When is the end of term not the end of term? When there is no term.
No, Yoda hasn’t taken over the Scottish Parliament, but some of the string and sticking plaster put in place to allow us to muddle through during the Covid-19 restrictions might as well have been a philosophical musing from the green one.
Apart from the scheduled two-week Easter recess, Holyrood has continued to sit throughout the coronavirus crisis. We’ve typically had two days a week of physical sittings (socially distanced, of course, and limiting our numbers). Further to that, there have been online committees, ministerial questions and, latterly, as our IT got sorted out, hybrid sessions with video contributions beamed in to the chamber. Nearly four months on, there is still no remote voting, and, as the parties were unable to agree on a proxy voting system, shielding colleagues are pretty peeved that they can question, but not vote, in the parliament they serve.
In normal times, last week would have been the time for MSPs to return to their constituencies until the first week in September. This year, we will continue to meet virtually each week for ministers’ questions and in person every three weeks for the legally mandated update to parliament from the First Minister. The emergency powers handed to Nicola Sturgeon’s government are sweeping and it’s right that their usage is regularly reviewed.
We’re all back in Holyrood fully from 11 August, when schools go back in Scotland – but what “fully” actually looks like is anyone’s guess.
Unsung Holyrood heroes
My last duty before the end of term – that’s not an end of term – is a meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Corporate Body (SPCB). This is the board that runs Holyrood and makes decisions on everything from budgets, salaries, procurement and security, to the size of the portions ladled out in the canteen (no, really). When I stepped down as leader, my successor asked me to serve on the SPCB as the Tory rep. After nine years in Holyrood, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the place. It’s in my constituency and I’m in and out all the time – often using it out-of-hours as my quiet office instead of carting papers home to a madhouse disrupted by a toddler and a spaniel.
How wrong I was. The SPCB’s work is largely unnoticed and usually unheralded. However, we are the group ultimately responsible for emptying the whole parliamentary estate – including all constituency offices – when lockdown hit, supporting hundreds of people to work from home while restrictions are in place and, now, as restrictions ease, working out who to get back and when.
It is impossible to see how parliament could function again in the way it was previously. At least, not before I leave for good next year. That makes me sadder than it should, as I am attached to the place. It has been an enormous part of my life (my family might say too big) for the best part of a decade.
A return of family celebrations
Last weekend saw time to celebrate my partner Jen’s birthday. It’s the year before a big one and the latest rule relaxation in Scotland allows us to invite two separate households to join us outside. That’s enough for a decent barbecue. We lit the coals, filled up the paddling pool for baby Finn, marinaded the chicken, buttered the burger buns and put a fancy rub on the pork belly. It feels odd to entertain in person rather than get annoyed with the staccato conversation of virtual drinks over Zoom. It’s nice – nourishing, even – to have a proper chat and a laugh and catch-up.
I’ve not really been joining in with the lockdown baking obsession, but I pushed the boat out with a three-tiered Black Forest gateau (Jen’s favourite dessert), which just about kept its shape. It’s not a night out, but it still feels significant – another step out of the Covid-19 tunnel.
Pride isn’t cancelled, just the parades
I’ve found lockdown an odd period – like an extended version of that half-light which could be either dawn or dusk. With so much activity suspended, it’s as if the whole world is caught in a holding pattern, circling above the runway until someone announces we’re allowed to touch down. The calendar moves on, but without the events that would mark it. For example, I should be in daily negotiation with Jen right now over which Euro championship matches I’m allowed to commandeer the big telly to watch.
This is Pride month, too, but my dog Wilson’s rainbow bandana sits in a drawer, with no parade to take him to. Again, this moves online – the Tony Blair Institute has invited me to speak virtually to its staff about Pride, policy and a hundred other things. I’m invited on with the former Labour peer, Lord Cashman. Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants. It is only because his generation fought through the brickbats and marched, marched, marched, with dignity and conviction, that my generation, and younger generations, can approach Pride as a celebration instead of a defiance.
Farewell to Sedwill
I’ve recently joined the board of the Halo Trust – the mine clearance charity made famous by Princess Diana. I’ve known its work a long time and visited its programme in Afghanistan. Based in Dumfries, it is Scotland’s largest NGO. I had assumed I’d been invited on to help give political insight, that was, until I did my due diligence and found out that Mark Sedwill, national security adviser and Cabinet Secretary, was already a trustee – and infinitely more plugged in to what this iteration of the UK government views as its overseas policy goals. Having been near his orbit many times, it was a pleasure to (remotely) meet him, and he is as impressive as people say. I wasn’t expecting to see his departure lead the news cycle just a few days later. What a loss.
Ruth Davidson is an MSP and the former leader of the Scottish Conservative Party
This article appears in the 01 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis