Monday 16 May 2011

Scotland's President

In days of yore the person who kept order in the Scots Parliament was known as the President, these days it's the more prosaic title Presiding Officer and much tickled have I been by the fuss and flutter from Labour over the democratic election of a new Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. Intrigued am I by the shortness of the collective Labour memory that conveniently forgets that it was the party which refused to provide a Presiding Officer in 2007 – a refusal which resulted in Hercules being dragged up to the chair and forced into it. I think he’s done a fine job over the past four years but you could sense that he was laying down what was a heavy burden when he passed over to Tricia Marwick and the grace with which he did so speaks volumes about him.

In electing Tricia, though, Parliament has done more than just elect the first female PO, it also elected the first PO who didn’t attend a private school – David Steel went to the Prince of Wales School in Nairobi and to George Watson’s in Edinburgh; George Reid went to Dollar Academy; Alex Fergusson went to Eton. Tricia, the daughter of a mining family in Cowdenbeath, went to the local council-run school. She’s also the first Presiding Officer to have gone straight from school to work, eschewing tertiary education; and I think that she’s probably the first to have had working-class parents.

She knows she’s got a task on her hands which no-one has faced before – each of the Presiding Officers has faced different challenges. David Steel had to steer the institution through its set-up phase; George Reid had the building project and turning the institution into an internationally recognised body; Alex Fergusson had the first minority government and the arrival of George Foulkes; Tricia Marwick has the independence referendum, a host of newbie MSPs, the changing of the guard in the opposition parties and the tensions of a Parliament with a single-party majority for the first time. You might think she’s got an easier time than the others but I’m thinking it might not be as easy as it sounds.

It was good to learn that she had support from members of each of the main parties for her election and that people know that she’ll be fair and even-handed and fears no-one, I look forward to seeing how she fares. In the meantime, did you hear what one PO said to the other PO?

The Presiding Officer: In the second round of voting in the election of the Presiding Officer, the number of votes cast for each candidate was as follows: Hugh Henry 55, Tricia Marwick 73. Accordingly, as Tricia Marwick received more votes than the total number of votes that the other candidate received, and as more than 25 per cent of members voted, Tricia Marwick is elected as the Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer. [Applause.]

I thank all the candidates in the election of the Presiding Officer, as we come to yet another first in the series of firsts that have come to the fore in the past week. Scotland’s electorate seem to take great delight in delivering a Parliament with significantly different challenges at each and every election.

First, in 1999, the electorate delivered our first coalition Government. In 2003, they delivered what became known as the rainbow Parliament, with originally six and, ultimately, seven parties and groupings recognised on the Parliamentary Bureau. In 2007, they delivered our first minority Government and now, in 2011, they have delivered yet another first—a single party has gained an outright majority for the first time.

The Parliament itself seems to have taken the road of firsts to heart by electing a female member as the Presiding Officer for the first time. Furthermore, it has elected a member from the likely party of Government for the first time. In itself, that will present fresh challenges.

Having worked with Tricia Marwick on the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body over the past four years, I can testify to her ability to put the Parliament’s interests before the interests of any party in it. I know that I join all members in wishing her, her husband Frank, and her family our very best wishes as she takes on this vitally important role.

I would not dream of offering my successor any advice—except perhaps this: if, Tricia, you find after a few months that you are not quite as well known to the public as you would like to be, get yourself involved in a live television draw for a football cup semi-final and make a complete hash of it. I guarantee that you will be a household name after that. [Laughter.]

More seriously, the role of Presiding Officer carries with it a cloak of great privilege and even greater responsibility. It is one that I have worn to the best of my ability, but I am now delighted to pass it on to my elected successor. I have great pleasure in inviting the Presiding Officer to come forward and take the chair for the fourth session of our Scottish Parliament. [Applause.]

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): First, I thank all my parliamentary colleagues from all parties for their support today. I also thank my predecessor, Alex Fergusson, for his work in the past four years. His was a most difficult period, with the potential to have to use the casting vote every day. I hope to be spared that difficulty. He was a class act and a difficult one to follow; I will do my very, very best.

There are some special people who deserve my thanks, because it is only with their support and love that I can do this job: my husband Frankie, my children Louise and Steven, and my lovely grandchildren Róisín and Odhrán. I love you all.

As Presiding Officer, I will be fair to all members. I will always act in the interests of the Scottish Parliament. Now we have work to do. Thank you. [Applause.]

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