Before I address the motion of thanks to the Presiding Officer, I would like to pay tribute to all those members of the Parliament—including you, Deputy Presiding Officer—who are not standing for re-election. The chamber is losing some of its leading lights. In my view, some people, at least, are retiring disgracefully early and the chamber will be the less for their departure.
No fewer than 20 members are not standing again. Although it is always good to see new faces, there is great sadness that we are losing such talent and experience. Three Liberal Democrats are to leave us, a stalwart of the Green party is to leave us, two Tories are departing, it is five Scottish National Party members’ final session, and a total of nine Labour members are leaving the Parliament. As a Parliament, let us wish all the members who are to retire well. [Applause.]
If you will forgive me, Deputy Presiding Officer, I will say a special word about the three former party leaders who are standing down, who are former sparring partners of mine at First Minister’s question time. I say farewell to Nicol Stephen, Wendy Alexander and Jack McConnell. They say that regarding policemen as getting younger is a sign of getting older, so regarding members of the House of Lords as getting younger is certainly a sign of getting older. When I was at Westminster, they used to call the House of Lords God’s waiting room, but with young, vigorous members such as Jack McConnell and Nicol Stephen entering it, that is no longer the case. I am sure that they will bring to debates in that place the same vigour and intelligence that they brought to debates in this chamber. I wish them well for the future.
I have a special word for Wendy Alexander who is leaving for her family. I wish her all the best with that choice and with her family in that new life. I doubt very much that we have heard the last of Wendy Alexander’s contribution to Scottish politics. I think that she will be back to make a substantial contribution in a range of ways.
I wish all those former party leaders, along with the other members who are leaving, all the best for their future.
I turn to the motion and to our Presiding Officer, who is leaving us as Presiding Officer but who hopes to re-emerge as a Conservative member of the Scottish Parliament. He will understand that, even in these circumstances, I cannot wish him well for the election campaign. I might have to expel myself from the Scottish National Party if I were to do so. Nonetheless, we are delighted at his choice to come back to the chamber. It sets a precedent for departing Presiding Officers.
He brought to the office of Presiding Officer a huge amount of experience. He was, for example, the president of the Blackface Sheep Breeders Association, which stood him in good stead in herding some of the more difficult MSPs in the chamber. [Laughter.] I wish our Presiding Officer and his wife, Merryn, who has been such a support to him, every success for the future.
We all believe, whatever individual complaints we may have had, that the Presiding Officer’s handling of the chamber has been impeccable and even-handed, and his conduct in the chair has been a credit to the Parliament.
In whatever guise, we expect to see a further substantial contribution from the Presiding Officer to Scottish politics. As the public face of this young Parliament, he has made a great contribution to the chamber and pursued the experiment in hope that the Parliament represents. Thank you very much, sir.
That the Parliament expresses its thanks to Alex Fergusson for his service as Presiding Officer for the third session of the Parliament.
I support the motion in the First Minister’s name and pay tribute to colleagues who are leaving Parliament from all parties. However, I wish to give my personal thanks to Rhona Brankin, Marlyn Glen, Wendy Alexander, George Foulkes, Peter Peacock, Cathy Jamieson and Margaret Curran for their service to the Labour group and—which is more important—for their service to those whom they have represented in the chamber. In the case of Trish Godman, I add to that my appreciation of her service as Deputy Presiding Officer throughout the parliamentary session. [Applause.]
Mention of service brings me to Jack McConnell, the former First Minister of Scotland, who is also among those who will leave us today. Jack’s legacy will be a lasting one, not least in the continuing work of the Parliament in international solidarity, especially with Malawi. The legacy of the smoking ban, which he led, is a real one that will eventually be measured in saved lives of many of Jack’s fellow Scots. He leaves the Parliament but—as the First Minister said—Jack McConnell has much public service to give and I wish him well in that. [Applause.]
It is somehow invidious to pick out other members, but for those of us who grew up in Edinburgh politics, Robin Harper was always a presence and a character. It is one of the Parliament’s strengths that it has given Robin the opportunity to make his unique contribution during the past years. His door was always open to the civic Scotland that we serve. He has served Parliament and his city well. [Applause.]
I turn to the motion itself and to our Presiding Officer. Alex Fergusson and I have a little-known bond through the village of Leswalt. He was born and grew up there, my mother-in-law lives there and, as it turns out, the manager of my football team grew up there, too. Leswalt really rules all aspects of my life. Fortunately, all of those figures of authority carry out their duties with grace and success—even Colin Calderwood, these days—and the Presiding Officer does so particularly. The First Minister is right that the Presiding Officer has not lost his political antenna. On at least one occasion in visiting Leswalt, I had been there only five minutes when I received a text from him to let me know that he knew that I was in his constituency. [Laughter.]
Alex Fergusson has presided over debates and even First Minister’s question time with a careful mixture of light touch and firmness. I think that the uniqueness of his task as Presiding Officer has been to preside over a Parliament not just of minorities in general, but in which the Administration itself is a minority, too. That has led to high drama once or twice, not least at budget time, and to occasions when the Parliament has chosen a direction in defiance of the Government, as in the Calman process. Throughout that, the Presiding Officer has presided with care and kept the integrity of our Parliament intact, for which he deserves our thanks.
Alex Fergusson has also discharged his duties of representing the Parliament at home and abroad with great dignity and gravitas. I do not think that he will mind my saying that he did not seek the office but, rather, had it thrust upon him. He has, nonetheless, served us well and he has done us proud. [Applause.]
I, too, support the motion in the name of the First Minister.
As has already been indicated, the past four years have seen a new development in the life of our Parliament—minority government—that reflected a very different political territory from the previous eight years of coalition. Some who witnessed this interesting period in our parliamentary development will leave the Parliament today, and I share the sentiments for them that have already been expressed.
From the Conservative benches, we will lose Bill Aitken and Ted Brocklebank. If not exactly the odd couple, they certainly reflected diverse and distinctive attributes that enhanced our benches and Parliament. Bill has been renowned for clearly expressed and uncompromising views on justice and the interests of the victim, and Ted for his informed and entertaining contributions to debates on numerous subjects, not least those involving culture and the media—I did not want him to feel excluded because I had not mentioned culture. I thank them and the other MSPs, not least, Deputy Presiding Officer, yourself and your colleague Trish Godman, who have served this Parliament with such distinction. I thank all our colleagues who leave the Parliament today for their contributions in the past 12 years.
I am aware that the period of minority government to which I referred has presented political opportunities and scenarios that were not present in the first eight years, and which in turn have created administrative challenges for this session of Parliament, not least for the role of Presiding Officer. Through you, Deputy Presiding Officer, I congratulate and thank our Presiding Officer for the courteous and capable way in which he has discharged his responsibilities.
I am in no doubt that Mr Fergusson’s previous life as a farmer was of invaluable assistance in helping to herd together the disparate and colourful presences that constitute the different political parties and their members in this chamber. I know that there has been universal appreciation of his engaged and consultative approach, which has greatly facilitated navigation of the inevitable challenges that arise in the course of chairing a Parliament for four years.
On behalf of my colleagues, I thank the Presiding Officer not only for his stewardship and commitment as our Presiding Officer and for the support that has been given by his wife, Merryn; I thank him, too, for being a principled and decent human being whose attributes have enhanced both the role of Presiding Officer and this Parliament. If protocol permits me to say it, I look forward to seeing him again. [Applause.]
I, too, support the motion on behalf of my party. As one former sheep farmer to another, I say that I have appreciated Mr Fergusson’s management of our parliamentary flock—which has not been the easiest of tasks, not least today. I suspect that, when you have lunch with our distinguished visitors who are in the VIP gallery, explaining today’s behaviour will be an interesting exercise in studies of politics. [Laughter.]
I also acknowledge the roles of your deputies, Alasdair Morgan and Trish Godman, and all that they have done for us, not just in the past four years, but in their 12 years in the Scottish Parliament. We have shared many exciting parliamentary moments and they have undoubtedly added to our deliberations and thoughts. [Applause.]
I thank our Presiding Officer for his work not only in Scotland and in our Parliament, but internationally. He has led many of us on international visits on international occasions, and he has done that with great distinction and value. That has been helpful both to our Parliament and to the way in which we present our case around the world. That is a valuable role that all Presiding Officers play, and Alex Fergusson has played it with considerable skill and determination.
I recall a fact-finding visit that he and I went on to Bergen some years ago, when he was convener of the Rural Development Committee, on which we were accompanied by Robin Harper. Robin was—if I remember correctly—wearing the same tie. [Laughter.] We were looking at salmon farming. There is a picture on my office wall of a number of us from different parties standing at the top of the funicular railway on the mountain in Bergen. We look incredibly cheerful but I cannot remember why—and I do not really want to remember why.
Along with the other party leaders, I express my best wishes for all the members who are leaving the Parliament, although not politics, at this time. From the Liberal Democrat benches, the loss of Jamie Stone, of a former Deputy First Minister in Nicol Stephen, and of John Farquhar Munro will be keenly felt. John Farquhar Munro’s leaving will be felt not least because I will no longer have to ask my press secretary what John Farquhar Munro said on Gaelic radio the night before, which will be a relief. [Laughter.]
I would like to share an observation. Mr Fergusson is standing for Parliament again. I believe that we should not have too many conventions in a young Parliament and the breaking of convention to ensure that a Presiding Officer can leave that post and stand again for his or her party is an important step, which is good to see. I look forward to an exciting battle in his constituency, in which the Liberal Democrats will do very well.
I also commend your accessibility to members, Presiding Officer. Being around and always available in his or her parliament is perhaps the most important part of the job of a Presiding Officer. Your availability to members, on the purchase of a judicious glass of red wine in the parliamentary bar, in order to explain your decisions has been one of the most important parts—possibly not the wine, but the other part—of your job. For that and for many other reasons that other members have eloquently described, I thank you for all that you have done. [Applause.]
I echo the comments that have been made and express my best wishes, on behalf of my party, to those members who are not standing for Parliament again. I wish them well in whatever they choose to do in the future. I hope that members will understand if I direct that comment towards my colleague, Robin Harper, in particular. In 1999, he did what some people predicted could never happen by leading the Green Party into parliamentary politics. He did more than that, though; he kept his enthusiasm every step of the way. I suspect that none of us will be able to see a rainbow scarf or a brightly coloured tie without thinking of Robin. Thank you, Robin.
Nearly four years ago, on being elected, the Presiding Officer spoke of his initial reluctance and his concerns about whether he really wanted to strike the difficult balance between his constituency duties and those of the Presiding Officer. His client group has not always made it an easy job—perhaps we should apologise for that as well as offer thanks.
Like other members, I have reflected on where the skills come from to become a Presiding Officer and the comparisons with, as well as the differences from, sheep farming. I do not know a lot about sheep, but I suspect that they raise fewer points of order, probably switch their mobile phones off when they are told to and never raise his blood pressure by offering him a difficult casting vote—sorry about that, by the way. However, wherever the skills have been acquired, they have been well applied. I am sure that the Presiding Officer and his deputies have the thanks of the entire chamber for the work that they have done and the service that they have provided over the recent session of Parliament.
Presiding Officer, I wonder whether I can set a precedent, even as late in the session as this, by telling you that I will hurry up—instead of having you tell me. However, this is not an occasion for casting up. Annabel Goldie can refer to the 300 times that she has had a chance to ask questions of the First Minister; I will not remind the chamber that it has been two years since I got the chance to ask Alex a question.
Bitterness aside, my only real regret about the Presiding Officer’s time in the chair is his attachment to an unworthy Belgian—d’Hondt—who should have been hunted from this Parliament. I hope that the Presiding Officer’s legacy paper will recommend changes to our procedures, where they have proved to be too constraining. I think that perhaps Mr d’Hondt could be called in to give evidence.