IN an age of fake news, rising populism and political chaos, there's a lot to be said for Ken Macintosh, the tranquil, no-fuss figurehead of the Scottish Parliament.

Holyrood's fifth Presiding Officer, a role similar to the more showy Speaker of the House of Commons, is one of a dwindling number of MSPs who have been there since the start of devolution, riding the waves of public opinion across two decades.

But his calm, reliable demeanour makes it all the more surprising that he took the risk in the first place, leaving his steady job as a BBC producer to stand for the fledgling parliament in 1999.

He was newly married, successful and about to start a family. His first son Douglas was born just five days before Scotland went to the polls.

It's no wonder he describes those early days as euphoric, mixed with some trepidation.

"I had a good job, I was doing very well at the BBC and had a good career," he recalls, sitting in the Presiding Officer's dining room in Holyrood's historic Queensberry House.

"And as soon as I became a candidate, I was moved out of my job, put into a different position and suddenly this secure livelihood is all up in the air.

"But at the same time when you've got a dream like that, you have to go for it. And it was very exciting, this idea that we would be able to address all manner of issues."

Sipping a sparkling water, he reflects on the "remarkable" tidal changes that have swept through Scottish politics in the last two decades.

The Scottish Tories had no MPs back in 1999. Now, they are the second biggest party in Holyrood.

Meanwhile, in 2011 the SNP secured a majority "in a system which was designed not to produce majorities".

He adds: "As an achievement in itself, the fact that we are the absolute centre of Scottish public debate is a remarkable achievement in 20 years – to the point where nobody questions it, I mean really nobody seriously questions it."

Mr Macintosh was a long-standing Labour MSP before being elected Presiding Officer in 2016, and ran for the Scottish party leadership twice.

But his years at the political coalface have not dented his idealism. Most MSPs don't go into politics for themselves, he insists, "they go in it for everybody else".

He sees part of his role as protecting and promoting Holyrood, and building trust with the public.

"Elected politicians will come and go," he adds. "Political parties may even come and go. But the parliament itself will be there to serve the people of Scotland.

"And it should be there in a way that can be utterly relied upon and trusted.

"We are talking about an age of fake news and cynicism generally. The parliament itself should be a bastion of trust."

Asked whether he worries about the growing cynicism and disengagement around politics and the rise of populism, he readily admits to concerns.

"I worry about all these things because, in the end, politics is passionate but it also has to have reason in it," he explains. "You can't just take emotional positions all the time.

"So you should act with your heart and your head. The parliament has to be able to accommodate both.

"The parliament itself should be a very rational place in the sense of providing good, robust information, sound facts."

The recent sexual harassment and bullying scandals in politics have been a "wake-up call".

He adds: "When I first was elected, we were part of an intake in which almost two-fifths, 37 per cent, of the new MSPs were women.

"And I genuinely thought that we had done it – we had broken the glass ceiling, we'd made the real breakthrough.

"At that point Westminster was still heavily dominated by men – there had been a big intake in '97, but heavily dominated by men.

"I thought the only way was to progress from that. And here we are 20 years [later], and the statistic is exactly the same. We haven't progressed at all.

"We've got exactly the same number of women MSPs to men that we had then. And that just shows you.

"And not only that, we then had the allegations of sexual harassment, that all of us must have been just horrified by, just the idea that in this day and age this kind of behaviour is still prevalent. And I think it was a real wake-up call."

He says he is pleased politicians and others have "united" in reaction to the allegations, with a number of new measures put in place – such as an independent advice line.

It's harder to get him to talk about what the future might hold for Holyrood.

"My powers of political forecasting are so dire," he jokes. "I think I've approached every election thinking I'm going to lose anyway."

Asked whether he thinks there needs to be more than 129 MSPs, or even a second elected chamber to cope with Scotland's growing list of powers, he says these arguments come up "every now and then".

But he adds: "I don't think there's any appetite whatsoever, well not realistically in the short term, for a second chamber, or for additional members."

He says Holyrood's committees, in which MSPs examine legislation and probe some of the burning issues of the day, are designed to "act as the revising chamber".

But critics often argue those same committees are second-rate when compared to the powerful titans of Westminster's system.

Mr Macintosh admits they have had "their up and downs" over the years.

He adds: "Westminster has the advantage of having – if you call it an advantage – 650 MPs, an awful lot of people on the backbenches who would be... They're not careerists.

"They are not still looking to become a minister or frontbenchers. They see themselves as parliamentarians.

"We've struggled with 129 MSPs and quite a big turnover, to have those kind of figures, those individuals. And I think we always will with 129."

He continues: "I agree that the Westminster committees can make some officials that appear before them quail or quake in their boots.

"[I'm] not totally convinced that's the job of committees sometimes. I don't doubt that that's good, or is needed on occasion.

"I wouldn't want to turn all political committees into grand-standing opportunities."

He says he wants officials and other committee witnesses to recognise that the process is robust, but at the same time he doesn't want to "humiliate people".

As for whether Holyrood has lived up to the idealistic expectations of activists keen for a new kind of politics all those years ago, he is philosophical.

"It's the trying to live up to those principles which is the most important part," he says.

"I think for the most part we try to be more civil, we try to be respectful, we try to practice a new kind of politics.

"But I'm not going pretend other than politics is a robust, passionate business. People don't rationalise their way into politics.

"They do it because they really care – quite often because they are angry or upset or whatever else.

"And it would be wrong to suppress that emotion, or to pretend it doesn't exist. It's just about trying to channel it in the right way. I think the parliament has."