Members of the Scottish Parliament are meant to fulfil several functions.
They are elected to represent the interests of their constituents. They are affiliated to a political party, whether in government or opposition. And they are parliamentarians, charged with holding the executive to account. It is this third function that has come under scrutiny this week.
Currently the Scottish National Party not only holds a majority of seats, the SNP also has a majority on all of the Holyrood committees, which have an important scrutinising and revising function. The Nationalists chair the main ones. In addition, a former SNP MSP, Tricia Marwick, holds the post of Presiding Officer (PO), though in general she has demonstrated a willingness to set aside party politics and support reform where necessary.
Loading article content
It is against this backdrop that Michael McMahon, Labour MSP for Uddingston and Bellshill, vented his frustration yesterday after being barred from the Holyrood chamber for shouting a remark at the PO at the end of Wednesday's session. He used his day's enforced absence to express his view that the SNP is using its majority to throw its weight around, rather than govern in the national interest. The subject of Mr McMahon's ire was the PO's refusal to summon First Minister Alex Salmond to explain why he had exaggerated the number of green jobs created in Scotland and then quietly changed the Official Record. This is the second story this week concerning ministers using misleading figures. Mr McMahon claims there is an asymmetry in the punishment meted out to him and lack of sanction on ministers who use faulty figures to back their arguments.
Mr McMahon is not an unbiased observer but he does have a point. As The Herald argued yesterday, it is not acceptable that ministers can make retrospective amendments to the Official Record – Holyrood's equivalent of Hansard – and bury that information on the Parliament's website. Yesterday, there were calls from opposition MSPs to properly publicise such changes and the SNP chairman of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, Dave Thompson, supports the move. In the interests of transparency, this matter should be expedited.
There is a less straightforward solution to the controversy surrounding the functioning of Holyrood committees, with Labour claiming its criticism of the Government is being edited out of reports. Recently SNP members of the Justice Committee, which had heavily criticised plans for changes to criminal legal aid, swung behind the original proposals when they returned to the Chamber at Second Stage.
Mr Salmond's argument in favour of independence rests on demonstrating his party's competence in government. In general, it has passed that test. However, it is nearly two years before the Scottish electorate will vote on the issue. Is the campaign already distracting Scottish Government ministers from the day-to-day business of governing the country? If Mr Salmond has a fault, it is hubris. Recent faux pas and an apparent resistance to constructive criticism risk undermining the trust on which he hopes to build his campaign for an independent Scotland.