March of the mediocre

A day of debates reveals the dearth of ministerial talent at Holyrood.

Wednesday was a march of the ministerial mediocrities at Holyrood but, unlike Boris Johnson’s reshuffle at Westminster, none was marching out the door. 

Maree Todd, the minister for women's health, updated MSPs on the cervical screening scandal. This is the outrage that ministers knew about before the election but, outrageously, didn’t reveal to the public until afterwards — 107 days later. 

Todd said that, in addition to one woman known to have died after being wrongly told not to undergo cancer testing, another two had been discovered to have become ill after being incorrectly excluded. Todd, whose phone kept buzzing, confirmed that a review had looked at ‘the appropriateness of around 2,000 permanent exclusions from the cervical screening programme’.

The minister’s phone buzzed yet again.

‘I apologise,’ she told the deputy Presiding Officer, ‘my team has just contacted me to say that I inadvertently said that 2,000 records were to be reviewed, when I should have said 200,000.’

Michael Matheson, the cabinet secretary for net zero, energy and transport, was up next to respond to a debate from the Tories’ Liam Kerr on the transition away from oil and gas. Matheson's appointment to this portfolio remains a testament to Nicola Sturgeon's sense of irony, for what other than a mordant grasp of the absurd would move the First Minister to put in charge of energy policy such a low-watt minister. 

Even so, it wasn't he, but colleague Richard Lochhead, who got to his feet to bray at the Tories: ‘Where was the Conservative Party’s concern for jobs when you shut down the coal mines?’ Zing! Next week, MSPs debate whether Lord North’s mishandling of the Boston Tea Party led directly to the battles of Lexington and Concord. 

The Lib Dems’ Liam McArthur noted how far attitudes had come on the climate since 20 years ago. ‘Bob the Builder’s version of ‘Mambo Number Five’ was sitting at the top of the charts and thankfully we’ve moved on since then.’ The Lib Dems were also sitting in government at Holyrood, and thankfully we’ve moved on from that too.

Attention finally turned to a debate on GP appointments, a matter raised by the Tories’ Annie Wells. She brought up Humza Yousaf’s call for Scots to ‘think twice’ before dialling 999. Given his political career increasingly appears to be on life support, you can understand why. He intervened to quote comments from the Scottish Ambulance Service which didn’t support his remarks and earned him a second reprimand, this time from GP and Tory MSP Dr Sandesh Gulhane. 

The rest of the debate was taken up by SNP backbenchers maintaining GP surgeries were running as happily as as series of Call the Midwife while opposition members read out the experiences of their constituents, for whom securing a GP appointment was a feat akin to getting an intelligible sentence out of James Dornan. 

The havoc continued into the final votes. Angela Constance’s phone had lost connection while she was voting remotely and she joined via Zoom to ask that her vote be counted. Collette Stevenson tried to intervene, seemingly with the same complaint, but her connection wouldn’t work at all and the Presiding Officer stared at a blank screen hopefully for a while before giving up. Alison Johnstone then corrected herself after learning she’d been handed the wrong results to read out on a particular vote. 

One last point. I’m hardly a shrinking violet when it comes to parliamentary bolshiness. Indeed, it’s my bread and butter. More stushies = livelier copy. Even so, the barracking of Labour’s Monica Lennon during the oil and gas debate struck me as uncalled for. 

With an allotted speaking time of five minutes in which to respond to the Tories’ position, critique the SNP’s policies and set out Labour’s stance, Lennon had to barrel through her talking points and do so under endless heckling and attempts at intervention. Her contribution — or at least the snippets I could hear — was too wide-eyed idealistic for my liking but courtesy required that it be heard. 

Lennon finally batted away Conservative interventions with the jab, ‘I’d rather give voice to workers than to Tories’. Her patter was groan-worthy but her patience award-winning. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail on September 16, 2021.

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