Holyrood prepares for a changing of the tribunes

A huge amount of parliamentary experience is being lost to Holyrood in 2021.

A quarter of Holyrood’s current MSPs are standing down at the election due in May. The usual swings and roundabouts of electoral misfortune will probably mean one or two more will not return, victims of the shifting sands of electoral behaviour.

The churn in numbers is big. What makes the outtake of 2021 so significant is the sheer breadth of experience that will be lost.

Three of them have led their party, five are or have been SNP cabinet members and many more have held junior ministerial positions. And the Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh is also calling it a day.

When session six of the Scottish Parliament convenes after those elections it will deal with some huge issues.

Dealing with the Covid fallout will be chief among them. The NHS will need even more resources. Staff will be drained to exhaustion. Patients will be living with the fallout from recovering amid a mental health crisis. And then there’s the schools and the universities and the crisis in catering and hospitality and on and on and on.

And, of course, a constitutional crisis to throw into the mix if there is a pro-independence majority, as the polls all predict. Now is not the time for the end of experience and the unleashing of the rookie legislator but that looks exactly what we will have.

Many who are standing down have hit retirement age so I guess they have earned the right to a life after many years of public service. What the public don’t see is the many hours of constituency work MSPs undertake. They don’t see the sacrifice of family life for public service or the barrage of abuse conducted through social media as the angry among us take aim in vitriol at 129 targets.

Politicians are sincere when they say it is an honour to serve, even if they are considerably more hesitant in admitting that at times they invariably ask themselves, is this worth it? The sacrifices are found in stress, moments of depression, self-doubt and a feeling of heads banging against an abundance of brick walls.

They also inhabit a bubble that makes for a one-dimensional life. They deal with the problems of people on a daily basis but their cocooned lifestyle paradoxically detaches them from the very experience of fellow citizens. At times they must crave the mundane.

The exodus will have a disproportionate effect on the SNP. The current health secretary Jeane Freeman is going. At one time a special adviser to a Labour First Minister, her conversion to the SNP cause came late in life. 

But that life has been spent watching how government works or does not. She has been outside parliament running a third-sector organisation and has been within the machine crafting policy before becoming a minister and being ultimately accountable for the actions of hundreds of people she has never met.

Jeane FreemanGetty Images

In our system of government, ministers are responsible for what goes wrong on their patch even if the issue has not been created by them but is the result of some kamikaze public official on a frolic of their own.

A new health secretary coming into office when the country is still in the grip of Covid is a really daunting prospect. I have always been surprised, perhaps even slightly appalled, that far too many politicians grab promotion without the self-awareness to ask, do I know what I am taking on? And perhaps more pertinently, am I up to this?

Michael Russell is also standing down. He has led the Scottish Government’s assault against Brexit. Immersed in the detail of his brief, this skilled communicator thinks quickly and is a highly capable debater. His experience and intellectual depth will be a big loss to the government.

Michael RussellSNS Group

He has also been around a long time. First came Adam, then Eve and then Mike Russell. He knows where the bodies are buried. This one-time SNP chief executive has been consiglieri, enforcer and political undertaker. He could write a bestseller if he spilled all of the beans but I am sure a sense of loyalty and respect for the dead will keep his ink under-used.

Alex Neil’s long career of activism has mirrored the great debates of our time. He was Labour in the days of the’ king of Scotland’, Willie Ross. He was general secretary for the shortlived Scottish Labour Party, a product of the devolution skirmishes of the 1970s. The SLP may yet make a comeback should independence arrive.

His long association with Jim Sillars has cast him as the junior partner, which is true in terms of age but not in political nous. Engaging in private, he thinks deeply about politics beyond the narrow confines of party. He too has a good book in him which is ripe for charting a home rule journey from the inside then the outside and then back inside.

Roseanna Cunningham, ‘Republican Rose’ as she was dubbed in the 1995 Perth by-election was a member of the SNP’s 79 Group, the left-wing faction which pushed the party in a direction which ultimately made it possible for Labour voters to see backing the SNP as something other than an act of betrayal.

She was around at a time when the SNP’s female contingent was actually better than most of the men who held sway. The likes of Margo MacDonald, Isobel Lindsay, Margaret and Winnie Ewing and Roseanna were able, even if that group of women did not see eye to eye, and that is putting it mildly.

Iain Gray is quitting the Labour benches. The lasting public image will be his being chased into a sandwich shop at the 2011 election, his cornering symptomatic of a campaign that went off the rails but which a year previously looked a shoo-in for government.

Iain GraySNS Group

He is so much better than the press he got and was in part a victim of the cult of personality which pollutes politics and equates a steady if unflashy personality with incompetence or being out of touch. His belief in democratic socialism is undimmed and runs deep as an old East Lothian coalfield. He was a competent minister who had the misfortune to lead at a time when the storms gathered around his party.

He was succeeded by Johann Lamont. She was cut from similar cloth in terms of Labour’s ideological spectrum and was schooled by the legendary Buchan’s (Norman and Janey). She has their appreciation of a grounded and principled socialism without having Mrs Buchan’s forthright disposition. ‘Shit’ was Janey’s favourite word and it was always deployed liberally as an adjective rather than a verb.

For someone who was on the receiving end of some poor behaviour by her colleagues, Lamont continued to serve keeping any bitterness for private. She is responsible for great kindness to people across the political spectrum when ill or in difficulty. I know that because so many people have told me over the years.

Ruth Davidson is not retiring from public life but is quitting Holyrood. When I first came across her in the Glasgow North East by-election in 2009 there was nothing to suggest she would lead her party. She was still very new to politics. Her rise places a limitation to the meaning of meteoric.

Ruth DavidsonSNS Group

She helped revive Conservatism but only moderately so when examined in any historical context. That she seemed unprogrammed and authentic and modern took the Tories’ image beyond the stereotype of louche landed gentry and little old ladies who baked and lived in permanent fear of socialism.

Adam Tomkins is giving up after one term as a Conservative list member for Glasgow. A return to academia beckons. He came to prominence during the 2014 referendum. Perhaps the prospect of perpetual opposition was just too much. He will be a loss as every party group needs people who can think beyond lazily arrived at conclusions.

Adam TomkinsGetty Images

Parliamentary chambers with their tilt towards theatricality are rarely where governments are held to account. There is simply too much grandstanding that goes on to get to the heart of the issue. The committees are altogether different. John Finnie, SNP-turned-Scottish Green member will be a huge loss. His genteel but penetrating probing always advertises an MSP who has done his homework. He is a role model in holding to account. 

Jenny Marra and Aileen Campbell are quitting for family reasons. I find that heartening, as politics is a drug for some, a habit that becomes impossible to kick and signals a lifestyle that doesn’t change because nothing else is familiar. 

Holyrood will miss Linda Fabiani’s cheeriness, Gil Paterson’s mischievous humour, Elaine Smith and Neil Findlay’s ability to tell it as they see it.

The SNP will miss Bruce Crawford’s steady judgement, Labour the experience of David Stewart and Lewis Macdonald and the parliament more generally the good company of  Sandra White.

To the new intake, whoever they may be, good luck. You should accept my good wishes for as you will discover, the career of a parliamentarian is long on demands and somewhat short on thanks.

MSPs not standing for re-election


Jeane Freeman

Michael Russell

Roseanna Cunningham

Aileen Campbell

Stewart Stevenson

Alex Neil

Angus MacDonald

Bruce Crawford

Gail Ross

Gil Paterson

Sandra White

Linda Fabiani

Richard Lyle

Maureen Watt

Scottish Conservative

Ruth Davidson

Adam Tomkins

Margaret Mitchell

Peter Chapman

Scottish Labour

Ken Macintosh

Iain Gray

Neil Findlay

Mary Fee

Jenny Marra

Elaine Smith

David Stewart

Lewis Macdonald

Scottish Green

John Finnie

Scottish Liberal Democrat

Mike Rumbles


Mark McDonald