Speech to the General Council – Defending liberal democracy and the importance of an educated, informed electorate.

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On Saturday 18th February, I addressed the University of Edinburgh’s General Council.

Thank you – you were kind enough to invite me as your speaker several months ago and not only was I honoured to be asked, I have been greatly looking forward to it ever since. One of the odd downsides of being elected as Presiding Officer is that I rarely get to say anything longer or more thoughtful than “order, order”.

I should also warn you, however, I have been taking advice from my Westminster colleague John Bercow and every mention of State Visits, President Trump or how I might have voted in the EU referendum has now been diplomatically removed from my remarks.

If I may, I want to talk instead about my journey from the groves of academe here at Edinburgh University, through my time at the BBC, to the Speaker’s chair at the Scottish Parliament – and to touch on the importance of all three institutions to the liberal democracy I hope we all cherish.

I use the word cherish, because many of us worry that liberal democracy is itself under threat. In his farewell address last month, President Barack Obama issued what I thought was a call to arms including the following:

“In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritise different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter — then we’re going to keep talking past each other, and we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible.”

I think the young me would have been astounded at the concept of a leading politician having to defend science and reason in this modern age, but I am ahead of myself. I want to begin by taking you back more than thirty five years to when I first became a student at Edinburgh University. I spent most of my time between 1980 and 1984 not far from this very building, at George Square, studying History and English. Actually when I say “most of my time ..studying”, I should probably split that into two separate sentences as I wouldn’t wish to give you the wrong impression.

To help place the era for you, you might have seen the Elephant Man or Chariots of Fire at the cinema, the Sony Walkman was just out and Sheena Easton and Olivia Newton John were likely to be high in the charts.

My kids call it the olden days in that unwittingly biting way young children have and just to remind me that they are probably right, this was a time before mobile phones, when there were only three channels to watch on television and when you could still drive a car round Edinburgh without feeling frustrated.

Yes, a while ago now, but in many ways, just yesterday for me.
Of course, if I was to describe the early 80’s from a different perspective it might sound a little more familiar. We’d just held a Scottish referendum the reverberations of which were still being felt; the Labour Party was seemingly trapped in a downward spiral of declining popularity and internal divisions; and internationally, people around the world were apprehensive about a former celebrity now newly elected President of the United States.

It was a time of political strife – of the Falkand’s War, the Miners’ strike and of course, of Mrs Thatcher. My response was to join the aforementioned Labour Party.

I wasn’t a student politician – in fact I didn’t like student politics at all and the few meetings I did attend were at my local constituency party rather than the university Labour club. Joining the Labour party wasn’t in any sense a career choice, it was a small display of defiance against the many injustices I could see around me.

I enjoyed my time at Edinburgh – my tutors, lecturers and professors were excellent, committed, and engaging – but as I am sure I don’t have to tell anyone here, the university experience is not simply about the knowledge you gain. The learning, the maturing, the people you meet and friends you make are in some ways every bit as important. I may not have spent as much time as I should have studying but I know how much time I spent talking.

Looking back at it now, the real lesson for me was in appreciating the process of learning itself – of being open to new ideas, of balancing reason and emotion, valuing reflective debate and discussion. My time at Edinburgh helped me appreciate the worth of living in a free and open society. It helped reaffirm my belief in approaching politics with tolerance, understanding and sympathy. In fact I would go further than that – it confirmed my wish to see a politics shaped more by gentleness, kindness and compassion rather than aggression, hostility and anger.

Picking up that Sony Walkman I referred to earlier, I’m going to fast forward a few years to London where I moved to join the BBC. It took me a while to find out what I wanted to do for a career but as the son of two head teachers with a strong belief in public service, coupled with my fascination for news and politics, you will not be surprised to hear how much I felt truly at home at the BBC from the very start.

I worked in various departments across News and Current Affairs starting in a news library service and moving to the Election and Events unit, then to Breakfast News, Breakfast with Frost and the Nine O Clock News. What was there not to like. At various stages I’d be one of those off camera voices shouting questions across Downing St – “Prime Minister, when are you going to resign?” I was in Prague for the first post velvet revolution elections. And I remember driving Mikhail Gorbachev to the Guildhall in London to be interviewed by David Dimbleby – and being almost as excited at being given my first ever mobile phone to use on the way (it was portable but weighed as much as a small toolbox).

I was a TV producer not a presenter, but there were a couple of times I appeared on screen – including on The Budget coverage. Part of my job would be to assemble the picture montages needed to illustrate the Chancellor’s decisions. How did this Budget affect a working family, a pensioner living alone etc.

Assembling the photos could be tricky and the graphic designer I worked with who had just had a baby agreed to pose with me for a photo to be the young married couple. Well this went fine of course and I enjoyed pointing out my starring role to family and friends. Of course what I was forgetting was I had now signed over my rights to the photo to the BBC.

One of the biggest political stories later that year was the attempt to get tough on runaway dads, errant fathers who avoided paying any maintenance to the single mums and children they left behind. Well the Nine O Clock news in those days used to illustrate every story with an inset picture over the newsreader’s shoulder.

You guessed it, for month after month every time Peter Sissons or Anna Ford read out some item about irresponsible fathers, up would come my face with a rip down the image showing how I’d abandoned this poor mother and her infant. My Auntie Ruth and my relatives from Skye were very concerned for my moral welfare.

I only intended to move to London for a couple of years but it was the late nineties before I was able to return to Scotland as the Network Producer for BBC News, putting the Scottish stories that matter on the national news outlets.

And it was not long after that I got a letter from the Labour Party – Have you ever considered standing for Parliament? We are looking for new candidates, people who have never stood for office before, for the new Scottish Parliament.

It was a letter that went to all members but it seemed to be written specifically for me. I had always been a devolutionist, and these were heady times. Tony Blair had just swept into Downing Street and had passed the Scotland Act within the first hundred days. I decided to put my toe in the water.

I will never forget that feeling of being elected to the first Scottish Parliament. The day itself was glorious. We met at Parliament Square, marched off to the General Assembly then back again with bands playing, drums beating and Concorde and the Red Arrows doing a fly past.

But the most intense feeling was that of expectation and hope: The idea of working across party lines, of genuinely sharing power with the people, of being open and transparent in our working. The promise of a new kind of politics was within reach.

I’m going to fast forward again – not on my Walkman, but this time on my smartphone or tablet to the current day or at least to last year’s elections.

By this time, my 13 years with the BBC had been overtaken by 17 as an MSP – and I had finally reconciled myself to the fact that I was no longer a TV Producer who happened to be elected, but I was in fact a politician.

During those 17 years I was a backbench MSP, a Ministerial aide and held various positions in the Shadow Cabinet including finance, education, and culture. I stood not once, but twice to be Labour leader on a platform arguing for a more positive focus, a greater willingness to work with other parties and against the tribalism that I believe damages Scottish politics. It was not a persuasive argument in the leadership elections, but on the upside, the very same approach proved successful when I ran to be Presiding Officer.

The main quality my MSP colleagues are looking for is trust and as Presiding Officer, I remain politically impartial in everything that I do. I can’t put down motions, ask questions or even vote other than to use the casting vote. My job is to oversee proceedings, choose questions, speakers and amendments.
Keeping order has not turned out to be particularly difficult, at the moment at least. A more unexpected problem is in knowing whether or not to laugh at any of the Members’ jokes. You might think it is easy not to do so, but when every speaker addresses their remarks directly to me, I wouldn’t wish to be stone faced at their witticisms.

Imagine Nicola Sturgeon looking straight at you and telling you a joke at the expense of Ruth Davidson, who is also looking straight at you. What would you do?

I have a further three specific roles: I chair the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, the board which supervises the running of the organisation, the building and its staff; I chair the Parliamentary Bureau which decides on Parliamentary business, and I represent the Parliament at home and abroad.

Being PO is not a party political post, but I do have an agenda and that is to continue the process of parliamentary reform. When I first became an MSP, the Scottish Parliament was hailed as ground-breaking, but although it has grown in confidence as an institution, it is now as likely to be criticised for being divisive as praised for its inclusivity.

That is why, one of the first actions I have taken as Presiding Officer has been to create an independent Commission on Parliamentary Reform.

2016 saw a huge intake of new MSPs, more than 50 out of the total 129, and that has allowed Holyrood to recapture some of that optimistic spirit of ’99. We have the opportunity to remake our vows – to recommit to the open, engaging Parliament I think Scotland wants to see. Against that encouraging development, the broader picture nationally and internationally as you will be as well aware as I am, is of a worryingly febrile political environment.

I’ve talked about moving, in my adult lifetime, from the Sony Walkman and three television channels to today’s iphone or ipad and that changing technology has had a direct impact on our politics too. I believe it is one of the factors that made “post-truth” 2016’s word of the year.

As I am sure you will be aware, the circulation of the Guardian has fallen from around 400,000 when I started my degree at Edinburgh to just over 160,000 today. The Sun is down from around 4m throughout the 80’s to 1.6m today. Here in Scotland, the Herald and Scotsman are not just struggling with circulation, their journalistic teams are less than half the size they once were.

We get our news, information and politics from different sources, many of them reliable and informed including online versions of those same papers, but many of them entirely unmediated.

Social media has been transformative and is undoubtedly a hugely democratic leveller, but on Facebook it doesn’t matter whether or not something is true, what matters more is what you feel about it. As I heard someone observe last week, receiving a letter written in green ink used to be a giveaway, but Twitter only has one font.

This is an environment where people are prepared to listen and to be influenced by the “alternative fact”.

I read a great quote from the writer Ian Leslie in the New Statesman recently. He said: “I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.”

Well if ever there was a role for our universities in the current climate, surely this is it; to promote objective analysis, expertise and integrity. Do we not need a media which recognises its duty to educate and inform the electorate? Is that at least not partially the answer to those who shout at us with their fingers in their ears.

I want to tell you one final story. Last November, I bought a Ukelele from Lidl’s. Even as I was paying for it, I thought this was odd. Since when have supermarkets started selling Ukeleles? How did they know I was looking for a Ukelele? I didn’t know even know I was looking for a Ukulele.

To give you the full picture, my daughter had mentioned a few weeks previously that she might like a Ukelele for Christmas. I had parked that at the back of my mind wondering where I would get such an instrument – was the music shop Rae Mac’s still in Queensferry Street?

So, here I was, feeling disconcerted partly at the notion that big brother might indeed be watching me and partly at being so predictable that Lidl’s could read me like a book. But I was also pretty impressed simply by the apparent intelligence of it. I suspect some smart young graduates from Edinburgh or elsewhere have designed an algorithm based on our communal purchasing habits and that lies at the heart of the shop’s display or marketing strategy.

Of course, my daughter’s pretty smart. Maybe the truth is she sent Lidl an email saying dad’s likely to be in on Monday night. Make sure the Ukeleles are piled high next to the broccoli.

Anyway, I digress – the point of this story is just to illustrate how our own behaviour is used to predict and then influence the choices we make. We think we are unique, but Google knows what we all want. And worryingly, the same phenomenon can be seen in politics too.

The think tank Demos recently highlighted the potential dangers of a political echo chamber replacing that of genuine interaction and debate. The concern is that online content providers already supply each of us with information, stories and choices we are likely to agree with, creating a kind of confirmation bias. The Demos research suggests that social media is similarly used by people to talk predominately to others with like-minded views – narrowing rather than broadening our political outlook.

So if there is indeed a danger that we are simply talking to ourselves and shouting at others in a fact free online world, what can we do about it?

Well I believe the Scottish Parliament has a crucial role. As a robustly independent body it can provide the forum for all voices to be heard in civilised discussion without ridicule or condemnation. It can scrutinise Governmental decisions, but it can also help shape the tone of political debate – a respectful and courteous tone.

Alongside Parliament, we need reliable and accurate media, willing to ask difficult questions. And we need strong universities, unafraid to promote reason and intellect, willing to challenge inaccuracy.

We are not observers, we are not helpless bystanders. We – each one of us in this room – can make a difference, simply by standing up for what we believe: Learning, tolerance and reason – or as we have inscribed on our Parliamentary Mace – wisdom, compassion and integrity.

Thank you.