Interview with Scottish Parliament Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh
Written by on 1 June 2016 in Inside Politics
Holyrood talks to the new presiding officer, Ken Macintosh, about his plans for the role
If 55 voters in Dumbarton had swapped Labour for the SNP last month, Ken Macintosh would not be sitting in the parliament, let alone in the presiding officer’s chair.
As the Holyrood veteran left the count at Williamwood High School in Clarkston in the early hours of 6 May, fresh from Conservative MSP Jackson Carlaw snatching Eastwood, a constituency seat Macintosh had held for the past 17 years, the father-of-six was pretty much resigned to the fact that he, like many of his Scottish Labour colleagues, would not be returning to the Scottish Parliament.
Then at 4.45am, two and a bit hours after he had watched Carlaw forge ahead, culminating in the Tories overtaking Labour as the second largest party, confirmation came that Labour’s Jackie Baillie had held off the SNP’s Gail Robertson by just 109 votes to win Dumbarton with the smallest majority of Scotland’s 73 constituency seats.
That news pushed Macintosh, who had been fourth on the West of Scotland list, into third place and ultimately returned him to the Scottish Parliament.
Macintosh chuckles as he recounts a text he received soon after his return was confirmed. ‘We didn’t quite keep Ken for East Ren but we did Return the Mac,’ it read, a reference to his carpool karaoke-style video a few weeks before polling day that saw him settle on the 1996 chart-topper as his official campaign track.
Beaten into third place by Ruth Davidson’s Conservative party, the inquest began swiftly, as Kezia Dugdale – who thumped Macintosh nine months earlier in the Labour leadership contest – faced endless questions on whether her job was safe. Macintosh’s attentions, however, were elsewhere.
“There is no doubt about it that the election itself was the trigger, in the sense that I went from constituency to the list,” he says on his decision to put his name forward for presiding officer.
“And just being frank about it, it makes you reassess what can I contribute, what is my role and so on, and the Labour Party itself went to third place as well.
“You have to reassess what can I do, what can I offer, and I’ve always been a parliamentarian, I’ve always been somebody who works across [the divide].
“I don’t hate other politicians. I don’t hate other MSPs. Quite the reverse, I’ve always wanted the best for this place, I have always wanted all MSPs to be giving their best.
“So here was this opportunity for the first time and I thought, ‘yes, I could do this’. I’d thought about it in the abstract in the long term but never thought about it as an immediate prospect.
“Then I thought, you know, I’m exactly the sort of person who should do this because I believe in the Scottish Parliament, I am not tribal about my politics, I like the idea of returning to a more consensual kind of politics where it’s not even just consensual across parties, but you’re reaching out beyond here to Scotland itself.
“So all the ideas and ideals that brought me into parliament in the first place, I’ve never lost sight of those and as PO, I can actually help get us back on track towards them.
“If you’d asked me the day before [election day], in fact, if you’d asked me at midnight even on the Thursday, I wouldn’t have scoffed at the idea, but I would have said, ‘well, not now’.
“But you know, electoral circumstances change. I would describe myself beforehand as too young and too political and in the scope of 24 hours and certain ballot results, I said, ‘Well, actually, I’m not. I’m neither’.”
One of four to put themselves forward for the position, Macintosh quickly emerged as the bookies’ favourite.
Despite nudges and winks from a number of his Holyrood colleagues the closer the vote approached, Macintosh denies he was confident it was in the bag, even joking that his record of losing elections – first losing the Labour leadership to Johann Lamont in 2011 then Dugdale last year – prompted caution.
The West of Scotland MSP had reason to be optimistic, though, as he became Holyrood’s fifth PO – and Labour’s first – on the third ballot, having enjoyed a clear lead in the first two rounds.
“I genuinely have not come in with a blueprint or a shopping list of reforms, far from it, but I do have a very strong view about parliament itself, about the role of parliament, about the separation of powers between the executive and parliament,” he tellsHolyrood.
“I think that it helps parliament and it helps government to have two distinctive identities: the parliament is not an alternative executive, neither are we an opposition or obstructive body, that’s not our role.
“Our role is to scrutinise the government and I think it would be helpful to both, government and parliament, for the delineation to be clear.”
There is, says Macintosh, a “job to be done” to ensure there is “no blurring of lines”, lines that were perhaps blurred under a majority SNP government.
Parliament has had to adapt in each of the last four sessions and the early indications are that Macintosh does not envisage that ceasing.
One of his first acts in the chair was to lift a ban on the use of mobile phones and tablets in the chamber, allowing MSPs to use Twitter and Facebook during debates.
“My predecessor started off a process of reform for good reason. I think that we’re of an age as a parliament where we need to look again at ourselves, work out as an institution where we’re heading, because it would be very easy for us to become a shadow of the government, just to follow in their footsteps, and that’s not the job of parliament.
“So I am quite keen that we re-establish that identity.”
What might that mean, specifically? Macintosh dismisses the suggestion of a second chamber – a reform his predecessor Tricia Marwick strongly advocated – repeating the word “no” four times as if there might be any uncertainty when asked if he’d like to see one.
Elected conveners – another of Marwick’s proposals – attracts an equally dismissive response.
“What’s happened in the last couple of months is that phrase you used or that particular policy initiative, elected conveners for committees, I’m hoping that’s a shorthand for reform, but it is not a very good one if I may say so because elected conveners are not the answer.
“And not only are they not the answer, they’ve already been looked at, they’ve already been rejected by the previous standards committee.”
While this specific reform does not attract his support, Macintosh is keen to underline the importance of “independence” within the confines of the committees.
“Being a government backbencher is a tricky job as well,” he adds. “You don’t want to just be studiously supportive at all times, you want to have room to be your own person, but you can end up, for example, serving on multiple committees, not getting very much out of them because the minister will take all the credit and you’re doing a lot of the work, you can become committee fodder effectively, and I don’t think that’s very constructive either.
“I think there is very much potential in developing the role of independent-minded, strong voices from the committees in the backbenches and that means supporting our committees in their work, recognising the role of parliament itself in its own right, distinguishing what happens here in parliament from what happens in the government and making sure the lines are clear, and there’s lots of ways of doing that.”
In the spirit of looking across the political divide, Macintosh reveals he has already asked business managers of all parties to present a paper on what they want from the committees before he takes a lead on negotiations to establish them.
“Parliament should set up committees to reflect our priorities and therefore if, for example, there is going to be a lot of legislation, a lot of that will end up in justice, we’ve had two justice committees in the past, we might want to continue doing that and that would allow each to have room to do its own scrutiny, its own inquiries and whatever else.
“It might be that we take a different route. If we want to free up individuals, MSPs generally, we might take a certain view of the numbers on committees.
“Now you’ve got a trade-off there because you’ve got proportionality, it’s very difficult to be proportional and get the numbers down, but smaller committees, as a whole, tend to be more nimble, more vocal, more assertive about their own agenda, so there are trade-offs to be had there.”
First Minister’s Questions is another ritual Macintosh says he wants to “reinvigorate”, in the sense that backbenchers are not merely observers to a rammy between the party leaders but rather are given their chance.
“The new PO is already looking to extend the time allocated to FMQs, for instance. “What I’d really like to see, if possible, and this returns to my own belief in parliament, is a move away from the sort of partisan or tribal divisions that it’s very easy to emerge.
“People vote along party lines and I recognise it is part of politics and part of our discourse, but people do not want to switch on their telly and see politicians shouting at each other, nobody wants that and it doesn’t do anybody any favours.”
In a nutshell? “If we could get shorter questions, shorter answers, a bit more respect, a bit less theatrics then that would be ideal.”
Knowing that will be a tall order, Macintosh jokes: “You can tell I am an optimist, eh?”
For those who previously didn’t play ball, Marwick’s trademark “wheesht” often echoed round the chamber.
“I won’t be using that,” he says. “Tricia was a very good presiding officer and did a lot of things, including bringing the parliament to a certain stage of maturity, which is great, and I’ll be honest, if I can be as good as any of the four presiding officers, I’ll be happy.
“But I’ve got my own style and my own style is a far more collaborative, consensual approach.
“The thing I would suggest most of all that I want to do is I want to treat all MSPs as not just adults, as individuals, but as people who have as much pride in this parliament as I do.
“I do not treat MSPs as naughty children or to be scolded or reprimanded… I expect every one of them to be on their best behaviour, to treat each other respectfully and I don’t think I even need to lay down rules to make that happen.
“I expect them to be like that because they want to be like that and I am going to assume that’s the case rather than assume that they’re actually a bunch of adolescents looking for a chance to misbehave.”
Macintosh talks movingly about his father, a headteacher who was asked to stand as a candidate by three different parties, who would have “loved” the pomp and ceremony set to accompany the official opening of the new session by the Queen.
“Do you know, the funny thing is I never asked him which parties, mainly because I didn’t want to disappoint myself,” he says, crediting his mother with his Labour politics.
Having resigned his Labour membership to become PO, though, Macintosh leaves behind a party that has suffered an electoral collapse after its numbers at Holyrood were almost halved. Is it a blessing in disguise to be cut free?
“No, no, it’s not. I’ve got two drivers, one was my Labour values and one is my belief in parliament and devolution, and clearly I’ve had to sacrifice one for the other.
“But it’s quite clear to me that I can play a role and it’s not difficult. I used to be a BBC journalist and the whole thing about being a journalist at the BBC, I used to do current affairs all the time, is I don’t find it difficult to be objective and to be able to detach myself in that way.
“I’m not going to pretend, though, it is not painful. I’ve spent a lifetime in the Labour Party and 17 years as a Labour MSP.
“I’m not going to pretend it’s an easy thing to do but it’s the right thing to do and it’s what people expect.
“And sometimes, you have to live up to people’s expectations because that is the role, that is the job. I am comfortable in that sense.”