Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer calls on ‘tribal’ MSPs to work together as reforms win cross-party support

THE Scottish Parliament’s presiding officer is to call on tribal MSPs to work together across party lines and think beyond the electoral cycle in a major speech to be delivered on Friday.

Ken Macintosh will set out the next stage of his reforms aimed at dealing with what he calls “design flaws” which he believes have limited politicians’ ability to take on some of the biggest challenges facing Scotland, including inequality, climate change and how we pay for stretched public services.

Macintosh was elected Presiding Officer (PO) in a secret ballot of MSPs after the last election. POs must be non-partisan and Macintosh suspended his membership of the Labour Party when he took up the position. He previously held the Eastwood constituency in 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011 elections.

The former BBC television producer said he first stood for election to parliament because he “believes in devolution”. He won a reputation as a campaigning MSP and has now developed a reputation as a reforming PO after he set up The Commission on Parliamentary Reform.

It made 75 recommendations including a call for smaller and stronger committees with conveners not nominated by party whips but elected by parliament, which the commission’s report said would “emphasise the independence of committees and give conveners a mandate for pursuing their scrutiny agenda”.

The report said a committee engagement unit should be created to support committees in innovation and risk-taking and suggested the scrapping of “pointless” scripted diary questions before First Minister’s Questions as well as removing the requirement for advance publication of chosen questions.

The commission, chaired by former Electoral Commissioner for Scotland John McCormick, heard from more than 1,200 people including former first ministers.

Macintosh said he now has “broad support across the political spectrum” to make changes and will reveal his ambitions for the future of the parliament in a major speech titled Scotland’s Parliament 2030, to be delivered in Inverness on Friday as part of a series of events organised by the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The PO will argue that parliament has “design flaws” because it hasn’t recognised how important tribal party “loyalties and allegiances” are to MSPs.

Speaking to the Sunday Herald, Macintosh bemoaned the fact that a parliament with a vision “to work in a cross-party way” sees its politicians continually vote along party lines. He also said committees must “behave in a less partisan way” to improve the parliament’s scrutiny function.

He said: “The first [Scottish] government was a coalition and one dominated by former Westminster politicians. Majoritarian attitudes translated into majoritarian practices. And so, tribalism and divisiveness continued to find a place. But I do not believe that earlier vision has been lost – simply temporarily obscured. These issues were at the forefront of my mind when I set up the independent Commission on Parliamentary Reform. Not because I thought the Parliament was broken – far from it, but we were in need of a fresh look at how well we do our business to get Holyrood back on track.”

Macintosh said he wants to encourage MSPs to “think outside the electoral cycle”. He said: “You’re elected for four or five years and it’s very difficult to talk to other politicians, to other parties, because if you open it up they might attack you. If you think beyond the cycle, for example about Scotland in 2030, it’s far enough away to talk about it without it being seen as that’s your policy and that’s our policy.”

Macintosh said parliament “will have to face up to and respond to” climate change, population and demographic change, the distribution of wealth and inequality, the rise in demand for public services and expectations about how to pay for them.

“These are big issues we have to deal with strategically,” he said. “Politicians and parties will have to come up with the policies, but the key thing is whether parliament can provide the trusted platform where these things can be explored.”

The PO remains hopeful that his reforms can build trust “in a post-truth world” where “democracy is under threat”.

Macintosh added: “My hope is for a stronger, more open, accountable, transparent, responsive, participative and diverse parliament. But, reform doesn’t stop here in 2017. The challenges of today will continue and new ones will emerge. The parliament needs to be bold, ambitious, and forward-thinking, to reflect, represent and lead the changing world around it.”