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5 July 1999

A load of numpties and sweetie-wives

New Statesman Scotland - Tom Brown is less than impressed by the first intake of Scottish p

By Tom Brown

A classic James Thurber cartoon has one of his unhappy couples sitting up in bed, with the wife saying to the husband: “You’re disenchanted, I’m disenchanted, we’re all disenchanted.”

The eternal Thurber sums up the mood of the Scottish nation vis-a-vis its parliament. There was no honeymoon period, and the disenchantment set in from the very first sitting. Perhaps, after the long wait and all the hype, a sense of let-down was inevitable. Perhaps it is too early to judge our embryonic MSPs.

But that has not stopped it happening. The verdict on the first batch of Scottish parliamentarians is already in: their calibre is sub-standard and the way they conduct their business is woeful. They have been written of as self-serving and more concerned with their own salary-expenses-and-holidays package than with setting Scotland to rights. Words such as “duds”, “numpties”, “sweetie-wives” and “skivers” have appeared in print.

The MSPs, the parliament’s leaders and Donald Dewar’s new administration have only themselves to blame. The “phoney war” period between the first sitting and the official opening, between the election and the acquisition of powers on 1 July, has been an unmitigated PR disaster. The initial debates have cruelly exposed the deficiencies of the first intake of MSPs. Many of them seem to have difficulty with joined-up thinking and speaking, and the hallmark of Scotland’s “new politics” seems to be pettiness and petulance. The party selection procedures and the list system have combined to produce an uninspiring crop. Rather than the brightest and best, the parties have opted for the dullest, safest and most likely to toe the leadership line.

The baby of the parliament, the SNP’s Duncan Hamilton, ruffled female feathers on the Labour benches when he described speeches by Karen Whitefield, Irene Oldfather and Johann Lamont as “pathetic”. With the impetuosity of youth, he spoke only the truth.

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Presumably he did not criticise his own Nationalist colleagues because they are close enough to reach over and clip his ear. But some of the utterances of Dorothy-Grace Elder have been, to say the least, eccentric, and Kay Ullrich’s contribution to the food standards debate gave us all something to chew over: “It’s usually from your side we get the let-them-eat-cake question. I don’t know if you learnt to make soup at your granny’s knee.” Eh?

The make-up of the parliament shows that it does not represent the community. Fourteen MSPs have been full-time apparatchiks, researchers, MPs’ gophers and bag-carriers and have never had a proper job. They seem to have the most to say and are the poorest at saying it. Then there are 33 former councillors, some of whom have brought with them the standard of oratory at Inversnecky Toon Cooncil.

Politicos, local government functionaries, trade unionists, lecturers and lawyers make up four-fifths of the parliament. And it will be a standing reproach to Scottish democracy for the next four years that there is not a single representative of an ethnic minority among them. The administration blundered by using the initiation period to discuss housekeeping matters, instead of broad popular issues. After an election campaign in which the topics were jobs, child poverty, health, housing, crime and drugs, debates about MSPs’ expenses and holidays were bound to come as an affront. The new ministers have not helped by meekly accepting the gag slapped on them by the uptight Dewar administration, lying low and speaking only from prepared platitudinous texts.

One national newspaper specialist has tried for over a month to get an interview with the minister whose department he deals with. He has been told she is giving no interviews because she is still mastering her brief. If it has taken that long, why was she given the portfolio in the first place?

Let us be charitable and say a false, stuttering start has been made. Let the MSPs come back from their nine-week summer break refreshed and ready to refurbish their image. Some of them might take public speaking lessons. They should all think about how privileged they are and how they can give the voters value for money. If they must have such long holidays, at least they can do something useful with them.

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