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Scotland will benefit from its newly diverse parliament

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA</span>
Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

There have been times in the past year when Scotland has felt like a dark and retrogressive place. Alex Salmond’s acquittal on sexual assault charges prompted an outpouring of online misogyny that manifested itself first in attacks on the complainers and then in a wider lashing out at anything considered “woke”. Those who aligned themselves with the former first minister seized on the SNP’s already-contentious plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), so trans people could self-identify, as a wedge issue. They scorned the party’s attempts to increase the number of women, minority ethnic and disabled candidates for the Holyrood election.

The launch of Alba – a vehicle for Salmond’s ego – days after James Hamilton’s report cleared Nicola Sturgeon of breaching the ministerial code, cast a further shadow. Though neither he nor George Galloway – who stood for his All for Unity party – were invited to take part in the leaders’ debates, they secured enough airtime to inject their own special brand of toxicity into the proceedings.

And yet – six weeks on: look at us now. Scottish voters have sent Alba and All for Unity spinning into oblivion and elected the most diverse range of MSPs in its history. There are 58 women (45% of the parliament) including the first two minority-ethnic women – Kaukab Stewart, who beat Scottish Greens co-convener Patrick Harvie to take Glasgow Kelvin for the SNP, and Conservative Pam Gosal, who got in on the West of Scotland list. In total, there are six minority-ethnic MSPs.

There are also several MSPs with disabilities, including Labour’s Pam Duncan-Glancy, who is the first permanent wheelchair user, and Emma Roddick, who has borderline personality disorder and PTSD.

The parliament feels rejuvenated; 25% of its existing MSPs stood down, including health secretary Jeane Freeman, constitution secretary Mike Russell and environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham. That represents a loss of expertise, of course. But after 14 years in power, the Scottish government is flagging. It has failed to stop spiralling drugs deaths, narrow the educational attainment gap or tackle child poverty. It is in desperate need of new ideas and fresh perspectives.

So what impact will these new MSPs have? Well, more diverse life experiences bring a depth of understanding of different issues. And boy is that needed, because discrimination is still rife. Look at what happened to Duncan-Glancy. She had to wait 45 minutes to access the Glasgow count because managers refused to believe she was a candidate.

Neither she nor Stewart should be defined by their minority status; they are both longstanding campaigners on a wide range of issues. But sometimes it takes those with lived experience to see what is required and act on it; to ensure accessibility and equality are not considered on an ad hoc basis but embedded in every aspect of policymaking.

As a teacher, Stewart has already talked about the impact of poverty on educational attainment. She understands you cannot tackle one without the other. But she will also know the importance to children of seeing themselves reflected in the world around them. One positive consequence of her election may be a drive to recruit more minority-ethnic teachers.

Roddick has lived experience of both homelessness and rural mental health services and so will have insight into where those services fall short. Labour MSP Paul Sweeney, who lost his seat as an MP in 2019, has written about the trauma of applying for universal credit, and spent some of the time he was unemployed supporting Peter Krykant’s overdose prevention van. He will have valuable things to say about welfare reform and drugs policy.

The new intake could help the Scottish government overcome its impasse on the GRA. In the last parliament, its reform bill was opposed by a majority of its own MSPs. However, several vocal opponents in the SNP and Labour have gone. That, together with an increased number of Green MSPs, may have changed the dynamics.

Meanwhile, the increase in the number of women could spur the parliament on to become more family-friendly. Holyrood lost three MSPs – Jenny Marra, Gail Ross and communities secretary Aileen Campbell – because they wanted to spend more time with their young families.

Kezia Dugdale, former Scottish Labour leader and now director of the John Smith Centre for Public Service at the University of Glasgow, is campaigning for virtual participation and voting – introduced during Covid – to continue beyond the pandemic. It’s a move that would make life easier for those with young families and those in rural areas. Holyrood has no formal pairing system or proxy votes and there is limited maternity provision.

Ross, who was MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, had to travel for five hours twice a week to attend Holyrood.

What might be lost in spontaneity and the theatrics of the debating chamber would be gained in increased engagement. Dugdale believes the public are put off by Punch and Judy politics, in any case, and has commissioned a poll to test her theory.

She is also urging MSPs to ask those vying to be presiding officer where they stand on virtual voting. The PO would play a key role in determining if it could become standard practice.

More could still be done to increase representation. The SNP operated women-only shortlists in many constituencies where the incumbent was standing down, while a minority-ethnic or disabled candidate was placed at the top of every regional list. But the SNP did so well in the constituencies, only two list MSPs – Roddick and Emma Harper – were elected. Of its six ethnic minority candidates, only Stewart is now an MSP.

Still, a parliament as diverse as the one Scotland has just created is something to be celebrated. The rejection of Alba and the Alliance for Unity is proof Scotland is no country for old men with outdated attitudes, but a progressive, multicultural nation with its eyes firmly fixed on the future.

  • Dani Garavelli is a freelance journalist

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