Rail disruption, the AWPR and the poetry of Brexit

In the chamber last week, the recent disruption on Scotland’s rail network was the first subject up for discussion in a heavily subscribed topical question time. Representing the Government was Michael Matheson, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, who had to deal with more detailed questioning on the same topic at Wednesday’s meeting of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. However, the issue that was uppermost in committee members’ minds at that meeting was the delayed completion of the Aberdeen western peripheral route, on which it had earlier heard from the contractors for the project. As part of his evidence, Stephen Tarr of Balfour Beatty explained the nature of the problem with the River Don crossing.

Unsurprisingly, given the febrile atmosphere at Westminster and the series of lengthy debates in the Commons on exiting the European Union, the main debate in the chamber on Wednesday afternoon was on the EU withdrawal agreement and political declaration—more specifically, on a Scottish Government motion that the agreement and declaration

“be rejected and … a better alternative be taken forward.”

Following the debate, which was the occasion for the first use in the Official Report of the term “clusterbùrach” (see the accompanying post for more on this!), the motion was agreed to by all parties except the Conservatives.

The issue of EU exit—this time, in the context of the environment—was also the focus of attention at last week’s meeting of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, with Roseanna Cunningham, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, and Fergus Ewing, the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy, setting out the likely negative impacts of Brexit on their portfolios.

On the matter of the UK Government replacing funding that has hitherto been provided by the EU, Fergus Ewing was moved to quote Burns:

“‘In gath’rin votes you were na slack;
Now stand as tightly by your tack:
Ne’er claw your lug, an’ fidge your back,
An’ hum an’ haw;
But raise your arm, an’ tell your crack
Before them a’.’

That is, after the voting, you have to fulfil your promises. We are saying, ‘Do what you promised you would do.’”

But Ayrshire lad John Scott wasn’t willing to give the cabinet secretary the last word, retorting:

“I do not really want to get into an exchange of Burns quotes, but I refer you to ‘To a Louse’ and the suggestion that:

‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion’.

I think that you are overemphasising the uncertainty beyond 2020 and 2022.”

At Westminster, too, poetry was resorted to on Brexit, with Conservative member Sir Nicholas Soames selecting some lines from Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” that he felt were appropriate to the UK’s present situation. You can read his speech, which was graciously received by the SNP’s Stewart Hosie, here.

Boorachs, bùrachs and clusterbùrachs

Debate in Parliament on the UK leaving the European Union has prompted a flurry of uses of the expressive Scots word “boorach”—or, if you prefer, the Gaelic word “bùrach”. Originally meaning a heap of earth, “boorach” is now used as a term for a mess or a shambles. Over the first 19 years of the Parliament, “boorach” has been used variously to describe crofting law, the 2007 council elections, the Edinburgh trams project and the Gourock to Dunoon ferry service, but in the last couple of years it has become especially popular among critics of the UK Government’s handling of Brexit. Fergus Ewing is just one of those who have referred to the “Brexit boorach”, and last week Mike Russell recorded the first usage in Parliament of a development of the term when he said:

“this is a complete bùrach—it is, to use a word coined by my friend Hugh Dan MacLennan, a clusterbùrach.”

Mr Russell has described the word as a Gaelic term, so we adopt the Gaelic spelling when he uses it. However, it is not clear from the etymology whether the word has moved from Gaelic to Scots, or from Scots to Gaelic, so there is an equally strong case for our usual spelling: boorach.

A St Andrew’s day night—in the Doric

Friday was, of course, St Andrew’s day, and Thursday lunch time’s members’ business debate celebrated that fact and recognised that, this year, the theme for events to mark the day was “make someone’s day” or, as Ruth Maguire put it, take a moment

“to perform a small act of kindness”.

In leading the debate, Tom Arthur acknowledged former MSP Dennis Canavan’s efforts to promote participation in Scotland’s national day and the legacy of his work, the St Andrew’s Day Bank Holiday (Scotland) Act 2007.

Mr Arthur also noted that this year was the first year that St Andrew’s fair Saturday would be celebrated, and that it would coincide with small business Saturday. He explained that the fair Saturday movement originated in the Basque County

“as a positive cultural response to the excessive consumerism of black Friday.”

While many speakers in the debate took the opportunity to highlight events in their area along the “make someone’s day” theme or to mark fair Saturday, Peter Chapman chose to celebrate Scottish culture and heritage by reciting a poem about a party that was held one St Andrew’s night, at which prodigious quantities of food and drink were consumed.

What was noteworthy about the poem—and Mr Chapman’s recitation—was the fact that it was in Doric. Why not enjoy the richness of the feast, the language and the delivery by watching Mr Chapman’s performance?

Peter Chapman reading “St Andrew’s Night” as part of St Andrew’s day 2018 members’ business debate (29 November 2018)

Phew: a short guide to echomimesis in the Official Report

The Parliament’s Standing Orders—the rules by which the Parliament operates—require there to be

a substantially verbatim report of the proceedings at each meeting of the Parliament … It shall be known as the Scottish Parliament Official Report.

On 19 May 1999, to assist members, the Presiding Officer announced in the Business Bulletin that “substantially verbatim” means that, in the Official Report,

repetitions and redundancies should be omitted and obvious mistakes should be corrected while maintaining the flavour of the speech. Inevitably, some editorial judgement has to be exercised; for example, the speaker’s tone of voice or use of physical gesture may add to or even contradict what he or she is saying, and this must somehow be communicated in the written text.

Working to that remit can sometimes be complicated. When people speak, they add non-verbal cues that are readily understood by their listeners. Tone of voice and gesture are the obvious ones, but people also use sounds that aren’t words, but noises that express surprise, exasperation or despair, and that’s where the final sentence of the remit comes in to play: “this must somehow be communicated in the written text.”

The Parliament is a pretty formal place, so we don’t often hear people expressing themselves by way of noises rather than words (Scottish football fans old enough to remember the national team qualifying for world cup finals will be familiar with Archie Macpherson’s infamous “Woof!”), but we’ve recently had to make two decisions about echomimetic words—words, or rather, collections of letters, that aim to imitate noises.

In a meeting of the Social Security Committee, Lauren Baigrie of the Scottish Youth Parliament was describing a moment when she realised that she was facing an almost impossible challenge, and she made a sound that went something like ffff-w-oh to express a complex collection of emotions about her sense of overwhelm. The sub-editors plumped in the end for “Whoa”, which we thought captured the sense of “Hang on a minute, this is big, how am I going to do this?” that was inherent in that small sound. Here’s what she said in her evidence about the young carer grant:

One experience in particular happened the day before my higher modern studies exam in sixth year, when my mum had an anaphylactic reaction in the car driving home. She was taken to hospital 13 hours before the exam was to start. I was supposed to go home and revise, but I had three younger siblings in the house and I was like, “Whoa—okay.” It was about 5 o’clock at night, but I phoned my school on the off-chance that my guidance teacher would be there, and she was. I told her what had happened and she said, “Okay. Don’t worry. Just get some sleep tonight and we’ll sort it in the morning.”

It was less difficult to work out what to do when Humza Yousaf, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, drew breath before responding to a multiquestion that John Finnie had just asked him:

Ooft—there were quite a few in there.

On the subject of sound-related descriptions in the Official Report—albeit of a rather different nature—a recent meeting of the Education and Skills Committee was the occasion for the first-ever use in the Parliament of the musical term “passacaglia”, which a witness used to describe the particular nature of progress in the area he was giving evidence on. Fittingly, the context was the committee’s inquiry into music tuition in schools.

It was 20 years ago today …

In the Official Report, we mark 16 November as the office’s birthday. It’s the day on which, in 1998, the first eight tiros turned up to start training to be parliamentary reporters. The arithmetically minded reader will already have worked out that that makes today our 20th anniversary.

The Parliament will, with much greater fanfare, mark its anniversary next year, when 12 May 2019 will herald 20 years since the first meeting of the new Scottish Parliament.

Six months before that historic day, however, our team began assembling and training. By early 1999 another 11 had joined the team and we were being put through our paces in the Scottish Office’s Saughton House. That temporary accommodation was the first of several homes that we occupied before the Parliament building was ready.

None of us, I think, had any real idea of what we were in for. We could not have guessed, on that dark November day, that the job would become so much part of our lives and that the people around us would become as familiar and inevitable as our families. Of the 19 people who formed our first crack team, 11 are still with us—staff retention has never been an issue!

We came from many backgrounds: journalism; transport, literary and ecclesiastical studies; NGOs; music; teaching; insurance; the oil industry and genetic research. We worked at first from recordings of Westminster debates, getting to grips with the challenges of writing a substantially verbatim report. A training visit to the House of Commons Hansard frightened the life out of us, but gave us for the first time a clear idea of what we would have to do in a live environment. And when the day came, it all worked as planned. Huge credit for that must go to our first editor, Henrietta Hales, her deputy, Stephen Hutchinson, and our first sub-editor, William Humphreys-Jones, who made us into fast, reliable parliamentary reporters.

A lot has changed since those early days, not least the technology with which we work and how we publish, but the principles of the work are the same: to produce impartially a faithful written record of parliamentary meetings that conveys the spoken word in written text, maintains the flavour of the speech, omits repetitions and redundancies and corrects obvious mistakes.

It has been a huge privilege to be here since the beginning and to have a ringside seat while history is made. We are proud of our service. Our work has resulted in a searchable database of parliamentary meetings that can tell you what happened earlier today or in 1999. It is the tool by which our democracy can be scrutinised and held to account. We made, and are making it. That’s worth a slice of cake.

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A pulse-ating exchange offers food for thought

On Tuesday, the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee continued to take evidence from stakeholders on the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill, hearing from one panel on the behaviour change that will be required to achieve the targets in the bill and one panel on governance. In the discussion with the first panel, Dr Rachel Howell, a lecturer in sustainable development at the University of Edinburgh, observed:

As far as behaviours are concerned, we need to focus on food, because I think that one of the least-understood aspects is the link between diet and climate change. In that, again, there are fantastic co-benefits. We do not have to rely on a narrative that is all about climate change, which not everyone is connected to”.

She continued:

“I am always astonished to hear my students saying that it is more expensive not to eat meat. I can only think that they are substituting meat with expensive processed alternatives such as Quorn, or are using recipes that involve very expensive ingredients such as cashews and pine nuts, and that they do not realise just how plentiful and cheap pulses and so on are.”

The member for Ayr, John Scott, a farmer and a strong advocate for rural areas, was exercised by what he saw as the implication of what Dr Howell was saying—

“that rural areas would be disadvantaged for the benefit of the majority”—

and put it to her that

“You are painting a fairly grim picture of a meat-free, livestock-free landscape where we are encouraged—if not forced—to eat pulses. That is not a future that I would welcome.”

Dr Howell responded thus:

“I did not say that everybody needs to have a meat-free diet; I said that we need to reduce the amount of meat and dairy that people eat … I certainly do not feel that rural areas should be disadvantaged, but no policy can be brought in without some disadvantage to some people. We have to try to mitigate that disadvantage”.

On Wednesday, the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee took more evidence on the Transport (Scotland) Bill, looking first at the proposals on double and pavement parking, before hearing from a panel on the proposals relating to road works. An element of controversy arose—albeit in a good-natured exchange—when the Scottish road works commissioner, Angus Carmichael, noted that Openreach had always resisted sharing information on details of works on the commissioner’s vault system, a decision that he said

“is more commercial than anything else, and Openreach is playing a game.”

The response of Elizabeth Draper of Openreach was that

“commercial concerns are not the primary driver—I have discussed that with Angus Carmichael before and I will get him to believe me at some point. The concern is risk based”.

Among the more prominent topical subjects considered in the chamber last week were Tuesday’s urgent question from Jenny Marra on the proposed closure of the Michelin tyre factory in Dundee and Thursday lunch time’s short but moving debate on a motion of remembrance, in which all the party leaders spoke.


Scots pine “not lonesome, but a much-loved companion”

On Tuesday morning, the Justice Committee continued its post-legislative scrutiny of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012, hearing from Chief Constable Iain Livingstone of Police Scotland and Susan Deacon, chair of the Scottish Police Authority, while the Health and Sport Committee took evidence from NHS Dumfries and Galloway as part of a series of sessions with health boards on their performance against local delivery plans.

Justice Committee post-legislative scrutiny of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 (30 Oct 2018)

Health and Sport Committee scrutiny of NHS boards (30 Oct 2018)

On Tuesday evening, Mairi Gougeon, the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment, responded on behalf of the Government to a well-subscribed members’ business debate on Colin Smyth’s motion on a ban on the export of live animals for slaughter and fattening.

Members’ business debate on the export of live animals for slaughter and fattening (30 Oct 2018)

Ms Gougeon was again representing the Government in Wednesday evening’s members’ business debate on restoring the Caledonian pinewood forest, which was led by Joan McAlpine, the species champion for the country’s national tree, the Scots pine.

Members’ business debate on the Caledonian pinewood forest (31 Oct 2018)

A subject of great interest to north-east members was Thursday afternoon’s statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson, on the Aberdeen western peripheral route. The chamber was told that defects in the crossing over the River Don, already known about for several months, were to take longer to rectify than first thought, meaning that a late autumn opening date would no longer be possible.

Ministerial statement on the Aberdeen western peripheral route (1 Nov 2018)