SNP veteran: Holyrood needs MSPs with more backbone

The Herald, by Alistair Grant

10.07.19

A VETERAN SNP MSP has hit out at “nodding donkeys” in Holyrood as he insisted the Scottish Parliament would benefit from politicians with more backbone.

Former health secretary Alex Neil said a lot of recent MSPs have no “political hinterland”, adding: “It has made things duller.”

He made the comments in a new book charting the history of the Scottish Parliament in the words of staff and politicians.

Mr Neil said Holyrood has not “attracted enough independent-minded people to the Parliament”.

He added: “I don’t necessarily mean individuals have to leave their parties and be elected as Independents like [former MSP] Margo MacDonald, but some people who have more backbone and will stand up for what they believe in, instead of kowtowing to party leaderships would benefit us.

“There are a lot of people who have recently entered the Scottish Parliament without a political hinterland. It has made things duller.

“There are far too many MSPs, from all parties, who before they speak get a briefing from the central unit, or actually get their speech written for them, and just read it out like nodding donkeys. I think that is bad for the Parliament.”

Mr Neil, who has been an MSP since 1999 and was health secretary under Alex Salmond, said the smaller size of Holyrood’s chamber “gave the party leaderships far too much control over all aspects of the running of the Parliament”.

He continued: “I think one of the mistakes David Steel made as Presiding Officer right at the beginning was that he tended to sign up the party leaders on issues like salaries, allowances and so on. Backbenchers were left out in the cold in these discussions.

“The small size of the Parliament has meant that each party group has been small as well. The largest ever party group was the SNP on 69 members, but that is still a relatively small parliamentary party. The largest Labour group was 56, the Lib Dems at 17, the Tories 31. These are all small groups, so they have a different dynamic. It is very difficult to be a rebel in a small group.

“So, the party leaders and the party whips have a much tighter grip over their MSPs.”

Mr Neil’s remarks are featured in The Scottish Parliament in its Own Words, an oral history published by Luath Press to mark 20 years of devolution.

The book, edited by Thomas A W Stewart on behalf of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, grew out of a project to capture “untold memories” from those working within Holyrood.

A total of 77 interviews were carried out – most of them between March and June last year – on a variety of topics covering the Scottish Parliament’s first two decades.

Scottish Tory MSP Murdo Fraser told the project that early ambitions to move past the Westminster party whipping system and encourage more freedom of thought among MSPs “never happened”.

He added: “In fact, I think that the opposite happened. Because the Parliament was smaller, because the party groups were smaller, because in virtually every parliament there has been a very fine balance between the parties, there has been very little flexibility for individual MSPs to take independent views.

“You can probably count on the fingers of one hand, or maybe two, the number of times we’ve had large numbers of MSPs rebelling against their party.

“At Westminster, you see many more individual MPs from all different parties who are prepared to plough their own furrow and take an independent view.”

Scottish Labour MSP Jackie Baillie echoed these views, and insisted it is “genuinely so disappointing” that committees now divide down party lines.

She added: “The backbenches in my day used to tear strips off ministers from their own government if they didn’t perform appropriately.

“It just seems to be the culture of, ‘If you’re a backbencher you need to be a cheerleader for the government’, is more prevalent than it was before.”

She continued: “Now there are members who sit there, they have issues in their constituency, but because they are government backbenchers they won’t raise them in the chamber.

“I think they are doing a disservice to their constituents.”