21 July 2010

A Precedent Set - Well, Sort of...

It's now official: Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson has been selected as Tory candidate for Galloway & West Dumfries next year. We were expecting this, but it still rankles: we've got it in our heads that a Presiding Officer needs to be above the fray, and here he is standing as a Conservative candidate.

But then, this is uncharted territory: unless he changes his mind between now and next April, this will be the first time since devolution that the Presiding Officer at Dissolution has been on the ballot paper at the subsequent election. Fergusson is now setting the precedent.

And it's because he's setting the precedent of seeking re-election as an MSP that his decision to stand again as a Tory, when he's supposed to be above the political fray, rankles so. But that's understandable: it rankled when it emerged that David Steel continued to take the LibDem Whip in the Lords. He set a precedent that the Presiding Officer's impartiality extended only as far as his duties as PO. As Steel's duties in the Chair did not go as far as Westminster, so Fergusson's duties don't go as far as the stump once Parliament is dissolved. But Steel also set the precedent of the commentariat being offended that a Presiding Officer wouldn't shed his political allegiances completely (a predecent backed up when George Reid was overheard commenting on Nicola Sturgeon's performance at FMQs once), and Fergusson has already had to face this. Indeed, his campaign leaflets will make for interesting reading.

But before the hysteria starts, let's consider a few things: firstly, does the affiliation (or lack of it) of a Presiding Officer make the blindest bit of difference? If they chair a meeting fairly, then it does not. After all, except in exceptional cases, the PO only speaks to say 'Order' and 'We now come to Decision Time', and he does not vote, except to break a tie when convention now effectively dictates that he must vote for the status quo. And not only can the Deputies speak and vote when they're not in the Chair, but they have stood for re-election to Parliament on a partisan ticket. George Reid was elected Deputy PO in 1999, and stood for the SNP in Ochil and in Mid Scotland and Fife in 2003. Murray Tosh was elected Deputy PO in 2001 and stood for the Tories in Dumbarton and the West of Scotland two years later, then was re-elected DPO and stood again for the Tories in Dumfries and the South of Scotland in 2007. Trish Godman was elected Deputy PO in 2003, and stood again for Labour in West Renfrewshire four years later. So it's perhaps a little harsh that Fergusson shouldn't have the same rights as his deputies (though we know that one of them, Alasdair Morgan, will not be exercising those rights as he is standing down).

Of course, we're spoiled by Westminster convention, where the Speaker sheds his Party and stands for re-election as 'Mister Speaker Seeking Re-Election', but we might want to note the convention in the Welsh Assembly, where Dafydd Elis Thomas was elected as Presiding Officer in 1999, then stood as a Plaid candidate in 2003, when he was re-elected to the Chair, and stood again for Plaid in 2007, and retained his post as PO.

But there's another factor, which means that Fergusson is not setting a full and clear precedent: he is standing for re-election as an MSP, but not as Presiding Officer: indeed, he was reluctant to take the post the first time round and has no wish to take it again.

So he is standing as a Tory Candidate because he wishes to be a Tory MSP. Fair do's, I suppose, though it does start to generate speculation as to who might succeed him. Do Labour have anyone this time? They're the only one of the Big 4 not to have supplied one yet, despite having had a total of 67 different MSPs since the Parliament first sat (and who'd have thought back when the referendum campaign was being fought that a Tory would be the Presiding Officer of a Scottish Parliament before a Labour member?). Is LibDem Ross Finnie thinking of throwing his hat into the ring, as is rumoured? We shall see.

But again, Fergusson's decision still leaves a basic question unanswered: what happens when a Presiding Officer decides to seek re-election as Presiding Officer?

We won't know the answer to that one for another four years.


Andrea said...

"Do Labour have anyone this time?"

Trish Godman?

Will said...

I have wondered that myself - is she definitely standing again?

Andrea said...

I just seen Stuart Clark has been selected by Labour for Renfrewshire North & West. I guess that means Godman is retiring

Will said...

Well, seeing as she'll be 71 by polling day, I can't blame her, and Clark's been knocking on the door of Holyrood anyway, having been #1 on Labour's West of Scotland list in 2003 and 2007.

Still, one thing this does mean is that with Alasdair Morgan standing down and Fergusson leaving the Chair, the new Parliament will be the first since its creation to have a completely new line-up of Presiding Officer and Deputies. Until now, there's always been an element of continuity, with George Reid going from DPO to PO in 2003, and Murray Tosh being re-elected that same year, and of course, Godman herself being re-elected in 2007.