Both the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales have resumed business this week. After due ceremonies including a multi-faith ‘kirking’, the Scottish Parliament has elected its new presiding officer and deputy presiding officers. The new PO is Tricia Marwick from the SNP, an MSP since 1999, who beat her party colleague Christine Graham and Hugh Henry from Labour, with 73 votes to Henry’s 55 on the second round of voting. The deputy presiding officers are from the Labour and Conservative parties: Elaine Smith (who emphasised her loyalty as being to the people of Scotland when she took the oath), and John Scott. Smith has also been in the Parliament since 1999, and Scott since winning a by-election in 2000.
In Wales, Rosemary Butler from Labour was elected unopposed as presiding officer, and David Melding from the Conservatives won a contested election (with his party colleague William Graham) by 46 votes to 12 to be deputy presiding officer. Both have been in the Assembly since 1999, and Butler was deputy presiding officer in the last Assembly. So both legislatures have women presiding officers, for the first time.
There’s been a predictable amount of criticism from Labour in Scotland of the appointment of an SNP member to the chair (Interestingly, there’s been no similar criticism in Wales.) Marwick has emphasised her own intention to be fair to all members, always to act in the Parliament’s interests, and if necessary to stand up to Alex Salmond.
While concerns about a presiding officer’s impartiality are understandable, those of Labour in Scotland are probably misplaced. Party affiliation is no clear indicator of how holders of that sort of office will operate. Bernard Weatherill was a Conservative MP when elected to the Commons Speakership under a Conservative government, but proved himself a forceful advocate of both Parliament’s prerogatives and the interests of backbenchers, for example. (His successor, Betty Boothroyd, may have been an opposition MP when elected, but was rather more congenial to the Major government.) A greater cause for concern in Scotland may be the numbers of the ballots. Although the vote was secret, there’s a close relationship between the numbers of votes for Marwick (73) and the number of SNP MSPs. Add two Greens and Margo Macdonald, and it’s possible that she only got one vote from the three Unionist parties. Questioning the presiding officer’s impartiality is hardly a good way for Labour MSPs to establish a good relationship with her, though.
As regards the working of the two legislatures, both first ministers have promised consensual approaches. Alex Salmond said at Prestonfield House last Friday that the SNP had no ‘monopoly on wisdom’, and that they would continue to reach out to other parties as they had when they were a minority government. Carwyn Jones said he would govern without ‘triumphalism … or political tribalism’, and that he was ‘aware of the political arithmetic of the Assembly’. Those are both significant statements, but Carwyn Jones’s is the more intriguing. On one hand, Labour’s electoral strength depends on its ability to attract support from voters who are small-n nationalists; on the other, it needs support from other parties to get its business done. The more consensual nature of politics in the National Assembly may be a factor too.
The danger of the devolved legislatures is that members of the governing parties assume they have a duty to support their government first and foremost. It would be foolish to assume that they won’t, of course. But the role of AMs and MSPs is more than that, even when they’re supporting a majority government. Their job is to show that this system of government works – and that includes their ability to provide robust and effective scrutiny of government. It’s a legislature’s job to stop ill-considered or unworkable schemes being enacted, whether there’s majority support for the government or not. Labour AMs and SNP MSPs will actually provide a great service to their parties if they refuse to act as rubber-stamps for what their governments propose.