Thursday, October 21, 2021
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Answer the question, Ms Sturgeon

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ON TWO recent occasions, Nicola Sturgeon has read out at First Minister’s Questions in Holyrood a detailed answer to a question that had not been asked, in reply to a specific question that she therefore did not answer.

The first occasion was two weeks ago when an SNP MSP, Stephanie Callaghan, asked about Covid rates in Lanarkshire being the highest in Europe. The First Minister read out this reply: ‘We obviously continue to work with local partners. The area that Evelyn Tweed [MSP for Stirling] represents is hard hit, and we continue to work with the health board and the local authority there and more broadly to ensure that the situation with Covid cases is addressed appropriately and that broader recovery is taken into account. Covid has impacted the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region [sic] deal, but work is ongoing with regional partners to ensure that the deal is delivered. I am happy to ask the relevant minister to write to Evelyn Tweed with a full update.’

What have either Evelyn Tweed or Clackmannanshire got to do with Stephanie Callaghan and Lanarkshire?

Early last week, Sturgeon performed a similar stunt when Stuart McMillan, another SNP MSP, asked for an ‘update’ into the work of the inquiry into the Scottish government’s handling of the pandemic, something the Nationalists have been very defensive about.

Sturgeon read from a file: ‘We will continue to work across the education sector to make sure we take all appropriate action to support the safe return of teaching, to ensure physical distancing remains in place, that face-coverings continue to be used . . .’ blah, blah, blah.

Clearly she had not been listening to the question. As happened a week before, she appeared oblivious to her discourtesy – or perhaps it was a deliberate way of avoiding a thorny issue?

The Nationalists are regularly criticised for not listening to the Scottish people or even to so-called ‘stakeholders’. Certainly, they do not listen to opposition parliamentarians, which is one reason why Holyrood is so sterile: there is no debate. But if Ms Sturgeon is no longer listening to her own party members, we are descending to an even darker level of the political cellar.

On the second of these occasions, Stephen Kerr, a Conservative MSP, raised a point of order. ‘Can you, Presiding Officer, please advise as to what options there are to ensure that we hear an answer to the question that was actually asked?’

The Presiding Officer, Alison Johnstone MSP, until recently co-chair of the Scottish Green Party, replied, ‘The content of Members’ contributions is of course not a matter for me.’ Then her syntax broke down and she waffled about opportunities to correct the ‘Official Report’, which was nothing to do with Stephen Kerr’s point of order. You can see the exchange on YouTube:

This is an open and shut abuse of the democratic process which would not be tolerated in the House of Commons. There, Sir Lindsay Hoyle would most likely intervene during the answer. I recently saw him saying, ‘Will the Prime Minister please answer Mr Blackford’s question’ or words to that effect.

The incidents in Holyrood not only raise questions about the First Minister’s respect for the parliament, they also make the point better than any satire that we in Scotland have been given a ‘Potemkin parliament’. It is widely derided as ‘the pretendy parliament’, and the sentiment is much the same, except that the allusion to Catherine the Great implies a far more serious issue. This is a matter of fundamental state etiquette towards the people the parliamentarians represent.

This is a British issue. If the British government wants to make devolution work, and therefore head off the dangers of separationism, why does it tolerate a joke assembly in Holyrood? What does this sort of thing say about its attitude to the Scottish electorate? ‘Patronising’ would be the world that springs to my mind. What is the Secretary of State for Scotland doing about this? Or is he taking a Sturgeon-ish approach to uncomfortable questions?

Holyrood has been called the ‘invertebrate’ parliament. While many Scots understand that the First Minister wants to keep it that way in order to maximise her own power, it would be a shock to have to conclude that the Conservative Secretary of State in London is doing the same. However, the inescapable fact is that Scottish constitutional architecture is his responsibility.

When is he going to act to put some backbone back into an institution that is increasingly seen as not fit for purpose? Ultimately, as I argue in my book, the survival or otherwise of the rule of law in Scotland depends on this.

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Ian Mitchell
Ian Mitchell is author of ‘The Justice Factory: Can the Rule of Law Survive in 21st Century Scotland?’ (2020) Foreword by Lord Hope of Craighead, ex-Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court. Introduction to Part II by Alan Page, Professor of Public Law at Dundee, author of Constitutional Law of Scotland. 

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