maryhill from 1987 to 2001 and a leading figure in the fight for a devolved Parliament. She spent much of her political life working across civic society, with people like Campbell Christie and Donald Dewar, to make the dream of devolution a reality. When we talk, we speak of how more than 20 years later there’s still much that needs to be done to truly realise that dream she campaigned for and to ensure that, as a nation, we move forwards – not backwards.
Normal politics is on hold right now. Everyone’s top priority should be and is dealing with this disease and keeping people safe. But the fact is that the next Scottish Parliament election is scheduled to take place in less than 12 months. The first in the third decade of devolution, it looks set to be the most important in the Parliament’s short life to date. I have no doubt that the SNP and Tories will once again tacitly cooperate towards the goal of making it a single-issue campaign, focused on competing pronouncements about independence. I don’t think that’s good enough. Labour has a responsibility to offer a message that can bring people together whether they support staying in or leaving the UK – not for reasons of dry dogma but because we have a serious alternative. A socialist vision for rebuilding our society after this misery: for strengthening devolution, investing in public services, valuing key workers and ensuring that scenes like yesterday’s become a regrettable footnote in the history of Scotland’s parliament.
Keiran O’Neill is the Scottish Labour candidate for the Holyrood constituency of Glasgow Maryhill & Springburn, and a member of Open Labour’s National Committee