Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Reid All About It

It's been announced today that the cost of the Scottish Parliament building has been finalised at £414m - £16m down on the most recent estimate of £430m. It might not be much, and it's still a far cry from the ridiculous £40m we were promised at first by Donald Dewar. Nonetheless, it's a piece of good news from a project which had threatened to become a millstone round the neck of self-government.

In many ways, the Holyrood project held up a mirror to Scotland, and truth be told, I'm not sure anyone liked much what was reflected back. It became a byword for waste, incompetence and mismanagement. Everything about it, from the cosy cronyism in the choice of architect and site; the indecent haste to begin Dewar's vanity project; to the inept political and administrative scrutiny of the project itself; emphasied all that was rotten about the 'old Scotland' and everything that a Scottish Parliament was supposed to change.

Let's be brutally honest - in the aftermath of the 1999 referendum, Scotland was served badly by her politicians. Too many MSPs of all parties, at key points where some sanity could have been restored to the Holyrood project, decided to press on with nary a pause for thought. The mindless happy-clappiness of 'New millennium, new Scotland, new parliament, new building' was allowed to steamroller over those who recognised a stitch-up when they saw one, and who were rightly sceptical that you could get the promised building for anything like the sums being bandied about.

This mattered. In a trice, the grass-roots home-rule project had been snatched away from those that had supported and nurtured it through its darkest days. Home rule now belonged to the new cadre of politicians rather than to the people who had marched, delivered the leaflets and turned out to vote in their droves for the new institition. It represented something of a minor betrayal of people's early hopes - whatever they had been voting for, it hadn't been for this.

And how the antis all laughed. The cretinous reportage of Martin Clarke's Daily Record and of Andrew Neil’s Scotsman may have said more about their own atavistic hostility to home rule than anything else. However, the speed at which previously strong voices for devolution turned against was surprising, even by the 'expect the worst and you'll never be disappointed' mentality of the Scots.

But there’s no point crying over spilt milk. This final cost reduction is a minor triumph for Presiding Officer George Reid. When he became Presiding Officer, he set the parliament a target of 'moving in, and moving on'. Given the thankless task of trying to land what had become a jumbo-jet already in freefall, he took the controls and managed to bring things back under as much of a semblance of control as it was possible to achieve by that stage.

As someone who had grappled with Ethiopian warlords during the 1984 famine in his time with the Red Cross, dealing with the notoriously litigious construction industry and the more unreconstructed elements of the Scottish press would have been a bit of light relief in comparison. Heads were banged together, and even hardened construction veterans cried foul as timetables were cut and their acute awareness of costs was finally reciprocated by the client.

Well, we moved in a long time ago, and I think that even if we haven't entirely forgotten, we've at least managed to move on. As a Holyrood sceptic from the outset, I have to say that it is growing on me, even if the working space and some of the IT facilities leave much to be desired. And even at £414m, it still came in at a lower cost than the Millenium Dome, or the new Wembley Stadium.

Maybe it did the Scots no harm to realise that with the wrong people in charge, we were every bit as capable of governing ourselves badly as was Westminster. But there is another, less well-known aspect to this story.

Perhaps predictably, back in 1999 the devol-unionist establishment wanted David Steel as the parliament’s first Presiding Officer. What is less well known is that it took a personal intervention from Donald Dewar before Labour backbenchers would even back Reid as a Deputy Presiding Officer, such was their desire to vote with the Lib Dems and the Tories so that the hated nats could somehow be dished.

For me, Dewar's fair-mindedness aside, that little vignette sums up all that is worst about the petty tribalism in Scottish civic society. For make no mistake, Reid is someone who could have done so much more for his country, but too often was held back for being honest enough to wear his support for independence on his sleeve.

From the outset, Holyrood needed a Presiding Officer of Reid’s calibre, who could be both a silky diplomat in public and a hard-nosed little bastard in private. Eventually, we got him, and Scotland owes him a debt of gratitude for restoring some sanity to Holyrood, and for allowing us to start talking about the political issues which should have been detaining our MSPs from the outset.

In having to resign his party membership to take up the post, I’m pleased to say that the SNP’s loss was Holyrood's, and Scotland’s, eventual gain. For that reason, no matter who governs Scotland post-May, I hope a suitable future role can be found for him. It would be criminal if someone with his experience, international contacts and record of service couldn’t continue to serve Scotland in some capacity.


scotto voce said...

Spot on. George Reid has done more for Scotland's international reputation than any number of Exec Ministers tripping over the Atlantic for Tartan Week. If wee Jack cares so much for Scotland's place in the world, why did he not ensure George was unopposed in Ochil? He will be a very hard act to follow..... He'd also have been a good PO, and honest broker to have around, if May 3rd provides a minority administration (whether SNP or Labour)

Richard Thomson said...

Yes, he'll be hard to replace. I can't think of any obvious candidates from the current crop of MSPs who might actually want the job.
He could still have a role to play after the election since he remains in post, even though not as an MSP, until parliament elects a new PO. And if for any reason Parliament fails to elect a First Minister within 28 days, either there'd have to be another election or the Queen would have to appoint a new FM on Reid's recommendation. Fun and games...

Great sign in, by the way!