Motion of Thanks

– in the Scottish Parliament at 3:10 pm on 27th March 2003.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party 3:10 pm, 27th March 2003

The next item of business is a debate on motion S1M-4063, in the name of the First Minister, on the Presiding Officer.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour 3:33 pm, 27th March 2003

This is an important occasion. As the proceedings of this four-year session draw to a close, I am delighted to have the honour of moving a motion to pay tribute to our first Presiding Officer, Sir David Steel. Sir David's experience, commitment and the wider role that he has had in his new position have been fundamental to our success as a young Parliament.

The Presiding Officer has been in Scottish politics in many different capacities for nearly 40 years. When I became First Minister, I remember calculating that the average age of members of the Scottish Parliament was about 41 or 42. For those of us in that age range, that means that Sir David became a member of Parliament before we were at primary school and that we were still at secondary school when he became the leader of the Liberal party. He has had a career of distinction and has made a massive contribution to Scotland, the United Kingdom and the liberal movement worldwide.

Sir David's experience, which is not always remembered by those of us who are of a younger generation, has been fundamental to his success in his position and to the on-going success of the Parliament during the past four years. He represented his constituency for 32 years and was leader of the Liberal party for 12 years. Following his retiral as a member of Parliament, he became a life peer and, in 1999, he made the important and exciting choice to return to politics to serve in the Scottish Parliament.

Sir David had also been one of the active leaders of the Scottish constitutional convention, the body that drew up the blueprint from which the Scottish Parliament was to be created. That was highly appropriate for a Presiding Officer. He had been a lifelong campaigner for devolution, and that commitment has shown through over the past four years. Sir David has defended and promoted the founding principles of the Parliament. The informality, courtesy and respect that characterise our proceedings—at least, most of the time—are a tribute to his example to us all. His sure hand and light touch have been shown on many occasions, not least in Aberdeen last year, when he told the story of the white mice when Her Majesty the Queen was present in the chamber.

Despite illness and all that has changed around him, Sir David's presence has given us stability and an opportunity for this young Parliament to grow. There has also been a wider importance to his role. We are fortunate, in this young Parliament, to have had a Presiding Officer with international experience and international interests. There was always a danger of the new Scottish Parliament being a parochial institution. However, a variety of speakers and visitors, such as Thabo Mbeki and others, have visited the Parliament and have engaged with us, and Sir David and other members have represented our new Parliament abroad, especially in the USA on tartan day. Those occasions have served Scotland well, and Sir David has served Scotland well. He has kept our proceedings in a wider perspective, and that has been very important.

That is partly because of the man that he is. In the excellent book by Tom Devine and Paddy Logue that was published last summer, entitled "Being Scottish", in a short essay on his Scottishness, Sir David quotes John Buchan, describing his constituents in the Borders as having

"realism coloured by poetry, a stalwart independence sweetened by courtesy, and a shrewd kindly wisdom".

I can think of no better summary of Sir David Steel, in his role in the Parliament. I commend that to the Parliament this afternoon. He has served us well and I wish Judy and him well in retirement. [Applause.]

I move,

That the Parliament expresses its gratitude to Sir David Steel for his service to the Parliament and recognises the important and historic role he has carried out as its first Presiding Officer.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party 3:38 pm, 27th March 2003

It is my pleasure to support the motion that has been moved by the First Minister and to recognise the historic event that we are witnessing today. We are a young Parliament, but we are in the process every day of creating a new history and tradition for our Parliament. When the Parliament was constituted, four years ago, my dear colleague Winnie Ewing opened the Parliament with grace and style. Soon after, she was able to hand over to an individual of wise guidance and wise leadership, who has served the Parliament extremely well over the past four years.

It is no easy task to establish the foundations of a new Parliament—politically or in terms of the brickwork. However, the political foundations that have been laid for the Parliament have been characterised by the dignified way in which Sir David has undertaken his responsibilities. He has chaired our proceedings and, as the First Minister said, he has been an ambassador on our behalf and a welcome host to the many international dignitaries who have come to see the emergence of this new institution. He has also established some important principles in the tradition of the Parliament. If I have heard him speaking more often about any one subject in the Parliament, it has been about his desire to see the Parliament's committee system thrive, develop and become ever more influential. Our committee system has distinguished the Parliament from other institutions with which people may be more familiar.

Sir David has been instrumental in defending and protecting Parliament and the rights of Parliament. On occasion, members on the Opposition benches might have liked him to give the Executive an even harder time, procedurally, than he has given it. However, at all times he has acted with fairness and dignity in his work. Sir David and I share a specific objective. He has had a duty, over the past four years, to keep the Parliament under control and to keep the Scottish National Party group within it under control. Occasionally, I have been challenged by the latter task during the past two and half years and I have sympathised with Sir David's challenge when he has occasionally wrestled with that task.

The First Minister referred to the long political career that Sir David has had in Scotland. He entered politics via the 1965 Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles by-election, which he won decisively. However, that by election led to the expulsion from the SNP of an eccentric character called Anthony J C Kerr, who disobeyed the party leadership and decided to stand against Sir David, despite the fact—if memory serves me right—that we were establishing an anti-Tory pact at the time. Some traditions of Scottish politics have not changed much.

It is with the greatest of pleasure that I associate the Scottish National Party with the First Minister's remarks and with the motion. I am not confident that Sir David Steel will be retiring. I cannot imagine that that will be the case. He goes on from his responsibilities as Presiding Officer to act as the Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. He will occupy a different seat in this building from the one that he currently occupies, but in that and his future activities he has the good wishes of everyone on this side of the Parliament. [Applause.]

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 3:41 pm, 27th March 2003

On occasions such as this there is the temptation to say, "Oh, for goodness' sake give him the watch and crack open the sherry." [ Laughter. ] However, that would not do justice to the distinguished service that the Presiding Officer has rendered to Parliament in its first session. I am very pleased indeed to associate my colleagues and me with the First Minister's and Mr Swinney's generous tributes and with the terms of the motion.

When writing his memoirs, the Presiding Officer will no doubt reflect on some of the trials and tribulations of his job. On day one, of course, the Presiding Officer was handed the poisoned chalice of the Holyrood project, which is a responsibility that he has shouldered with commendable commitment but occasionally, some of us might think, with an unwise degree of enthusiasm. The Holyrood project has been a labour of Hercules—unfinished—of which the Presiding Officer will be delighted, no doubt, to be well shot.

Presiding Officers and Speakers in Parliaments are, of course, akin to football referees and it is a measure of Sir David's authority that, after four years, there have been few bookings for dissent and no red cards—yet. Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, I have to thank the Presiding Officer for preventing me on one occasion from asking questions in the Parliament, which probably did much more for my credibility than if I had actually asked them—such are the ironies and contradictions of politics.

As chair of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, the Presiding Officer has been responsible for the Parliament staff and in thanking him for his contribution over the past four years I would also like to express our thanks to the Parliament staff for the outstanding support and service that they have given to us all in every department and in every respect. [Applause.] I would also like to extend my best wishes to members who, like the Presiding Officer, will retire from Parliament before the election. I thank them for their contributions, particularly those of my colleagues John Young and Ben Wallace.

As the First Minister said, Presiding Officer, you have given outstanding service to public life in Scotland over many years and you will, as John Swinney noted, make an early return to the Assembly Hall in your capacity as Lord High Commissioner to the forthcoming General Assembly. That will be yet another eminent title to add to your burgeoning collection.

And so, Sir David, I say to you: go back to your constituency and prepare for retirement—although that is a prospect that we may all have to face on 1 May. It has been a pleasure to have worked with you over the four years of the Parliament, Sir David, and all of us wish you and Judy many happy and fulfilling years ahead. [Applause.]

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat 3:45 pm, 27th March 2003

Sir David Steel will be pleased and reassured to know that, following debate and discussion at our group meeting on Tuesday evening, the Liberal Democrat group agreed to support the motion.

Although, on taking office as Presiding Officer, Sir David donned the mantle of political neutrality—which we certainly believe that he has maintained—I make no apology for saying that, as a Liberal Democrat, I speak to the motion with warmth and particular personal pleasure.

David Steel led my party in the first three general elections in which I fought and was leader of my party when I entered the House of Commons in 1983. I was subsequently his chief whip—indeed, I was the last chief whip of the Liberal Party and the first chief whip of the newly merged party. We fought many election campaigns together and, as Jack McConnell has reminded us, in 1989, when we joined together in this building in the Scottish constitutional convention, David Steel and Harry Ewing became the honorary joint presidents of the convention. Further, we campaigned, along with many others here, in the successful campaign for a yes-yes vote in the historic 1997 referendum.

Reference has also been made to Judy Steel, and it is important to acknowledge the contribution that she has made, not only over the past few years, but over many years. I well recall the night when Nicol Stephen won the Kincardine and Deeside by-election. After the announcement of the result, a camera went outside the count in Stonehaven where there were a lot of rejoicing Liberal Democrats. David Dimbleby asked, "Who is that woman jumping up and down?" and David Steel replied, "That's no woman; that's my wife." Judy has been a stalwart support and we owe her a debt of gratitude as well.

My father recalls visiting one of his clients in the Borders, the late Andrew Haddon, a stalwart Liberal, who said that the local party had just selected a lad to fight the forthcoming election. He said that he thought that he was good and might go far—and indeed he has. Sir David represented his constituents in Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles and, subsequently, Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale with outstanding distinction. One of the great battles of the earliest part of his career was the attempt to save the Waverley line from the Beeching axe and I am sure that he will be among the first to receive an invitation to be present when the first stretch of new track is laid for the new Borders railway.

There have been some key themes to David Steel's political career during the past 40 years.

Those themes have brought consistency coupled with pragmatism and drive, allied to good humour and courage.

An integral characteristic of all great Scots is internationalism. That is a perspective that David Steel shares and has demonstrated throughout his political career. No doubt, that perspective was fostered during his upbringing in Africa, a continent to which he has devoted much time and commitment.

Sir David's commitment to fighting racism and his leading involvement in the anti-apartheid campaign were inspiring to many, and not without political risk. It took a great deal of courage to take that campaign to the Borders of Scotland—that great rugby-loving region—during the 1969-70 South African rugby team tour. However, the stance that Sir David and others took undoubtedly helped to pave the way for the dramatic events that took place in South Africa in the early 1990s.

Sir David's political philosophy has not prevented him from working with others across the narrow party divides—indeed, it may have encouraged him to do so. He has never been narrowly party-focused and has always had a liberal ability to see and value other people's points of view.

The final theme of Sir David's career that I will mention—and the most appropriate, given the context—is that, in keeping with many Liberal leaders, he has always been a staunch proponent of Scottish home rule. He rightly recognised the need for there to be a Scottish Parliament and the tremendous value that would derive from Scots taking greater control of the issues that affect our daily lives. Indeed, I think that Sir David drafted the Scottish Liberal Party's evidence to the Kilbrandon committee in the late 1960s. That commitment, allied to a willingness to work with others and an understanding of the international context within which a devolved Scotland must operate must make it all the more satisfying for him to have been the Presiding Officer of the first Scottish Parliament since 1707. Knowing how much Sir David cherishes this hard-fought-for Parliament has meant that we have had confidence that the rights of the Parliament—and the fundamental role of holding the Executive to account—have been well safeguarded over these past four years.

It would be misleading to suggest that we are gathered here to bid you a final farewell from this place. As David McLetchie and John Swinney have already pointed out, you go out one door but will return in a few weeks' time—six feet above contradiction, though we have never dared to contradict you much down here—as Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. As the motion indicates, the role of our first Presiding Officer has indeed been an historic one. Presiding Officer, it is with gratitude and warmth that we congratulate you on the dignified and distinguished way in which you have discharged your duties. [Applause.]

Photo of John Young John Young Conservative 3:51 pm, 27th March 2003

I find it a great privilege to be speaking on behalf of the SPCB in this tribute to David Steel. He has been a giant in British politics; indeed, his influence and fame has spread far beyond these shores. He has been used by people overseas in a number of different ways, and that is a tremendous tribute to him. The First Minister covered David's political career in some detail—in fact I was tearing up pages of my speech as the other speakers went on ahead of me.

However, one thing that they did not touch on was an election that I am glad David Steel did not win. In the 1980s, he suddenly decided to stand for the European Parliament. He chose the unusual seat of the central region of Italy. The mind boggles to imagine where David would be today if he had won that election. He would probably eat spaghetti every lunchtime, have a lovely villa in Tuscany, speak fluent Italian—and no doubt, end up as the speaker of the Italian Parliament in Rome. He may think that this is a tough mob here, but it ain't nothing compared to that! If he had become the speaker of the Italian Parliament in Rome, I suspect that he would have brought the members under control in the calm manner that he employs all the time.

David has often been criticised in his four years as Presiding Officer. He has seen it in the press and people have been after him about this, that and everything else. We in the corporate body were in a unique position from which to observe his reactions to that criticism. He was always calm and he never lost his temper. His blood pressure might have gone up slightly, but never once can I recall him losing his temper. In fact, he would be a great man to have in the United Nations. During his illness he obviously suffered a great deal, yet he insisted on coming to the corporate body to chair it. All of us greatly admired his bravery and courage during that time—it cannot have been easy.

Not all members will be aware that there has been an interim setting up of an association of former MSPs, of which I am the interim chairman—and I hasten to add the word interim. Sir David Steel has agreed to be the honorary president of that organisation and I am pleased to say that that outstanding politician for Scotland, Winnie Ewing, has agreed to be the honorary vice-president. With those calming influences, it will be a very effective body indeed once it is fully set up.

I wish David, Judy and the family well. I know that David has written at least 12 books on a variety of subjects, and I am quite sure that he will produce many more. The book that I will stand in a queue to buy, even if the price is 30 guineas a time, is the one that tells the inside story of the Scottish Parliament's first four years and the corporate body. I wish you the best of luck, David.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour 3:54 pm, 27th March 2003

On behalf of the members of the Parliamentary Bureau, both past and present, I have great pleasure in taking the opportunity to say a few words before you go into your semi-retirement—like other members, I am sure that it will be no more than that.

As colleagues know, Sir David, for the first couple of years of this Parliament I had the honour of being one of those who assisted you in chairing meetings of the Parliament and in your other duties. I therefore have a unique vantage point from which to view your work and your contribution. I should probably say that a number of members have asked me if I am going to reveal at this point whether a certain conversation on the subject of whether the Presiding Officer should wear robes ever actually took place. I can assure you that my lips are sealed—on that question at least. We are politicians going into an election period, after all.

My office was keen to press-release my contribution in advance of the debate. I have to admit that I was a little unsure about that, and I decided to take some advice from my colleague, Angus MacKay. [Laughter.] Angus advised me in no uncertain terms that it was probably not very wise to issue such a press release today.

But seriously, I know that my fellow business managers, past and present, have very much appreciated your fairness and even-handedness in chairing the Parliamentary Bureau, a body that is often regarded by colleagues who have not had the privilege of serving on it as being some kind of secretive club—which we know is not the case. You have helped to make the bureau what it is today. This might come as a surprise to some colleagues, but it is usually a consensual body; more often than not we find ourselves in agreement.

The whole Parliament admires the way in which you have persisted, often in the face of criticism, steadfastly to maintain the integrity of the Enric Miralles design for the new Parliament building. The Parliament also admires the personal interest that you have taken in that project, as chair of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, over the past four years. As an ambassador for the Parliament, you have worked tirelessly, visiting other Parliaments and organisations abroad and welcoming visitors from abroad to this new Parliament.

I believe that the Parliament has developed well in its short life, and that all its members have played a role in that development. The role of its Presiding Officer has been particularly important in shaping it. It seems absolutely no time at all since the day, almost four years ago, that you were elected to the office of Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. Most of us had very little idea at that time about what the job of the Presiding Officer would actually entail, or about how it would fit into the overall life of the Parliament. It is the mark of the way in which you have developed that post that anyone aspiring to the role in future will have absolutely no doubt as to what is required of them. The post requires a leader. It requires someone who is approachable, someone with dignity, someone who can act with fairness at all times, and whose commitment to the Parliament is unstinting.

We thank you, Sir David, as well as George Reid, Murray Tosh and all the staff who have assisted you in your role, for the dedication that you have shown to the role of Presiding Officer and to this new Parliament. I have great pleasure in supporting the motion before us.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

It is with real pleasure, Sir David, that I ask you to reply to the debate.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 3:58 pm, 27th March 2003

I see that I have less than two minutes in which to do so, Deputy Presiding Officer.

It is especially pleasing to listen to all those kind words when I reckon that I am probably the only one of the 129 MSPs who has inevitably, at some time or other over the past four years, disappointed, irritated, upset or offended every one of the other 128. Although I may have made 128 temporary enemies, I feel that I leave having made 128 permanent friends and I thank members for that.

I would like the thanks to me to be linked directly to thanks to the nearly 500 staff whom we employ in our seven buildings, both those whom we see and those whom we never see. From porters to policemen and from caterers to clerks, we have built a dedicated and highly professional parliamentary staff force, to whom not just I, but all of us, are genuinely and deeply grateful. In particular, I thank those who work in my private office and our chief executive, Paul Grice, who I think has given outstanding leadership to the team.

I also thank the Deputy Presiding Officers, George Reid, Patricia Ferguson and Murray Tosh, for the prodigious amount of work that they have undertaken on your behalf, and especially for their work during my illness. We worked as a team, especially in welcoming the unexpectedly large number of distinguished visitors who came to visit us from overseas.

I would like to thank the Parliamentary press corps. [MEMBERS: "Boo!"] No, I know that members will understand that it is one of the greatest sadnesses of my life that I have never been able to see them or know who is or is not in the press gallery.

We have had the odd grumble about press coverage, and I commend to you the MSP who recently decided to do something personally to obtain positive coverage. He invited the Lawnmarket gang to a trendy pub in Leith and produced his well-trained Labrador. He threw a stick into the sea for it to fetch. The dog walked across the water, picked up the stick and walked back across the water to the astonishment of the assembled hacks. The next morning, the member opened his newspaper to read the headline "MSP's dog can't swim".

In spite of the occasional negatives, we ought to record that unquestionably the scale of attention that the Parliament has received from press and broadcasting has turned us remarkably quickly into the focus of our national life. In fact, a recent poll found that only 13 per cent of the public would like to have us abolished and yearned for a return to total rule from inaccessible Westminster. Note that that is a much smaller percentage than those who voted no in the referendum.

The Parliament has had, on occasion, justified critics but, in the light of all that has been done in the past four years, few seriously argue that we should revert to being what Malcolm Rifkind accurately described as the only nation in the world with its own legal system but no legislature to adapt, modernise and improve it. In fact, we are all aware that the heavy legislative programme that we have experienced was partly the result of taking up several long-standing, overdue reforms that never made it into the Westminster queue. In the next session, I expect that still more time may be spent on committee inquiries and scrutiny. I am fully confident that the Parliament will grow in strength and effectiveness.

Now most of you are off to contest the election. As I explained to my daughter when she asked for my help in her forthcoming fight for a council seat, I can play no part in that. She gave me the ominous response, "But babysitting is not a party-political activity." I tried hard to think of something impartial, but new and original, to say to all of you as you go out hoping to come back with your party having won the election—for example: go back to your constituencies and prepare for government. However, that line has already been taken.

I want to end by thanking all of you for the privilege of having been your Presiding Officer. I use the word privilege deliberately. When I was a student, I used to make speeches frequently on two topics: anti-apartheid and pro-Scottish self-government. If someone had then tapped me on the shoulder and said, "One day, my boy, you will preside over a Scottish Parliament and introduce to it someone with whom you will have worked over several years—the President of a democratic South Africa," I would not have believed them.

That is just one among many reasons that I end simply by wishing you all well and saying thank you, thank you, thank you. [Applause.]

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

The question is, that motion S1M-4063, in the name of the First Minister, on the Presiding Officer, be agreed to.

Motion agreed to.

That the Parliament expresses its gratitude to Sir David Steel for his service to the Parliament and recognises the important and historic role he has carried out as its first Presiding Officer.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

The motion is agreed to unanimously. For the last time, I hand back the chair to Sir David Steel.