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Alistair Grant: Holyrood could do with a few more mavericks

IT all seems slightly naive now – an idea plucked from a time when the constitutional tsunami heading towards Scotland was just a distant ripple on the horizon.

But amid the celebrations to mark two decades since the Scottish Parliament was “reconvened” – to use Winnie Ewing’s poetic word at its first meeting on May 12, 1999 – a certain wistfulness has emerged.

In Holyrood’s early days, there were hopes it would usher in a new type of politics. The Westminster template was explicitly rejected.

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Scotland’s parliament would be different: more open, more consensual and less bogged down in stultifying tradition. It would be progressive and modern, ideals reflected in the striking building it came to occupy at the foot of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Crucially, its politicians would not be confined by the rigid party structures of the House of Commons. They would be freer, more independent.

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Of course, this didn’t quite happen. But what’s notable, 20 years down the line, is the cross-party disappointment felt by those who were there when it all began. Holyrood, the consensus seems to be, could do with a few more mavericks.

This regret is laid bare in The Scottish Parliament in its Own Words, a new book charting the “oral history” of Holyrood published by Luath Press.

Perhaps the most withering remarks come from former SNP health secretary Alex Neil, an MSP since 1999. In comments sure to endear him to colleagues, he said the Scottish Parliament would benefit from “some people who have more backbone and will stand up for what they believe in, instead of kowtowing to party leaderships”.

The veteran Nationalist argued there are far too many MSPs who, “like nodding donkeys”, simply regurgitate the party line, while the smaller size of Holyrood’s groups allow party leaders and whips to exercise a tighter grip.

His comments are echoed by others in the book. Scottish Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said there was initially much discussion about moving past the Westminster whipping system.

“That never happened here,” he said. “In fact, I think the opposite happened.”

He also cited Holyrood’s smaller size as a reason for this failure – as well as tight post-election arithmetic.

This contrasts sharply with Westminster, he said, where there are more MPs willing to “plough their own furrow and take an independent view”.

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Meanwhile, Scottish Labour MSP Jackie Baillie spoke of her disappointment that committees – a central part of Holyrood’s legislative process – now divide down party lines.

In her day, she said, backbenchers used to tear strips off ministers from their own government if they thought it necessary. Not anymore.

It’s easy to dismiss these observations as nostalgia, and there’s probably some truth in that. But similar sentiments were also expressed to The Herald in interviews to mark 20 years of devolution earlier this year.

Former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said the Parliament had lost the untidy energy of its early days and lacks “big thinking”. She pointed to an “unhealthy” dynamic that sees ministers rarely fielding questions from their own side.

And she argued the balance between the executive and parliament has changed since the early days of devolution, with close to half of the current SNP group holding ministerial posts.

Asked about concerns Holyrood’s committee system doesn’t have the same teeth as Westminster’s, Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh said the Commons had the advantage of having 650 MPs to Holyrood’s 129. This left space for backbenchers who see themselves as parliamentarians, rather than future ministers. They have room to be difficult.

Elsewhere in the pages of The Scottish Parliament in its Own Words, SNP MSP Linda Fabiani, Holyrood’s deputy presiding officer, notes there are a generation of Nationalist politicians “who have never known anything else but success”. She adds: “There are times when there’s almost no recognition from them that things could ever be any different.”

For many observers, this isn’t a particularly reassuring picture.

There’s no doubt party discipline can be helpful in getting things done – just ask the SNP – but politics also needs outliers and those willing to kick up a fuss and swim against the current.

It makes things more interesting, and it’s better for the people politicians are supposed to represent. It’s also a necessity if Holyrood’s committees are to properly scrutinise legislation.

As with everything, there’s a balance to be struck. After all, a complete lack of discipline and consensus has been causing havoc in Westminster for months. But there’s a valuable place in any parliament for those who buck against the trend.

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And if there is a general feeling that things in Holyrood are becoming a bit stale, that should cause concern.

Scotland’s ongoing constitutional wrangling has dealt a near-fatal blow to those early dreams of a more consensual, less confrontational politics. As the row over the SNP’s plans for a Citizens’ Assembly show, everything is now seen through the lens of Yes or No.

Perhaps this has only added to the unexpectedly tribal atmosphere created by the Scottish Parliament’s smaller party groups. As Mr Neil argued, it’s difficult to be a rebel in a small group. This probably isn’t helped by a climate of Us and Them.

And yet Holyrood is no stranger to mavericks. Its bar might be called the Queensberry House Lounge, but politicians, journalists and staff all know it by a different name: Margo’s.

This is an affectionate tribute to the late Independent MSP Margo MacDonald, a serial rebel unafraid to champion unpopular causes.

Right in the scheming heart of Holyrood, where high-flying ministers brush shoulders with lowly hacks over a pint or a glass of wine, there’s a nod to those with a knack for causing trouble.

Here’s to them.

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