06 September 2008

Wendygate: Just when you thought it was over

Remember how I said that the best way to move forward from Wendygate was to look again at the procedure behind the Register of Interests? Well, Labour have, unsurprisingly, decided on a different tack: they're gunning for Keith Brown, the Convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. They are arguing that the vote on Wendy Alexander's ban was also a vote of confidence in Keith Brown, that he lost, and he should resign.

Of course, it wasn't a vote of confidence in the Convener. It was a vote on whether or not Wendy Alexander should face at least some form of sanction for breaking the rules. Nor was he himself the loser: he was representing his Committee and presenting the report and recommendations supported by a majority of its members. Now, Hugh O'Donnell had already been a victim of the LibDems' reshuffle (though had threatened to resign anyway in the event of the result that ultimately emerged) but we have to remember that four Committee members supported the recommendations: Brown & O'Donnell had the backing of Christina McKelvie & Dave Thompson. A Committee is exactly that; to shift the Committee's defeat - aided by three of its members (Cathie Craigie, Marlyn Glen and Jamie McGrigor) who saw fit to both criticise the Committee but retain membership of it - onto the person of Keith Brown is somewhat ridiculous. All he was doing was speaking for his Committee.

So to frame the vote against holding Wendy Alexander's breach of the rules to account as a vote against the person of Keith Brown is ludicrous: it wasn't that. To say that he lost that vote of confidence is equally daft: there was no confidence vote to lose and this was a recommendation by a Committee, not by Keith Brown. So to say that he should resign is barmy: the reasons given for it are based on a false premise, so he should stay if he wants to.

And even if, for the sake of argument, he were to resign over this - what would it achieve? If it were an act of contrition for losing a vote, then there would be a lot more resignations in politics than there actually are. And it wouldn't change the fact that MSPs had voted not to punish Wendy Alexander. Indeed, as long the Committee had reached the same conclusion that it did, MSPs would have reached the same conclusion that they did, and who the Convener actually was wouldn't matter, so Keith Brown's resignation over this issue wouldn't do anything. Similarly, if he were to resign in protest at the decision of the Chamber - as Hugh O'Donnell had planned to before Tavish Scott had him removed from the Committee anyway - that wouldn't change the decision that has been taken and an act of Quixotic defiance wouldn't be of use to the Parliament, the Committee or Keith Brown himself. No, this whole episode is not in and of itself a reason to resign.

So why have Labour issued the call? Simple. Wendy Alexander fell, and the Labour Party was hurt. Now they want to hurt someone back and they've opted to shoot the messenger: Keith Brown. That's the only thing that would come of his resignation now: Labour would be able to claim a scalp. Given all the howls about partisanship (and what was the reason for Cathie Craigie and Marlyn Glen opposing anything which acknowledged Wendy Alexander's wrongdoing or proposed sanctions for it?), the last thing Keith Brown should do is yield to a partisan call for his resignation.

And to compound the suspicion that this is all about revenge, think about who spoke up for Labour: Richard Simpson, MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife. Simpson had been MSP for Ochil until George Reid defeated him in 2003. Reid stood down, and Brown was his successor. So perhaps it's not just about avenging Wendy Alexander... perhaps Wendygate has provided the catalyst for Clackmannanshire politics to spill over into the Scottish Parliament.

But whether that's the case or not, the one person in the short term who should decide when, how, why and even if Keith Brown quits is Keith Brown.


Anonymous said...

What do you think of the committee's standing at present?

Will said...

Anon.. I think the Committee has come in for unfair flak. It's some of its members who have let the side down.

Anonymous said...

I would say that the criticism of the committee is justified. It is worth noting that this is the first time that it has failed to decide on a sanction against a member unanimously and the first time it has failed to win parliamentary support for its recommendations. I think there was, as has been suggested, a degree of partisanship displayed by members of the committee.

However blaming Keith Brown for that partisanship is wholly unfair. Indeed I understand that he did his best to find consensus and was thwarted. But that does not change the fact that under his stewardship the committee failed badly on this matter. Furthermore I quite agree with you, if he failed then so did all other members and there is a good argument for them all to go. Indeed given Jamie McGrigor's speech I would have thought it would be difficult for him to continue.

That said I think the Labour party calling for his resignation was too much. Some humility would not have gone a miss (and not just at this stage in proceedings).

I think all parties underestimated the importance of this committee when putting forward their nominees. Frankly I think it was lacking in the calibre of MSP it needed to deal with this in a mature way.

I realise my first comment was short and did not mean to be offensive. I agree that Keith Brown is not wholly responsible for this but as mentioned I do think that some people falling on their swords may have restored some faith.

Regards, M (formerly anon)

Will said...

I agree with most of that, M, and I certainly agree that Jamie McGrigor might want to look for a new Committee. As should Dave Thompson, to be honest. I certainly can't see either of them sitting round a table and co-operating effectively any time soon.

Having said that, I think that partisanship isn't unique to this issue or this Committee. Instead, I sense a rise in partisanship across the board: most notably in the report on the Trump planning application, and to a lesser degree on the abolition of the Graduate Endowment (where you'd expect partisanship as there's an element of policy kicking in). And I can't see the more experienced, more influential MSPs being any better.

If anything, they'd be worse... can you imagine, say, Roseanna Cunningham or Kenneth Gibson on the Committee with George Foulkes or Duncan McNeil? Proceedings would resemble putting seven ferrets in the same sack and awaiting results.

No, as I said in the OP, the reason this got so bitter was that it quickly mushroomed into something more than it was. If you were anti-Wendy, it was the chance to finally get her for breaking the rules after the let-off from the Electoral Commission. If you were pro-Wendy, it was the latest chapter in a witch-hunt. So partisanship became inevitable.

I'd drafted a couple of responses to your first comment before I settled on the one I went for. What I was initially going to say, and what I still think, is that the Committee, whoever is on it, will recover with time. There'll be other issues to consider and they'll get on with it like this never happened. They have to.

Anonymous said...

Partisanship is definitely on the rise - couldn't agree more. Naivety on my part perhaps but I would have hoped that it could at least be kept from this committee - I don't see how it can work if that is not the case. I think we are going to have to disagree about the people on it though. I believe there are nats and labour guys (and for that matter people from the others) who would have been able to sit on that committee and come to a reasoned conclusion and retain the support of Parliament. Indeed if we don't find these people I can see the whole thing happening again.

My comment about not trying to be offensive was really me saying that I wasn't just picking a fight for a fight's sake or because of partisanship (irony given the subject). However on reflection my first comment seemed pointed - apologies.

Regards M

Will said...

M, I suspect in most cases, partisanship isn't going to be a problem for the Committee: when they're dealing with procedural issues and changes to the rules, then I would imagine it'll get very easy to find consensus (as all the parties will probably want the same end result anyway). But when an SNP or Labour figure is being hauled over the coals, it'll get nasty again.

And as regards the first comment... it seemed reasonable enough to me, as people are asking that question pointedly or not and another eminently sensible blogger has questioned the point of the Committee - well worth a read, if you haven't seen it already.