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31 January 2000

Paragons of legislation

New Statesman Scotland - What a collection of charismatic, perspicacious statesmen are the

By Tom Morton

Unable to decide whether it’s Disneyland or Gormenghast, Edinburgh nevertheless exudes a chilly beauty as the city soars, sprawls and huddles under a cloudless winter sky. Cars and buses give off a rubbery clatter as they cope with the Royal Mile’s cobbles, and, in the distance, stooped figures huddle at the back entrance to the Assembly Hall, as clouds of blue smoke spiral up towards the Camera Obscura: addicted MSPs, having a last fix before Sarah Boyack’s statement on air pollution. At the entrance, there is a queue.

“You’ll need to wait,” whispers a blue-blazered lady with one of those American secret-service earphones curling out of her left lug. “Reflections have started.” Just then, a vision of flapping politician’s coat enters, huffing and puffing about passes that should have been left for the Hansard Society. It is Alan Beith, lunched and sniffing out a political digestif. “You can’t go in!” insists the blue blazer. “It’s Reflections.”

Beith looks confused. Are his glasses overpolished? The blazer spots his bafflement. “Prayers!” she hisses. Ah. That would be an ecumenical matter.

Inside, the old kirk hall seems blasphemously altered; white oak and electric blue abounds, with a peculiar glass-fronted box affair hovering over the speakerette, Lord Sir David Lord Steel, as ever a small man desperate to exude bigness. The box is where the TV cameras and sound are sorted from, but it looks like an old railway announcer’s booth ripped out of the pre-modernisation Glasgow Central Station.

Boyack’s back is ramrod straight, but her pronunciation of the word “strategy” has an Invernessian crookedness: “Straaaa-uh-jee” with no middle “t”. It sticks out of her poshified speech like Ben Wyvis above the Black Isle. She speaks of reducing air pollution by 62 per cent in five years, and wonders if there are “particular issues where we could move forward on particulates”.

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The public galleries are busy with backpackers and pensioners, hacks in civvies and a rustling row of Hansardites.

Kenny McAskill from the SNP announces that he’s “never been an advocate of consensus politics, but I do feel this is an area where we can work together”. In Westminster, this would have been the occasion for some stamping, but in this lame legislature they haven’t worked out what to do. There’s some scared clapping, a few grunting heckles, plus that political guffawing perfected at Glasgow University Union debates, and since adopted by all. As the Lib Dems’ Tavish Scott and the Tories’ Murray Tosh – cometh the hour, cometh the name – creakily try to play word games with “consensus” (“We’re more consensual than youse bastards, haw haw”), I see what this is all about. All these fourth-rate party hacks and threadbare nationalist romanticists, these intellectually bankrupt, desperate Lib Dems and junior show-time Labourites, dim and damaged Conservatives embarrassingly rescued from the dustbin of politics by PR. Game-players and hook-operators, nearly all of them. And I’m back suddenly in the testosterone-heavy atmosphere of GUU in the seventies, Glasgow University’s viciously macho all-male, homophobic, desperately unpleasant student union, with its infamously vomit-flecked Beer Bar.

The Mound, despite the prescribed and very mixed complement of Labour women, has a whiff of the GUU’s ugly self-satisfaction, wheedling self-importance and lurching irrelevance. “We all seem to be in love with each other this afternoon,” says Labour’s Helen Eadie. “I’m sure it won’t last very long.” Oh, but it will. All this first-nameism, all this woolly desperation to avoid Westminster-style sound and fury is perfect for such a weak collection of the inept, the inane and the inadequate.

Later, it gets worse. The horsey lairdishness of Jim Wallace introduces the executive’s Millbankian plan to reduce the homosexual age of consent to 16. As the insufferably pompous and now beardless Mike Russell (accent coarsened since the far-off poshness I recall from school) scans the press benches for potential coverage, the SNP’s Roseanna Cunningham coldly supports the Executive plans while the hair of ex-weatherman Lloyd Honeghan, or is it Grossman, glints a peculiar yellow in the telly lights . . .

Thank God for Labour’s Cathy Jamieson, who speaks with ferocious intelligence and a kind of quiet rage about the absolute need for the bill, and how she had taken part in the consultation processes with young people when she was a social worker. It is the only hint of vision and passion in the proceedings. The make-weight guffawers and bored power-junkies suffer her insights in silence.

Clearly, the talented and the impassioned have other fish to fry. But on the low cholesterol gravy train which is Holyrood, the riders won’t care. For they are Our Parliament. Heaven help us.

On reflection, perhaps prayer is our only hope.