The world’s kindest security search proceeds at the entrance to the Scottish Parliament. A young man greets me warmly while gently advising me that I require a second plastic tray for my laptop. It’s at this point during airport checks when you begin to feel like a fugitive from justice.

But this lad asks me if I had travelled far and if I’d managed to find a decent parking space. Check over and having collected my personal items, a young woman appears at my side and says she’ll take care of the tray. She says she hopes my day goes well and I glance up to see three of her colleagues smiling and nodding. It makes me feel, well … sovereign.

Speak to any former MSP and they’ll tell you that among their fondest memories of Holyrood are the parliamentary staff. “They go above and beyond to help politicians and visitors alike,” I’ve been told often.

I’ve never been convinced that Edinburgh was the right place for our parliament. It should have been Glasgow. More than 40% of the entire population of Scotland lives within an hour of our largest and most vital city. Among them are a disproportionately high number of the country’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The people who live in these communities are affected most by the decisions taken here.

Taking a day off work or away from the kids and shelling out 15 quid or so for a day return is not an option for these people. It’s why most of the day-time demos you see outside Holyrood are enjoined by the middle-class radicals in the man-bun and red-corduroy brigade.


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It’s here now though and you have to keep telling yourself you need to want the best for it and for those who work in it.

I’m greeted warmly if a little warily by some of my brethren in His Majesty’s press and media. McKay of STV and Boothman of The Times are in a huddle with Kerr of the BBC, all seeking to divine the portents of what will become a significant day in the life of the nation.

John Swinney will declare his candidacy to be leader of the SNP and with it, First Minister of Scotland? Will it be a campaign launch or a coronation? Kate Forbes, strongly expected to run against him, is nowhere to be seen, but already the suggestion is that the pair have cut a deal.

And so, we all embark on the 15-minute walk up to the premises of the Grassmarket Community Project to hear what Mr Swinney has to say. He’s chosen his pitch well. This building is home to a suite of projects helping some of Edinburgh’s most vulnerable groups.

Within minutes it’s clear that we’re here to witness the virtual swearing-in of our new First Minister. We fall to playing spot the cabinet secretaries. There’s at least five of them in the first two rows with the SNP’s Matalan Army of shiny-suited Millennials providing the whoops and hoping to catch the eye of their new circus-master.

Fiona Hyslop, long-serving stalwart of the SNP Government, approaches me. “So, they're calling in the old dogs,” she says. Then she apologises. “I can’t believe I just called you a dog.”

“That's a hate crime,” I say. But I've been called a lot worse. And Ms Hyslop, by general agreement, is regarded as one of the politest and most self-effacing politicians in the business. I’ll get over it.

Mr Swinney’s speech is mostly what you might have expected. The Tories are getting it tight after three minutes and I begin to conduct my own lottery on when the baby box and the child payment will feature. ‘Cohesive’ occurs often, as does ‘change’. Mr Swinney says he “cared too much to walk on by” and The Stranglers start playing in my head.

And then, unbidden, a small incendiary as he talked about Kate Forbes, his “colleague and friend” who was “an intelligent, creative, thoughtful person who has much to contribute to our national life”. And, “if elected, I will make sure Kate is able to make that contribution”. The fix is in and this is confirmed by Ms Forbes’ warm response three hours later.

The Herald: Visitors to the World Press Photo exhibition view the entries at the launch of the exhibition in the Scottish Parliament, on July 31, 2019 in EdinburghVisitors to the World Press Photo exhibition view the entries at the launch of the exhibition in the Scottish Parliament, on July 31, 2019 in Edinburgh (Image: free)

Show over, the Matalans are now holding up their wee John Swinney cards in the manner of a primary school anti-litter campaign. Bless them.

Back at Holyrood, my colleague, Ms Kathleen Nutt of The Herald, who’s been tasked with guiding me through the concealed avenues and alleyways of this building, makes a sage observation. “There were about half a dozen cab secs there,” she said. “But he only had praise for Kate Forbes.”

The John and Kate show overshadows what had been my principal purpose: attending what will turn out to be Humza Yousaf’s last ever First Minister’s Questions. The public galleries are full, including two school parties. And though the day’s main excursions and alarums are unfolding elsewhere, the chamber is almost full: a mark of respect perhaps for Mr Yousaf, whose life has just been put through the wringer.

He rises to the occasion, conducting himself with dignity and some style and eschewing recrimination in the face of Tory goading. At one point he references future arrangements with the Scottish Greens who were the architects of his very public fall. “That will be for my successor to decide on a case by case basis,” he says. You form the impression that he simply wasn’t cut out for this and is relieved it’s over.

Your heart goes out to him, a little. He is still a young man and, in the course of the day, it becomes clear that when he sought out a helping hand from within his own party it was returned swathed in grease.

In the restaurant I see Ash Regan and her Alba team and join them with a plate of the green stuff everything else seems to be having. My five-a-week reached in one sitting. They’re keen to quash last weekend’s reports that Alex Salmond had authored their written offer to Humza Yousaf for a deal that might have saved him. “It was written over on that table behind the pillar over plates of Mac and cheese,” I’m told.

Throughout the afternoon I solicit the names of the men (and women) in grey kilts who intervened to stop Mr Yousaf making any deal with Alba. The main players would appear on most people’s top-five lists and there’s speculation about Nicola Sturgeon’s role in the drama.

In the Garden Lobby where the journalists gather to meet the MSPs before divvying up the proceeds, John Swinney appears. He pops over, hand outstretched and I’m hoping pathetically he hadn’t seen my very short video with Ms Nutt being disobliging of that morning’s speech.

Our paths have crossed several times in the course of the last 20 years and he is, as usual, unfailingly courteous and even affectionate. He’s an operator though. “So, what’s it to be, John,” I say. “Is it Kate as your deputy as well as the finance brief? Just for background, you understand.” He’s saying nothing of course, but conveys once more his high regard for Ms Forbes.

We’re fond of the phrase ‘political bubble’ to describe the little community that gathers here each day. Holyrood though, is much more than that. It’s a statelet, like a secular Vatican with its own system of governance, traditions, rules and disciplinary system.


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At Westminster, with its 635 MPs, vendettas and enmities can be absorbed easily. Not so in Holyrood where there are only 129 of them and where, in the course of a five-year term, they’re expected to work with their political foes across dozens of committees. Compromise and rectitude are baked into the machinery of this place.

On Thursday, it seemed that the SNP had had a good day. The Swinney/Forbes concordat means the party can work towards the 2026 Scottish election without being convulsed by the gender wars that Nicola Sturgeon orchestrated and which Humza Yousaf failed to quell. Yet on Scottish Political Twitter it was glorious carnage. Absolutely everyone was getting machine-gunned.

Just a few days ago, the Scottish Greens were portraying themselves as the organ grinder behind the SNP monkey. In reality, though, they’ve lost everything. They’re no longer in government; their magical ministries have evaporated and Kate Forbes, their No1 enemy, will soon wield more influence on the affairs of state than they ever had.

On the Canongate side of the Scottish Parliament, the words from Psalm 19:14 are carved into the stonework. “Let the words of thy mouth, and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”

It seems that, after all, Holyrood is a place where faith and politics can work well together. It’s written in the foundations.