James McEnaney: Why the SNP ‘power grab’ in Holyrood really matters


CommonSpace columnist James McEnaney argues that the latest controversy surrounding the SNP must not be ignored

PERHAPS it's an inevitable consequence of the mix of social media, 24-hour news and an allegedly "politically engaged" population, but it seems that there is never any shortage of outrage in modern Scotland.

Much of it – such as the furore around J.K. Rowling donating to rapper Loki's crowdfunder- is tedious drivel which, when combined, provides an endless supply of political white noise loud enough to risk obscuring genuinely important issues, such as the SNP facing mounting criticism for deploying ministerial aides as part of a Holyrood 'power grab'.

Parliamentary liaison officers (PLOs) are MSPs appointed by the first minister to assist members of her government. They have been described as ministers' "eyes and ears" in the chamber and exist to ensure, among other things, that bills progress through parliament as smoothly as possible. There is no question that, in this role, they are primarily beholden to the government and its ministers, not the parliament more broadly.

This matters because, thanks to a rule change initiated after Alex Salmond won the 2007 election, MSPs can serve as both parliamentary liaison officers and members of Holyrood committees.

Unlike in Westminster, this remains the case even when the responsibilities of each role are clearly incompatible: so Jenny Gilruth – a new SNP MSP and former teacher – is to sit on the education and skills committee despite also serving as the PLO of Education Secretary John Swinney; Kate Forbes will act as aide to Finance Secretary Derek Mackay while also serving on the finance committee. The list goes on.

Patrick Harvie: "It's amazing how the savage abuse of power suddenly becomes quite benign when the government changes."

The SNP strongly opposed the placing of PLOs on committees (as well as the very existence of these ministerial aides) while in opposition but, having won power, decided to benefit from, rather than reform, this aspect of parliamentary procedure. As Patrick Harvie pointed out on Twitter: "It’s amazing how the savage abuse of power suddenly becomes quite benign when the government changes."

But an abuse of power it certainly is. In the absence of a second chamber it falls to the committees to ensure that Holyrood can function as a proper parliament. This is where legislation is genuinely scrutinised, conduct examined and government held to account on our behalf. Those functions are now threatened.

There's no getting away from it: having committee members answering to the very people they are supposed to question undermines the effectiveness and credibility of Scotland's devolved parliament.

Think about it. Are we really to believe that any MSP will offer the sort of tenacious and forensic questioning that committees depend upon when their de facto boss is the one in the dock?

Can we seriously expect committees to do their jobs properly when one of the first minister's hand-picked game-keepers is also playing the role of parliamentary poacher? Of course not.

Can we seriously expect committees to do their jobs properly when one of the first minister's hand-picked game-keepers is also playing the role of parliamentary poacher?

As Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop previously – correctly – argued: "One cannot be a ministerial parliamentary aide and serve on a committee." The existing arrangements undermine "the committees' integrity and their ability to scrutinise" the Scottish Government.

It's simple: ye cannot serve both God and mammon nor minister and committee. The SNP knew this a decade ago, and it's important that they remember it now.

Of course, it goes without saying that many government supporters will dismiss this whole episode as yet another SNPbad attack from the vicious 'mainstream media'. They will argue that this behaviour is legitimised by Labour having done the same thing (has the SNP really been reduced to such weak and childish arguments?) and that recent reporting is simply part of a unionist agenda driven by monsters like Magnus Llewellin and the Twitter ghost of David Torrance. But it isnt true.

No, the truth is that Nicola Sturgeon got this one wrong (both in terms of the original decision and the clumsy attempts to shiut down the story) and, if she's honest, probably knows it. A good number of her supporters know it, too.

But there will, as ever, be no shortage of those who refuse to accept the fallability of the SNP. Such people will turn a blind eye to Sturgeon's actions and deny that, as Loki put it, "their party can be just as hypocritical and underhanded as any other".

That sort of complacent partisanship is poisonous, breeding arrogance, stubbornness and, ultimately, defeat (just ask the Labour party). The SNP desperately needs to rise above it.

Complacent partisanship is poisonous, breeding arrogance, stubbornness and, ultimately, defeat.

Having promised us a new kind of politics, Nicola Sturgeon should have grasped this early opportunity to walk the walk and, at the very least, refused to appoint committee members as PLOs. In doing so, the first minister would have shown that, even after losing her parliamentary majority, she is not afraid of having her government subject to proper scrutiny. It would have been the sign of a confident leader ready to get on with the job.

Instead, the government has engaged in an utterly transparent and deeply cynical attempt to neuter parliamentary committees in order to protect ministers from proper scrutiny.

If the SNP really is different, and really does represent a new kind of politics, then it's time for them to start proving it. A recognition that proper scrutiny of government is good for everyone would be a great place to start.

Picture courtesy of First Minister of Scotland

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