Before First Minister’s Questions, the last before Holyrood breaks up for Christmas, the subject of discussion in the Halogen office was which kind of pre-recess FMQs we would see. Would it be a warm, affable affair or, as has been the case more recently, an extra tense session which, in previous years, would be more suitable as part of a rip-roaring first week back than in the last week before the festive period?
The answer, it turns out, was more akin to a Christmas selection box or a festive clip show episode of a television programme, than either of those absolutes; because this session of FMQs was made up of a little bit of everything.
Proceedings got off to a rather sombre, but entirely appropriate start, as the First Minister, with the permission of the Presiding Officer, led the Chamber in paying tribute to those who lost their lives on the 30th anniversary of the horrendous events that took place at Lockerbie. Her touching comments were subsequently echoed by the leaders across Holyrood and the sentiment is undoubtedly shared across Scotland.
When the ‘stairheid rammy’ properly kicked-off the First Minister appeared somewhat sedate when answering Scottish Tory interim leader Jackson Carlaw’s probing questions on the rail franchise. The FM of last week, who stood staunchly in front of her Finance Secretary, almost daring anyone to come near him, was gone and replaced with one who appeared to readily admit the failings – albeit that those failings were Scotrail’s. Seemingly derailed, the FM humbly admitted that there were problems with Scotland’s railways – which, as Mr Carlaw pointed out, have seen some 35,000 cancellations since 2011 – and recommitted herself to doing everything she could to rectify the situation. The job, she insisted, was there to be done.
Second in this compilation version of the weekly Holyrood sparring session was questioning from Labour’s Richard Leonard on education – specifically on teacher numbers. Again, although to a lesser degree, the First Minster seemed to concede that there was work to be done although stuck to her point that although numbers of teachers were down, they were rising. A few sparks did fly over comments made by specific SNP members, which were quoted in a teaching journal, but the First Minister generally refused to rise to the bait.
The rest of the session carried on the selection box theme. There were highly specific constituency questions, soft-ish SNP questions to allow the FM some breathing room, and even a particularly heartfelt moment when Labour MSP Jackie Baillie appeared visibly moved during her question regarding the approval of medication for cystic fibrosis. In a seasonally appropriate moment of touching emotionality from the Dumbarton MSP and her colleagues across the Chamber, her question was asked sincerely, answered compassionately, and supported positively from members – it was a small example of what happens when the Scottish Parliament, and wider Scottish politics, can do when it is on top of its game.
If Jackie Baillie’s question represents the sincere earnestness that the Scottish Parliament is capable of then Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie’s question represented what happens when the Parliament loses its way a bit. During a rather long and unlettered question, which Mr Rennie alone seemed to find hilarious, he asked the FM what her party could do to encourage the UK Labour Party leadership to call for a so-called ‘People’s Vote’ on Brexit. A rather baffled First Minister suggested, in as diplomatic a way as possible, that perhaps Mr Rennie was asking the wrong person about Scottish Labour policy. Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh was just as polite, if much curter, in pointing this out.
Anyone looking for a theme, or overarching story, from this week’s First Minister’s questions will have to look rather deeply, and perhaps draw more conclusions than necessary, in order to find it. This is not to say the buffet version we saw in this session is a bad thing – it showed what FMQs can be like across different weeks in one easily understandable edition, and that’s a good thing for those watching. However, once Holyrood reconvenes after the New Year, and the vision returns to the medium-term horizon, we’ll start to see themes emerging – not least the still unresolved issue of the draft budget.