Visiting the Scottish Parliament

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January 11, 2014 by Colin Kelly

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Everyone should take a day and visit the Scottish Parliament.

No matter what you think of politics and politicians, you can’t fail to be inspired by this place.

It must be the friendliest and most accessible parliament anywhere in the world. Tourists beside me in the public gallery could barely believe how close they could get and how open everything was.

The friendly guides (they’re not security guards although part of their job is to make sure everyone behaves) will chat for as long as you’ve got about the history of the place, the building, who does what and how it all works. It’s fascinating.

From the police officers outside the public entrance, through the security check-in (much less invasive than getting on a plane) to the reception staff and everyone you meet as you wander round, the whole atmosphere is friendly and welcoming.

We should be very proud of what we have here.

Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays are the best days if you want the full guided tour experience. But to see the politicians in action, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are best.

I went on Thursday, for the first First Minister’s Questions of the year.

There weren’t exactly fireworks but it was great to see the First Minister Alex Salmond, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, and the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland Johann Lamont going head to head.

As a former journalist who now specialises in delivering media relations training, what interested me most were the performances not only of those who spoke, but also those who didn’t.

Body language is a big part of how we decide who we trust, and who we listen to.

So I have a warning for backbenchers on all sides. People sitting in the public gallery actually see far more of your faces than those sitting up the front.

There were a lot of sour faces on display, lots of tutting, head shaking and at times downright insolence.

I understand that part of the job is putting down the opposition. But there’s a classy way of doing it and a bitter way. Being in the chamber might bore you rigid most of the time, but it’s one part of the job when you’re in public and on display. That public gallery holds more than 200 people and they’re watching your every move, making judgements about what you’re like as a person. It’s televised too and the camera always picks up whoever is sitting around the MSP currently speaking.

Think about it and behave with class at all times.

And those of you just biding time and picking up the pay cheque until the next election when you’ll get kicked out, please, at least give us the impression you want to be there.

Another thing that struck me was the clear hierarchy that exists within the parties. I cringed for one MSP shortly before things kicked off as he gingerly tried to approach a more senior colleague (I assume to wish them Happy New Year) only for his intended target to continue in conversation with a fellow more senior colleague without noticing he was there. He did a strange ‘Will-I-Won’t-I-I’m-In-No-Man’s-Land’ dance for a few seconds, before skulking back to his seat hoping no-one was watching. We were and it reminded me of that time at that school disco where I tried to chat to a girl well out my league only for her to blank me and continue talking to Steven Thompson.

I wouldn’t have won many votes that night and neither will this guy if people see that kind of weak nonsense on a regular basis.

There’s a distinct lack of team spirit. It comes across on telly and it’s amplified 100 times in that debating chamber. All parties should do something about this. The chamber isn’t just somewhere you have to go in between the rest of your terribly important work; it’s a stage where the world is watching and making judgements about you. So treat it as such. Put on a united front, sharpen up, and for goodness sake smile.

The SNP frontbench team is pretty formidable, largely made up of very experienced politicians who served for years in opposition. Whatever your political persuasion, few would argue that First Minister Alex Salmond is one of the best political leaders of his generation.

My visit coincided with what seems to have been a particularly tricky week for the Labour Party but I still would have expected better from their team. Kezia Dugdale and Johann Lamont were easily swept aside by Mr Salmond. ‘But he didn’t answer our questions!’, they’ll cry. Perhaps not but their lacklustre delivery and his stinging retorts mean the average Joe won’t remember what the questions even were.

The more experienced Malcolm Chisholm had a decent crack from the very back of the chamber, (he was almost halfway up Arthur’s Seat) forcing Salmond to bring up their personal past in what I considered to be something of a low blow.

That lot had made much of the big national issues of the week – George Osbourne’s proposed budget cuts and the impact they would have on Scotland, SNP spending plans and whether there’s enough money for this, and whether we’d be better off doing that. And when we’re looking at how prosperous an independent Scotland would or wouldn’t be, are we looking at figures from the last 30 years, the last 25 or the last 5?

Is that really the best they’ve got?

All stuff with no absolute right or wrong answer. Much of it open to interpretation and therefore easier for a strong performer like Mr Salmond to deal with. He simply exposes their own flaws and failings, attacks their own record and gets on with what he considers the important business of ‘delivering a better future for the people of Scotland.’

Ruth Davidson of the Scottish Conservatives took a different approach with her question. It was about a £300,000 golden goodbye given to a quango boss who’d only been in their post for 2 and a half years.

‘Which Minister signed that off?’ she wanted to know.

Salmond replied saying it wouldn’t be right for the government to get involved in those sorts of personnel matters. But Davidson produced a quote from some guidelines which she suggested made clear it certainly should.

It was notable that one of Mr Salmond’s colleagues whispered in his ear before his response to Davidson’s persistence. Up till that point he’d handled everything entirely on his own, barely even glancing at his notes.

‘You have to look at the full term of employment at the quango’, he said, ‘Not just the period where they held the senior position’.

It was the only part of the entire session where Salmond didn’t put the issue to bed. Is it right, that a public official can receive £300,000 for leaving a post with no scrutiny from the government? Are we not supposed to be challenging fat cat pay?

Davidson’s line of questioning and the fact one of Mr Salmond’s colleagues appeared so quick to offer him some help, suggests this is the more useful tactic when challenging him. He gets a wee bit (and I mean only a wee bit) rattled when you go very specific on things that have actually already happened in Scotland. Things that would put any First Minister in an awkward position because ‘it wouldn’t be right’ for the government to get involved.

Perhaps that’s exactly why it should.

Rather than arguing about small print and figures and stuff that depends what colour of socks you wear while you read the report, pick a topic where you know most ordinary folk will be on your side.

Try and find the issue everyone would rather was kept quiet and shine the spotlight on it. In short, act like a journalist. And it’s no coincidence this is Davidson’s background.

Overall, the standard of verbal delivery and presentation in the Scottish Parliament, is, in my opinion, and with a few notable extremes in each direction, average at best. You wouldn’t have to be particularly good to get in and hold your own with the majority of them.

And I hope it’s something you’ll consider. I’m not a fan of the party system and the way it forces people to compromise their beliefs in order to be selected and then compromise them again when they get power. I don’t like a system that allows people to be lazy, coasting along, hiding behind the party that ‘always wins that seat’.

One of the original aims of the Scottish Parliament was that it would lead to a different type of person getting involved in politics. There’s been some progress on this front but there’s room for a lot more.

Get along for a visit and consider whether it’s something you could have a go at yourself.

In this era of social media it’s easier than ever for someone like you to win the support of voters in your local area, and end up representing them at Holyrood.

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