Wednesday, 3 February 2010

In praise of Hercules

I am of the opinion that Hercules deserves some praise. No, no, not the daft bear who went swimming round the Hebrides nor the Greek burdened by the Dodekathlos (I know that that's the Romanisation of the Greek name, don't think I don't - oh yes!), this Hercules is a chap with a weightier task – presiding over the Scottish Parliament. Alex Fergusson MSP was dubbed Hercules by that scamp Robert McNeil of the ribald pen and the name may be the copyright of the McNeil but, like Hercules, he’s a man with a beard - he can thole it.

The hero of the piece, though, one Hercules of Leswalt in the county of Wigtownshire, former President of the Blackface Sheepbreeders Association, was dragged into the PO’s seat against his will and better judgement but he has proven to be a grand choice. George Reid, his predecessor as PO, set an awfy high standard for his successors to meet – the little magician worked his magic in and around the Parliament, turning the institution into an internationally recognised Parliament, driving the institution onwards, always looking to improve it, always looking for ways to do things better – but Hercules’ task was greater.

Hercules was pressed into service as PO on the 14th of May 2007 and George Reid demitted office with the words “thank goodness for that, I’m offski” well, actually, he said:
In the election of the Presiding Officer, the number of votes cast for each candidate was: Alex Fergusson 108, Margo MacDonald 20. Accordingly, as Alex Fergusson gathered more votes than the total number of votes received by the other candidate, and as more than 25 per cent of members voted, Alex Fergusson is elected as the Parliament's Presiding Officer.

You have just elected a decent and honourable man to head this house. Alex Fergusson is experienced both as a regional and as a constituency member. He has the personal authority of having just been returned with a significantly increased majority as the MSP for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale. As a former committee convener, he knows what it is to seek consensus.

Alex must now try the difficult trick of sitting impartially on the fence while keeping his ears pressed firmly to the ground. However, he brings real qualities to that task: a farmer rooted in his native soil, experienced in shepherding his flock in all weathers; a curler accustomed to negotiating the ice; and a keen country dancer who does a mean strip the willow.

At this time of transition in Scottish life, Alex Fergusson brings the gifts of moderation and facilitation to his new position. I give my very best wishes to him, to his wife, Merryn, and to his family. He has the hopes of the whole chamber behind him.

I made my farewells in March. I now invite the Presiding Officer to come forward and take the chair of this Parliament.
The response indicated that the new PO was well aware of the task that faced him:
Please believe me when I say that a very large part of me would give a lot to be walking out of there now instead of George.

George's exit—as dignified as ever—seems a particularly harsh way for him to leave both the chamber and the office of Presiding Officer. He has served that office with great dignity, but also with honesty, compassion, wit, intelligence, patience and statesmanship. He has been a great servant of Scotland. I do not see his act as one to try to follow blindly, but he has set an impeccably high standard and he has been a shining example for all who follow in his footsteps.

Some of you will have read that I was initially very reluctant to do that—and I was. I did not pursue this position before or during the election and it has come as something of a shock to the electorate of Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, who returned me less than two weeks ago with such a resounding majority. My initial reluctance to put my name forward for this post was born out of the concern that I would not be able to fulfil my commitment to that electorate as their constituency MSP. It was only at the end of last week that I fully persuaded myself that I would and, indeed, could undertake this vital role and simultaneously support and promote my constituents and my constituency. I know that I can and I will.

It has not been an easy decision and sleep was a stranger to me for most of last week and this. I am told that I will probably have to get used to that. However, I was hugely bolstered and affected by the large number of MSPs who contacted me last week and this to offer me their support. As I begin to take on this great responsibility—and the enormous honour that goes with it—of representing our Parliament, I thank you for that support whole-heartedly.

Everyone I ask agrees that we are in for an interesting time. To make it slightly less interesting—for which I sometimes read contentious—at this stage, I will, like my predecessors, reluctantly suspend my party allegiance for as long as I serve in this office.

Let us all remember that our electorate—the people of Scotland—want this new politics to work for them and that we have a duty to deliver what the electorate expect. I thank you for putting your faith in me and I look forward to working with each and every one of you as we seek to take this third session of the Scottish Parliament forward for the benefit of all our people.

Two days later Alex Salmond was elected First Minister and, after two terms of coalition government which was boring but stable, Scotland entered its first term of minority government – far more exciting, far more energetic, far more dynamic, and far less stable. Not only do the Ministers and Cabinet Secretaries need to be constantly alert, so does the Presiding Officer.
It has been Hercules’ ongoing task to maintain order with the bellowing hordes of the Labour party to the right of him (including our good friend Lord Foulkes who loves a wee aside from his sedentary position), the mewling of the Lib Dems in front of him and slightly to his left (not politically) and the fevered pitch of the voices of politicians all over the chamber who feel the tension in the sliver that separates Government success and Government defeat, and he undertakes it with a modesty and grace which marks him out as a fine chap. He once had to rise to his feet and demand in stentorian tones that order be restored to the chamber and the collective sharp intake of breath told its own story about his authority. There have been other tests as well.

Today’s budget might have sailed serenely through with only Labour being daft enough to vote against the Bill but last year when the budget fell at the first time of asking (on Hercules’ casting vote), the Presiding Officer was as busy as the Cabinet Secretary – while John Swinney had his negotiations to get his budget through the Presiding Officer had to rearrange the business of Parliament with his Business Bureau. It was the PO’s job to make sure that the standing orders were being observed and adhered to in the maelstrom that had erupted – he did that with all the dignity, grace and aplomb that we have come to expect of him.
In the troubled waters of parliamentary storms Alex Fergusson MSP has kept an even tiller and has kept our Parliament on a steady course. He stands well in contrast to both the previous and current Speakers of the House of Commons, his stature is, if anything, growing. He was correct to say that George Reid “set an impeccably high standard” and he can be assured that he has matched that standard. Their styles may be different, their approach to the job dissimilar, but they have an equal standing in the development of Scotland’s Parliament.

There may be times when our Hercules would rather be cleaning the Augean Stables or swimming round the Hebrides but we should be glad that he is, instead, presiding over our Parliament.


James Mackenzie said...

A great review, but that top picture indicates some extraordinary bondage, does it not?

Calum Cashley said...

Someone less reserved than I would say "only a Green could look at Hercules and the Hydra by Antonio del Pollaiolo and think of bondage".

Since I am not one of those people, however, I couldn't possibly say such a thing!

masterymistery said...

Sounds encouraging. If only we had a non-dysfunctional parliament down under. One in which the "gifts of moderation and facilitation" are constantly bestowed. Our head honcho, PM Kevin Rudd is a self-aggrandizing jerk who eats his own earwax (true!) and is more interested in trying (but failing miserably) to rub shoulders with the bigger boys and girls on the world stage, instead of doing the job for which he is paid.

Anyway, as we say over here, "she'll be right, mate!".

Interesting post, as usual. Your political insights and perceptive remarks make for engrossing reading.

masterymistery at cosmic rapture

Dougal Fergusson said...

Cracking article. Although I would say that, I guess, as I am his son.

Dougal Fergusson said...

Cracking article. Then again, I guess I would say that, given that I'm his (middle) son.