Yesterday (Thursday) was unexpectedly one of the most dramatic of days at Holyrood since the Parliament came in to being.
The Stage 1 Debate on the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Billhttp://www.scottish.parliament.uk/s4/bills/01-offbehfoot/index.htm was to take place, followed by First Minister’s Question Time. Many observers expected that (a) the Minister, Roseanna Cunningham, would attempt to mount a strenuous defence of her Bill, following her criticised performance at the Justice Committee earlier in the week http://bit.ly/knSjxc (b) there would be vigorous debate in the Chamber, some partisan and some not and (c) Mr Salmond would then have the other party leaders lining up to give him a kicking re the Bill and its numerous faults, or, to be neutral, areas of concern.
Parts a and b proceeded much as expected. Ms Cunningham’s defence of the Bill (when strictly I suppose she was there to promote it) seemed less than convincing, although avoiding the clear errors which seemed to be made at the Justice Committee. It was made clear that the Bill was going to go through, because it was essential that the new law be in force for the start of the football season, and that this was what the police and football authorities wanted. The Executive agreed and, whilst sharing the concerns re the accelerated Bill procedure, there was really no alternative to proceeding now. Indeed an offer by the Labour Party for members to sit over the summer break to deal with this matter was rejected. The Bill, like the Pony Express, had to get through on time.
When the matter was opened up for debate, one of the flaws of the Holyrood system was apparent. Bearing in mind that one of the many criticisms of the Bill was the haste with which it was being rushed through, and the consequent lack of Parliamentary analysis, it seemed ironic that the members who spoke were limited in time, at first to five minutes and then, by the end, to four. It is accepted clearly that Parliament has to manage limited time resources, but where time itself is the issue, this seemed inappropriate. However, matters seemed rather more organised than my re-collections of “guillotine” debates in the Commons, but that is for another day. (Thank goodness it’s not for now – Ed.)
Particularly impressive were Christine Grahame, the SNP MSP who is Convener of the Justice Committee, Graeme Pearson and Patrick Harvie.
The Convener, though not strictly supposed to speak in that capacity, donned her non-partisan hat and rattled through a number of her concerns regarding matters. Bearing in mind that she was, in effect, raising serious questions regarding her own party’s legislation, it was heartening to see a politician whose concern was that Parliament dealt properly with a vital issue, rather than simply following the mantra of “My party, right or wrong.”
Mr Pearson, former Head of the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency, has seemed to my eyes anyway, ever more impressive with each contribution to the Parliament. Whilst only an MSP since the May election, he has taken his extensive experience of real life, and especially of policing, and applied it to the issues before him. His very frank comment in Committee that you would never see the police turning down more powers, but that that in itself was not a reason for granting them, was refreshing. Having seen Mr Pearson speak impressively in his previous role, it is good for Parliament that people of such expertise are available to provide their informed analysis on issues.
Mr Harvie made the very telling comment that the Parliament did not, and ought not to, run in line with the football season.
On the other hand John Lamont, the Conservative Justice Spokesman, who earlier in the week had asked two questions in Committee (re the National Anthem http://bit.ly/lmoMAG and how many prosecutions were expected http://bit.ly/jC74Dk ) which I had earlier posed on my blog (although I claim no credit for him asking the questions), went off on what lawyers would call “a frolic of his own” seeming to blame the existence of Catholic schools for sectarianism. This, not surprisingly, made headlines but was a distraction from the issues before Parliament yesterday. In any event, squeezing in an attack on such education as the third part of a speech only five minutes long is hardly the way the issue ought to be addressed in any event. I wonder if what he was saying was Conservative policy. I am sure someone will find out!
Interestingly, one SNP member asked the Labour spokesman whether, if the Bill was delayed, this would be treated by the Labour Party in a non partisan way, on the basis that this would be respecting the wishes of Parliament, rather than being subject of criticism as a “u-turn”. The response was, on the basis that there was no expectation of any delay, that of course there would be no political capital sought should there be such a pause for consideration. (I paraphrase on the basis that, as I type, the Official Report of yesterday’s proceedings is not yet online.) This seemed a throw away line, and may indeed have been so. It was to become relevant only minutes later.
The Minister summed up, just before First Minister’s Questions, by moving the Bill, and ruling out the calls for delays. Matters would progress, and the Bill would become law next week. Ms Cunningham sat down; I am sure greatly relieved that the debate was over.
A few minutes after that Mr Salmond stood up. There was no expectation of what he was going to say. In response to his first supplementary question from Mr Gray on the anti-sectarian Bill, Mr Salmond produced his rabbit. He had listened to the debate – serious issues had been raised – it was a mater of getting things right. He hoped the Parliament would approve Stage 1 of the Bill that afternoon, and then the following Stages would take place, however on the normal timetable, with an expectation that the Bill would be passed by the end of the year. Mr Salmond spoke quietly and in a reserved, and one might say, statesman-like manner. The TV feed I was watching happened to show Christine Grahame sitting behind Mr Salmond. As he spoke she at first looked annoyed, it appeared, as he asked Parliament to support the Bill, and then stunned as she realised that, in fact, the demands for more time had been heard. She could be seen turning to the person on her right (who was not visible in the feed at that point) clearly looking to see if that person’s understanding was the same.
Once Mr Salmond finished, and it was clear that the Bill was to be delayed, he sat down to applause from his own members. However, the person to whom Christine Grahame had been speaking turned out to have been the Minister, Roseanna Cunningham, herself. She did not appear from the footage to be joining in the clapping! http://bbc.in/jhmkyk
Two issues arise (well many more, but let’s keep them at two for now).
First of all, Mr Salmond totally wrong-footed the other party leaders. Their prepared questioning withered on the vine. Mr Gray seemed, at first, not really to have noticed and his follow up questions still seemed premised on the Bill being rushed through next week. Standing the comments from his party earlier in the debate, it was going to be very hard for him now to criticise the Executive for dong what he had been asking them to do!
Mr Rennie’s first supplementary question was simply a thank you to Mr Salmond, literally, and the wind had gone from his sails too.
Even Mrs Goldie could not divert herself too far from her planned attack.
Mr Salmond, who had stood up expecting to be caught in a barrage of criticism, with one bound, was free.
Politically it was the right thing to do, and hopefully time for reflection will lead to a far batter Bill than that presently before Parliament.
Secondly though, where does this leave Ms Cunningham?
This issue is discussed at length in an excellent post at http://lallandspeatworrier.blogspot.com/2011/06/laws-delays-insolence-of-office.html.
My tuppence worth is that Ms Cunningham has been left in a hole here – her credibility re the issue in tatters. Either she had to stand up to move the Bill, knowing that Mr Salmond was going to change tack 20 minutes later, in which case I can see why she would not be happy – the credit for the change going to the First Minister, not her (though, as a lawyer, fighting a case you know is lost is not uncommon) or she remained of the mind that the Bill was to go through as planned, and had the feet pulled from under her by the First Minister.
Either way, I suspect that Mr Salmond and Ms Cunningham will have, or will already have had, discussions about how her status might be restored. After all, she is the Minister specifically tasked with dealing with sectarianism. She will still be at the forefront of this Bill, and whilst I think Mr Salmond’s change of tack will see him fairly clear of criticism, I can well imagine that opposition MSP’s will find as many reasons as they can to remind Ms Cunningham of lunchtime on 23rd June 2011.
Bottom line though – it is a good thing that the Bill has been delayed. Better to get it right, than to cause even more problems by getting it wrong in haste.
Finally, as was commented by the blogger @loveandgarbage Mr Salmond, having succeeded in uniting Celtic and Rangers, and then the Law Society and the Faculty of Advocates, must now be headed for the Middle East to work his magic there!