Orcadian Column 30/03/17

Over the past week, I have had the plug pulled on two separate BBC interviews.

Early on Monday morning, a nation emerging from slumber was deprived of my considered thoughts on the current epidemic of self-harming and attempted suicide amongst Scotland’s prison population, when my skype connection abruptly failed. My offer of calling back with a five-minute rant about rural broadband was politely declined by a BBC producer, clearly anxious not to offend the sensibilities of her breakfast-time audience.

Prior to that, last Tuesday afternoon, as I stood in Holyrood’s Garden Lobby waiting to take part in a panel discussion about the two-day debate we were having on the possibility of another independence referendum, the BBC presenter, Gordon Brewer announced he was cutting to a breaking news story in London. My MSP colleagues and I then listened in stunned silence as BBC Scotland’s Westminster correspondent fleshed out tentative details of the unfolding attack in and around the Palace of Westminster.

At that stage, nothing was known about casualties, far less motives, but it was immediately obvious that something serious had taken place. A rather surreal ten minutes then followed as the panel was briefly quizzed on our respective positions on so-called ‘indyref2’. Frankly, though, minds were already elsewhere.

Meanwhile, in the chamber, debate raged. Emotions, inevitably, were running high and contributions largely followed a predictable pattern for and against. As news filtered through about events in London, however, most MSPs became increasingly uncomfortable debating our place in the UK and the role of Westminster at the very moment our sister parliament was under attack.

The decision, therefore, to suspend proceedings was, I believe, the right one. So too was the decision for parliament to reconvene the following day, allowing an early opportunity for MSPs to condemn the attack, commend those who responded with such bravery and calm and to voice our support for all those affected.

Later, at First Minister’s Questions, the five party leaders took turns to speak powerfully of our collective determination to avoid handing victory to those intent on inflicting such violence by responding in ways that divide our society and weaken our democracy.

As with previous attacks, this latest barbaric act by a fixated individual must not be used to demonise whole religions, faiths or communities. Likewise, the tragic murder of PC Keith Palmer should not lead to the routine arming of our police, who take justifiable pride in policing by consent.

Nor should we rush to turn parliament buildings into fortresses. Our democracy functions, in part, on the basis of our politicians, politics and parliaments being open and accessible. Where additional safety measures can sensibly be put in place, they should be, but proportionality is key. Let us be careful not to sacrifice our hard-fought rights and freedoms in the vain hope it might make us safer. Chances are, it could have the opposite effect.

As MSPs returned to Edinburgh again this week, recent events in Westminster were clearly still preying on minds. The debate on indyref2 was eventually concluded on Tuesday and Nicola Sturgeon got the vote she wanted, courtesy of support from Green Party MSPs, who looked decidedly uncomfortable when it came to decision time. In the event, however, it all felt rather muted and something of an anti-climax.

It has, of course, left Ms Sturgeon with a dilemma as to what to do next. During a visit to Scotland this week, the Prime Minister repeated her view that “now is not the time” for a second independence referendum, nor would negotiations be appropriate. With polls continuing to show most people in Scotland agree with that view, there are risks for the First Minister. Being seen to prioritise demands for another referendum that a majority of Scots don’t want over addressing problems on bread and butter issues such as education, health, social care and transport, is not good politics.

At the end of a testing few days for our politics north and south of the border, a period of sober reflection on what happens next is perhaps needed.

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