January 28, 2020

An Englishman visits the Scottish Parliament for the debate of the Coffin Amendment Bill

I took my place in the public gallery and looked out over the Scottish Parliament. It’s not a combative layout like Westminster, with its opposing sides and MPs having to be kept two sword-lengths apart incase they try and murder each other. Instead the MSPs sit very sensibly in a semi-circle looking at the presiding officer and her two sidekicks. Each member has their own desk and they face forward – the lines of small desks bringing back memories of school exams in the gym. The chamber does have the air of an expensively finished school gymnasium, though with more TV cameras and less bars on the walls than I remember. If you told me that after a long day politicking they roll back the carpet and have a Members and Advisors Badminton tournament in the chamber I wouldn’t be certain you were making it up.

The presiding officer is definitely in charge. Her role is a bit headmistressy, telling each member how long they have to speak. She even has to say ‘One minute remaining,’ like an old fashioned telephone operator when a speaker is nearing the end of his allotted time. ‘I thought I had five minutes,’ one said when invited to speak to four minutes. She confirmed that he was wrong.

The day’s business was announced. To English ears the subject appeared to be The Coffin Amendment Scotland Bill. That made me sit up. Which powers exactly have been devolved to Scotland? Can they make laws about the type of coffin a chap can be buried in? I should have concentrated more when devolution was in the news. The world’s gone mad.

Then the minister started his speech and I realised the subject they were debating was The Crofting Amendment Scotland Bill. A very Scottish subject so I’m not too upset I mistook the word. Whilst the political animals below debated the subtleties of crofting I had a more basic question.

What is crofting?

You’re not allowed to put your hand up and ask questions in parliament so I almost pulled out my phone and checked on Google. Luckily I didn’t as you’re not allowed to use phones either and I guess the nuance of I was using the internet, not the phone would soon be lost in a headlock.  I had always imagined a croft to be – actually before that moment I had never imagined a croft to be anything at all. Our worlds had never collided before, but now that they had I had the vague idea that croft was a Scots word for farm. It appears it is much more complicated that that.

The minister expressed pleasure that everyone in the chamber had a bipartisan approach to crofting policy. I wanted to hear someone shout Hear, hear but it didn’t seem the done thing. They were all going to work together to get a legislative fix for decrofting land. Who would have thought that you could decroft land? I had only been interested in the crofting issue for a few minutes but already I could see it was a complicated matter. Member after member confirmed this view, speaking of the complexities of crofting law.

One MSP summed up the shambles the law appears to be in by saying that ‘An owner/occupier crofter does not have the right to occupy a croft.’ Another claimed he did now understand the crofting law, but not well enough to explain it to anyone else. A third made a slip of the tongue of quite gargantuan proportions. He meant to say ‘these eminent expert lawyers.’ A perfectly flattering description. What came out of his mouth was, ‘these criminal expert lawyers.’ He corrected himself immediately and mused on what Freud would have to say about the mistake.

Everyone asked the minister questions and eventually he had 7 minutes to answer them all. Luckily his answer was pretty similar whichever question had been asked. There was one main thing he intended to do. He was going to be very happy to look at everyone’s ideas. Occasionally he even looked forward to taking forward the ideas that they had.

The minister overran the time allotted for his reply. I did think the presiding officer might jump in and cut him off, but she graciously let him continue for an extra four seconds.

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