Originally published by STV News, 27th March 2016
Back in October of last year I had only actually been inside the parliament building once.
But I had watched from afar daily, tuning in to debates and committees, keen to find out exactly what was going on.
The winding down of NewsShaft, the online political radio platform I was a producer and presenter for, left me with a severe political obsession, and a lack of an outlet.
In November I got the opportunity to work a couple of days a week in the office of Jean Urquhart, the independent MSP. Having sat on the outside for so long looking in, I jumped at the chance to see what really went on inside.
Of course we all have preconceived ideas of the life of an MSP, and they’re probably all a lot more regal than the reality. The truth is, now, five months later, it feels like only a couple of weeks have passed: Things move very fast, and there is always so much going on. It’s hectic, and most politicians do work hard for their money.
But this short, fast-paced few months changed my opinion of party politics altogether.
This was perhaps a process that had already begun during my time at NewsShaft, indeed I produced a couple of shows for NewsShaft suggesting that, actually, this tribal warfare that we see in the media is largely a media construct – that in reality people do work together.
Watch a midweek debate. Sure, if an SNP MSP gets a chance for an easy dig at a Labour MSP over policy they’ll take it but it’s far more likely that you’ll begin to pay less attention to which party the speakers represent and more to the issues being debated.
People work together.
Members of the Scottish Parliament all share one thing: The desire to make Scotland better. They just have exceptionally different views on how to do it and, more importantly, of what an ‘ideal’ Scotland would look like. But this is where diversity in the government can be a good thing.
The thing I had really taken for granted is exactly how much power a majority government has. Now that might sound silly – of course a majority government has power – but it makes for a much duller parliament. Stage 3 debates are generally procedural and predictable. And regardless how impressive the delivery is of any argument against the government, you get the feeling that ministers are willing only to make changes to their proposed legislation when the media weighs in, rather than when the rest of the chamber pipes up.
The Scottish Parliament’s voting system was devised to give an element of proportional representation, and to try to stop there being a majority government. I was one of those that thought it was quite marvellous when the SNP won their majority in 2011; I even went along to watch Alex Salmond deliver his victory speech in Edinburgh. But over the past few months I’ve found myself wondering how different things could be.
I’m not a Tory voter, I never have been, and can’t imagine there ever being a time when I would be, but the Conservative Party represents a demographic of society and I am glad that those voices are heard, alongside Greens, Labour and Liberal Democrats. The work that these individuals do (when not in election mode, or my most-hated event, First Minister’s Questions) is invaluable in ensuring that our parliament reflects the views of our people.
There have been times when watching committees and debates over the last few months when I’ve agreed with Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens (not over the same issue, obviously), and even on rare occasions the Tories.
We are now a few weeks away from an election in which an SNP majority is pretty much a safe bet. I do like the SNP but I don’t share the view held by many independence supporters that it would be a disaster if they didn’t secure a majority. Imagine if they had to work with the Greens, or perhaps a new Left voice formed by RISE MSPs? As someone who values independence but also identifies as a socialist and environmentalist this actually would be a dream to me.
Some recent announcements have seen the SNP come under fire for turning its back on its radical roots. With power, it appears, comes compromise. I’m sure that there will be many in the SNP, probably outgoing MSPs and candidates, who would rather see progressive council tax policies, for example.
One of the things that has been at the forefront of my thoughts over the last few months is that the SNP could probably achieve more longevity in power if they were in a minority government situation – and still get the important work done! They could blame parties like the Greens or RISE for banning fracking, for example (because it doesn’t look like they’re happy to ban it themselves).
They could adapt their education policies without it looking like a U-turn, as they’re just “doing their best to represent the voices in the parliament”. And on the bigger issues. Independence? Well, the Greens and each member group of RISE campaigned for independence too, and a parliament that consists of three pro-independence parties working together would be a strong place to launch a new campaign from.
When we see the parliament as a living entity, moving with the voices of many parties, we see that parties aren’t football teams. You don’t have to tie yourself to one colour and stick there forever, regardless of that party passing policies you don’t agree with. It’s okay to disagree with your party from time to time. It’s important to do so. It’s important to hold the government to account.
Far too often we jump in to defend a policy just because it was put forward by a party that we like. Well, actually there are some parties I don’t like that put forward policies I do like, and I won’t be shy to say that in future.
My interpretation of the parliament is that there is a far less partisan mentality inside the building than there is on the campaign trail, on TV and in the newspapers. Perhaps this would be easier for others to see if there was less sneering in the media, less gossiping, and less tweeting.
Commentary by Carolyn Scott. Carolyn has been active in documentary-making and new media for several years, most prominently as an executive producer with the feature-length documentary Scotland Yet, and throughout 2015 as a presenter and producer with NewsShaft – an online radio platform dedicated to Scottish politics. She has a very cute dog called Dougal.