First Minister’s Questions

Thursday January 29th 2015

This week Midlothian View visited the Scottish Parliament to watch First Minister’s questions.

What first struck me was how accessible the Parliament is. It took thirty minutes from leaving home to taking my seat in the public gallery. Parking is simple as there is a car park opposite which only charges £1 per hour. Walking into the building there is airport style security to go through but the Police and security team are very pleasant. Ideally you should reserve your free ticket to the public gallery in advance to ensure you get in but on this occasion I hadn’t so I enquired at the public gallery visitor’s desk. The Parliament staff were very helpful, gave me my ticket and escorted me to the bottom of the stairs. At the top of the stairs a security guard opened the door and welcomed me inside.

The chamber and public gallery were busy as I entered as First Minister’s questions was about to start. The Debating Chamber is very impressive with it’s semi-circular amphitheatre style layout and each MSP sitting at an individual desk made from wood. The floor is carpeted so it is very quiet and the whole room gives a warm welcoming feel to it. The impressive nature of the Chamber perhaps justifying to some extent the enormous cost of it’s construction. The public gallery is at the back of the room which gives a good view all round. Though getting there a few minutes earlier would have enabled me to get a better seat with a view of the whole chamber of MSPs.

Debating Chamber

The presiding Office Tricia Marwick MSP, declared the start of First Minister’s questions and the first question from Kezia Dugdale, regional MSP for Lothian and Deputy Leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Her question raised concerns that almost half of Scottish pupils will be sitting the old higher exams and she asked “What’s gone wrong?” To which, as is the custom, Nicola Sturgeon got to her feet reply. What struck me as the politicians took turns to speak was that whilst they were trying to score political points they did so in a much less combative style than the ‘Punch & Judy’ affair which is Prime Minister’s questions. Both MSPs actually made good points and it did have the feel of debate.

After ten minutes it was then the turn of Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and MSP for the Glasgow regional list, to ask her question. Though she started by announcing to the Chamber that Andy Murray had just won his semi-final in the Australian Open to which the First Minister queried in a jovial manner whether Ruth Davidson was preparing for FMQs or reading Twitter. The banter within the room gave off a vibe that these were actually people doing a job and showing more warmth to each other than sometimes appears on television.

Ms Davidson’s question was also on Education, stating that the number of Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) university places had reduced from 86,000 to 56,000 whilst the SNP had been in power. The First Minister responded in the usual indirect way politicians do though she did say she would look in detail at the figures quoted by Ruth Davidson but also said that more students are completing courses which lead to jobs.

And so it continued with questions from other MSPs until the thirty minute session was over. Again what struck me was from having only left home thirty minutes prior here I was watching democracy in action, being in the same room as the First Minister and the leaders of Scottish Labour, Scottish Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens and almost all of Scotland’s MSPs. Looking around the chamber I could see MSPs I recognised Kenny MacAskill, Iain Gray, Patrick Harvie, Alison Johnstone and Colin Beattie, the MSP for Midlothian North and Musselburgh. There were also numerous MSPs I did not recognise however what I saw were people who appeared to be normal people, participating in a debate.

As most of the MSPs and members of the gallery left the chamber I stayed on to watch the start of the next debate, entitled “Educational psychologists numbers at dangerously low numbers in Scotland.” There were only perhaps a dozen MSPs left in the chamber but they took it in turns to make their point in their allotted four minutes slot. Again there was a feeling they were having a debate, making good points and actually listening to one another.

The whole visit lasted less than an hour and as I emerged from the building into a cold but bright Edinburgh afternoon I reflected on what had been a very interesting, enlightening and somewhat reassuring political experience. I had witnessed Scottish democracy in action, it was open to all, it was very easy to access and I had seen real people discussing real matters.

I would strongly recommend that everyone should visit the public gallery of the Scottish Parliament, either for First Minister’s questions or perhaps another longer debate. Every five years we vote for these people so we should at least go along and see what it is all about.

Scottish Parliament Building

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