Ian Smart vs The Presiding Officer: A Rebuttal

23 11 2012

As loyal Labour types go, Ian Smart is a decent one, at least from my few interactions with him in the past and his appearances on TV discussion shows.  The thinking man’s limpet, clinging as he does to a party which, to its shame, never allowed him to stand for Holyrood.  I’d rather follow his timeline than some of the wibble-mongers who claim to be pro-independence.  But when he goes over the line, he’s does it big style.  His latest blog, on the subject of the Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick, is a perfect example.  Head in sand, partisan, overly nasty in some parts, and (deliberately?) point-missing.  Let’s have a look at Ian’s blog and why he’s so very, very wrong.

There is no better example of the steady decline of the quality of the Scottish Parliament than the fact that Tricia Marwick is now its Presiding Officer.

It’s nice to kick off with an hyperbole-free introduction, leaning away from personal attack.  “No better example” – really, Ian?  MSPs screaming, “You’re ootae order” across the debating chamber like a pissed frog at closing time in the Welfare, is a fair example of a decline in quality from certain quarters, but of course that was aimed at the Presiding Officer, and is therefore fair game in your book.  If you’re going to play the “things ain’t what they used to be” card so early on, why don’t we mention the fact that Labour took a conscious decision to effectively bar their individuals of “quality” from returning to Parliament in the event they performed badly in 2011, by excluding them from the regional lists.  The consequences of that decision can be seen every time Hanzala Malik sits silently agape behind Johann at FMQs.  A “decline in quality” indeed, but the blame for it lies closer to Mr Smart’s door than the POs.

In 1999, the first Presiding Officer was David Steel. Now I am no Liberal Democrat but David Steel is a major political figure. In 1983, given a few percentage points, he could have been leader of the Opposition and, who knows, potential next Prime Minister. Throughout his life he has been a major player in the movement for Scottish Home Rule and he is, even today, a readily recognised public figure throughout these isles.

I like the “potential next Prime Minister” touch, although it’s perhaps overly complimentary of a politician who was popularly portrayed as literally being in the pocket of the SDP.  And the implication that Steel was some kind of superbly equipped P.O. by dint of his time in the Establishment is kinda undermined, when you remember it was his hand on the tiller during the most farcical and disreputable periods of the Holyrood building project.  Steel was a pretty good P.O. (and don’t forget, the only MP with the cojones to bring forward a Bill legalising abortion in the 1960s) and fair play to him, but let’s not rewrite recent history.

A “potential next Prime Minister” (the one on the right)

In 2003, he was replaced by George Reid, perhaps not as well known throughout the UK, but still a well known and respected public figure in Scotland. One, surely, of the more intellectual members of the SNP and recognised even by his opponents as a person of truly independent mind, in both senses of that word.

Now, given the circumstances leading up to Ian’s blog – the suspension of an MSP for discourtesy aimed at the chair – you’d think he’d recall some previous occasions where MSPs got kicked out.  Carolyn Leckie was the subject to similar treatment for a similar incident back in 2004, and she was again involved alongside other SSP MSPs a year later, this time being expelled for ONE MONTH.  With no pay or allowances for the duration.  I assume Ian either didn’t remember these events, or given his hearty endorsement of Sir George Reid’s time in the chair, also approves of the punishments doled out.

In 2007 we had Alex Ferguson. Now, no disrespect to him, he was hardly either Steel or Reid in terms of previous record but he was regarded across the political sphere as a decent cove who could be counted on to arbitrate freely and fairly (if not always correctly) on the matters placed before him. And, anyway, given the numerical dynamic of that Parliament, he was one of the few people prepared to stand.

I think Ian is underselling Fergusson here, given the crazily tight parliamentary arithmetic of the time, and having to deal with an unprecendented rejection of a government’s budget, I think he acquainted himself pretty well over the piece.  As well as ensuring loads of folk making silly points about Presiding Officers spell his name wrong.

And then in 2011?

No harm to Tricia Marwick but she had hardly set the Scottish Parliament afire in her previous twelve years during which she had only featured briefly on (even) the opposition front bench. She was (and is) the sort of person who can prosper in any Party by working hard for the cause and never saying anything remotely controversial. I could easily identify numerous similar members of my own Party now sitting comfortably on the Holyrood or even Westminster benches.

The implication here is that to be a good PO, you need to have had a high-profile political career.  I’d like the evidence for that from Speakers of the HoC and POs in Holyrood of recent times.  Indeed, picking someone with a career on the front benches would be guaranteed to stir up trouble from the get-go (which is why it almost never happens, and never in the modern era), as opposed to someone respected within the chamber for, as an example, their work on the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body over a number of years, as Tricia Marwick is.

And politics, all politics, needs such people. Deep breath, she reminds me a bit of Michael McMahon on our own side.

Surely the cruelest comparison that can be made in Scottish politics, aside perhaps from a likening to the aforementioned Mr Malik.  Again, the hyperbole coming through here.

But, in the aftermath of the SNP landslide in 2011, somebody decided that she should be made Presiding Officer.

Eh…. Tricia Marwick?  It’s a stab in the dark, an educated guess if you like, but it’s possible she thought she’d like a crack at it, had a blether with some trusted friends and family, and, in the immortal words of Mr Ron Pickering, “Away ye go!”.

For what it’s worth, I doubt if that was she herself for she strikes me as somebody not driven by personal ambition. Rather, I suspect that more serious operators within the SNP realised the importance of controlling the chair and employed all the tools of flattery to persuade her to put her name forward. Which she did, and then found herself, to her own incomprehension, elected. A bit like Chance the Gardener.

Ian’s got form for this comparison, indeed last time it was the MSP for Eastwood and then-putative Scottish Labour leader Ken Macintosh whom he likened to Chauncey the Gardener.  (I would find the relevant tweet but my google-fu seems to have deserted me. It’s out there anyway.)   I suspect nothing would persuade Ian and other fellow-travellers in the Labour party of the truth, but for what it’s worth, I’ve spoken to several people about this ‘she wis telt tae dae it’ mince since last May, and all have asserted totally that the leadership had next to hee-haw to do with it; it was entirely Tricia Marwick’s decision to ultimately put herself forward.

But having been put there as a pawn, that is exactly how she has behaved and in consequence her authority has steadily declined. Leading ultimately to the debacle of the last 48 hours.

The events of the last 48hrs, and Smart’s justification for his blogpost, stem from the inability of the likes of Michael McMahon to behave in the sort of way that you would on a number 23 bus, never mind Parliament.  If anything, acting against the kind of boorish behaviour on display from McMahon and his comrade Hugh Henry (on spittle-flecked form at Thursday’s FMQs), would only seem to boost the POs authority, and especially amongst the public, who tend to take a dim view of elected members acting like weans.

It’s perhaps also worth pointing out that the PO gave both Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson an extra question each to sling at the FM on Thursday – a session which, let’s be honest, was not his finest hour – which sort of tells you a lot about this “she’s a tool of those power-crazed Nats” horsepoo.

Of all the MSPs likely to be suspended from the Scottish Parliament, Michael McMahon would be pretty far down the list. He, himself, is such a decent fellow that I myself have previously railed against his even handedness in allowing SNP members to talk pish, without contradiction, in his capacity as chair of the Welfare Reform Committee.

‘His disagreements, even with me, show what a great guy he is’.  Hmmm.  I don’t watch committees too often, but convening them, with their consensus and all, doesn’t really match up to trying to keep 128 MSPs in order, some of whom’s behaviour (including McMahon’s) would get them kicked out a finger-painting session in their local Primary School).

His “offence” was to express his frustration that in attempting to cover up for her Leader’s most recent duplicity, the Presiding Officer was “out of order”, as, on any objective view, she was. Her reaction was to suspend him from Parliament.

His offence was to bellow “You’re ootae order” at the PO as she attempted to bring the sitting to order.  That’s an attack on the competency of the chair, not done out of genuine concern about procedure, but rather because Michael McMahon is a rather boorish man, unconcerned with niceties.  That’s his business, but he shouldn’t try and drag political behaviour down to his level.  And as outlined above, the precedent from George Reid’s time in the chair is a punishment of a day in Holyrood’s jail cell (not really, he just sat in his office and called a ludicrous press conference).

In the heat of the moment, I made a number of intemperate remarks on twitter about the Presiding Officer earlier today. I withdraw them.

He didn’t just withdraw them; he deleted them from his feed.  For the record, comparisons were made between Scotland and Zimbabwe.  Last week it was sleekit eejit Kirk Ramsay comparing Scotland to Syria.  Can these folk just make up their mind as to which brutal dictatorship they want to offensively compare this country to, and stick with it?  I’m getting old and can’t keep up.

She is not consciously partisan; she is simply, out of her depth, unable to resist doing what is whispered in her ear by the same more serious operators. For that is, after all, how she progressed to her current exalted position.

This is a fairly serious allegation.  One, it is a direct attack on the impartiality of the Presiding Officer – and claiming that she’s some kind of automaton under the control of the SNP hierarchy.  Being a lawyer, Ian will know the law on defamation better than I, but making out that she’s having instructions “whispered in her ear” and blindly following them, sails pretty close to the edge, given her current occupation.  Two, it’s a direct attack on the ability of the Presiding Officer – “out of her depth, unable to resist”.  And three, as I mentioned above, not a shred of evidence has been put forward for this conspiracy theory about the PO being manuervered into her position by Nationalist practitioners of the dark arts – indeed quite the contrary.

But if she is to prosper in that position she must, in the words of St Paul, put aside childish things.

This St. Paul guy – is he a UNISON member?  Interesting Ian talking about childish things, when the great overlord of prog-rock amongst MPs, Tom Harris, had a pop at the PO for having the temerity to pull up Johann for calling the FM “Pinocchio”; minutes before he accused her of “flaunting her SNP membership card“.  The TWENTY POUND cash jackpot available to Tom Harris for bellowing “You’re ootae order” at Speaker Bercow at the next session of the House of Commons remains in situ, by the way.

She could start, any time soon, by pulling up the First Minister by observing that what he had just said was not an answer to the question asked and that he must try again.

As has been explained time, after time, after time, after time, after time, Presiding Officers aren’t reponsible for the content of answers (or indeed anything uttered) in Parliament.  They are there to keep things under control in terms of the tone, respect and procedures Parliament has agreed to.  That’s Parliament, not the PO, and not Government.  If Labour’s Z-list troops can’t hold the executive to account for giving, in their view, an insufficiently complete answer, maybe they should find some MSPs who can.  Tricia Marwick is not responsible for the paucity of depth and talent in the Labour party.

Who knows, if she was prepared to do that, even once, she might yet become as distinguished as her illustrious predecessors.

The thing about Smart’s attacks on Tricia Marwick are that they form part of an overall campaign of denigration by the Labour party, whether Ian realises it or not.  The attacks on the Presiding Officer and parliamentary procedure (procedures agreed by all MSPs), the vitriol towards Government ministers, the neddish behaviour of some Labour MSPs week after week, the continual insinuations of lying, deceit, crookery, and nefariousness that spout forth day after day from the Labour group now seem part of a wider attempt to undermine many of the collective institutional pillars of the Scottish political set-up, to chip away at the public’s confidence in the home-rule project bit-by-foam-mouthed-bit.

A wilder conspiracy theorist than me might postulate that in their desperation to ensure the defeat of the Yes campaign, Labour have decideded to bring the entire house down, and hang the longer-term consequences for themselves, but more importantly the nation.  I don’t know.  But while Ian Smart, Tom Harris, Michael McMahon, and others of the ilk peddle their toxic brand of mince, I’m on the lookout for a structural engineer or two, just to be on the safe side.

EDIT: With more elan and Biblical references than I could muster, Lallands Peat Worrier expands on my concluding paragraph here.


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3 responses

23 11 2012
Doug Daniel

“part of a wider attempt to undermine many of the collective institutional pillars of the Scottish political set-up, to chip away at the public’s confidence in the home-rule project bit-by-foam-mouthed-bit.”

Aye. One of the Reid Foundation’s blogs a few weeks ago (around the time of Johann’s Thatcher moment) suggested that, having realised they’re not getting back into power at Holyrood anytime soon, Labour have decided to concentrate on trying to win power at Westminster and local level, and essentially bypass Holyrood. This strategy of undermining the very nature of Holyrood would certainly fit into that theme.

The media hardly helps matters. When people get “named” in Westminster, they don’t go and hold a press conference, leading to the media don’t question the severity of the punishment – they’d get told to get their heid oot their arse. When MPs call the Prime Minister a “liar”, the media focus on how the MP in question has shown disrespect, rather than picking up the ball and running with it. Not to mention the fact that they wouldn’t have ignored the multitude of times the opposition had used “creative” statistics.

But overall, this is probably just Labour showing us what we all knew already – that they see Holyrood as little more than a jumped up town council.

23 11 2012
Erchie

I think with the mood the FM was trying to prject, the SNP would have been happy with a PO from one of the other parties.

But after one of the “neutral” commentators from the Labour Party that BBC Scotland likes to bring on called for a Labour PO to use procedural powers to stop a Referendum Bill, the SNP couldn’t let that happen.

This Labour “Samson” tactic is deplorable

24 11 2012
Ian Smart

Much of this is fair comment albeit comment, albeit comment with which I patently don’t agree but there are a number of factual inaccuracies.

Firstly, while it is true that Carolyn Leckie was suspended for one day by George Reid that only happened after she protractedly disrupted Parliament (to be fair, to make a point) and after she was persistently warned that she would be sanctioned unless she desisted. The suspension of the SSP was a decision of the whole Parliament after a report from the Standards Committee. What happened to Michael McMahon is unprecedented in the 13 and a half year history of the Scottish Parliament.

Secondly, we do not need to rely on anecdote as to the circumstances surrounding the Presiding Officer’s election, for we have her own account in an interview with Holyrood Magazine

http://www.holyrood.com/2012/06/with-respect-interview-with-presiding-officer-tricia-marwick/

in which she readily admits that she only stood “as it became clear that the SNP would not stand in her way”. Quite how they did that while “having he-haw too do with it” is a question only you can answer. Her remarks about her attitude to the First Minister in that interview are also revealing.

Thirdly, I have deleted no tweets on this subject. They are still all on my timeline including the one making reference to Zimbabwe which is specifically complained of.

Fourthly, I did not say that Presiding Officers are responsible for the content of answers not least because I don’t for a moment believe they are. They are however responsible for ruling on what is a proper question and what is a proper answer. In relation to the former there are regular examples but in relation to the latter, at least to my knowledge, not a single example since 2011,

Finally, the implication throughout the piece that I am some sort of partisan for the quality or competence of the current Labour Group at Holyrood is an absurd one to anybody remotely familiar with my previously expressed views. That is not the issue here however. The issue is the impartiality of the chair. In that at least the article reports my views accurately.

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