With news of Scotland’s first confirmed case of Coronavirus, and alarming predictions about possible worst case scenarios, all bets are off about what issue will now dominate the political agenda for the foreseeable future.
Beyond the advice already issued by Ministers, NHS and other relevant authorities, however, there is little I can usefully add on the topic at this point. For now, therefore, let me stick to matters upon which I am more qualified to comment.
In that sense, MSPs wrestling with whether or not to stand for election is one with which I am intimately familiar. For the avoidance of doubt, I intend seeking the nomination of local Liberal Democrat members for next year’s Holyrood contest. Thereafter, I hope voters in Orkney will choose to put their trust in me again to represent them and our islands in the Scottish Parliament for the following five years.
Last week, though, saw a number of MSP colleagues reach a different conclusion, including current and former Ministers, Michael Russell, Bruce Crawford and Stewart Stevenson. All three have been privately candid about wishing to bow out and so news of their retirement from frontline politics was widely anticipated.
The same cannot be said of Gail Ross’ decision to step down after serving a single term as SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross. As well as being a good friend, Gail is someone I have worked closely with on various issues affecting both our constituencies, notably around transport links. She is going to be a big miss and a hard act to follow.
Ultimately, however, as the mother of a young son, Gail found the demands of representing such a vast, rural constituency at Holyrood incompatible with family life. Her decision has reignited the debate about what more the parliament could and should be doing to support those with young families, or caring responsibilities, to stand for election and serve as MSPs.
There are no easy answers. Allowing MSPs to vote ‘remotely’, for example, offers attractions, but there are potential downsides, including a risk of being ‘out of sight, out of mind’. I can think of two occasions last week alone when just being physically present in parliament enabled me to ‘button hole’ Ministers about local housing and fishing issues where a formal meeting would have taken weeks, possibly months to arrange.
That said, as someone elected in 2007, when my sons were four and seven, I understand entirely Gail Ross’ dilemma. The missed parents’ evenings, school concerts and sports days mount up and weigh heavily, even when you are fortunate enough to have a spouse who can make light of your absence. At the same time, these challenges are not unique to parliamentarians and I know many constituents who can legitimately point to work commitments, or personal circumstances, that are as disruptive to family life, if not more so. Judging whether the rewards compensate sufficiently for the sacrifices is, fundamentally, a very personal decision.
Two politicians with no thoughts about calling it a day are Angus Robertson and Joanna Cherry, who are currently battling it out for selection as the SNP’s candidate in Edinburgh Central at next year’s Holyrood election.
Selection contests are rarely public affairs, but this one has certainly captured the imagination. In part, this reflects the profile of the two main contenders, but also the tensions they represent within the SNP over indyref2. Mr Robertson, a former SNP Leader at Westminster, has positioned himself as a Nicola Sturgeon loyalist. By contrast, Ms Cherry has been highly critical of the First Minister, demanding she be more assertive in pushing for a second independence referendum, with or without a sound legal basis.
Such criticism, allied to the government’s performance in key public services such as education and health & care, has even led to genuine speculation at Holyrood regarding Nicola Sturgeon’s own future. That is unprecedented, but also helps explain why the contest in Edinburgh Central is being viewed both as a battle for ‘the soul of the SNP’ and potentially its leadership too.
It will be fascinating to see what happens, though it may struggle to match the battle over Coronavirus for public and media attention over the coming weeks.