So today, the Scottish parliament stood on what had been called potentially their finest hour. If in doubt, start posts with hyperbole. Nevertheless, it was an important moment, as Holyrood got ready to debate the infamous Welfare Reform Bill, proposals which have divided people, even from the same party.
Before the debate, there was a statement on the fuel poverty allowance, followed by queries from several MSPs including Patrick Harvie. The most interesting news to stem from that was the idea that the heating bill scheme was to be extended to that long misused service to society, carers. The feeling seemed to be, on the whole, we aim to keep our promises in this area, even if 'them down South' try to slash our budget.
Deputy SNP leader, and regular sight in Govan, Nicola Sturgeon opened the Welfare debate with as clear a statement on government policy as we shall hear for some time. "We want a welfare system which is fair to all." She followed up with an attack on a system which allowed genuine claimants to be found "capable of work". It was her conclusion that "We must recognise some people are unable to work and must be able to life comfortably on benefits." The Big Society was on the other channel, but Call Me Dave politics this was not.
Jackie Baillie opened the debate for the Labour party, who were mostly to agree with the SNP policies with a few tweaks. "Attacks on the welfare state is nothing less than an excuse to cut." She said, before turning to former Scottish Tory leader David McLetchie. In a pre-emptive strike, she warned him not to bring up the "13 years of Labour misrule" agenda once more, before throwing a dig in at the nearly entire missing Liberal Democrats: "Beveridge would be ashamed to see the Liberals cosy up to this".
Alongside Patrick Harvie's earlier assertions that he planned to argue against the WRB, so far the score suggested it was SNP/Labour/Green for, Tory against, and Lib Dems unaccounted for.
We now handed the debate over to Mary Scanlon of the Scottish Tories, one of that famous breed of formidable Sexagenarian/Septuagenarian Conservative women which populate parts of Scottish politics. At this point we got a lot of Labour mentions. Labour's legacy. Thirteen years. Unelected Prime Minister (though, the evidence that polling for Labour in 2005 rose after the "Vote Blair Get Brown" campaign suggests the general public didn't really disagree with that idea at the time). You know the jist. A lack of "the mess we inherited" in all but name. "39% claimants gave up claims as they didn't need it anymore." Other such familiar claims were made.
Liam McArthur of the Lib Dems, and the only Liberal Democrat available, had the floor now. "I do not accept the Welfare Reform Bill means the dismantling of the welfare state and benefits system" he started. Then he went into the usual Liberal defence of the Conservative policies. Nothing new to report there.
Bob Doris took the floor.
"We must speak out against the Bill, which is unfit for purpose, even if we can't prevent it."
"A savage attack on the most vulnerable groups in our society. [WRB] is cutting cash at any price. It is not a price worth paying."
A female MSP rose to speak next. The tag team of the washing machine and the sound problems on Holyrood.tv meant I never caught who it was, so anyone who knows, please let me know.
"Wellfare state is a sign of compassion" she said, expressing that "Social ails" stemmed from the events of the 1980s. "We need safeguards for those who play by the rules and need nothing more than help from the state at their time of need."
Mark McDonald, SNP, was next to refute the claims that the SNP were sensibility and nae sense, as he noted that he had met "many voluntary groups and charities" who "have made sensible ideas for reform that wouldn't hurt the vulnerable."
"60% of genuine claimants rejected, being overturned on appeal suggests something wrong with the system."
"If it is your mistake, you'll be punished. If it is the UK governments mistake, you'll be punished."
He followed this remark up with a reference that 'Sir Humphrey Appleby' would be proud of this system, endearing himself to Nigel Hawthorne's legion of fans and politicos alike. His parting dig - "Now is the time and the hour for the Liberals to show their 'civilising' impact on the Tories" - was given with expert timing. McDonald is a new SNP MSP, elected in May during the landslide, who famously showed up at his count in jeans and T-shirt, so utterly unconvinced he was of his own victory. Here he made an impassioned speech.
Margaret Burgess, SNP, was swiftly to steal the show, however.
- The [WRB] "will have long term detrimental effect to Scotland."
- "I worked as an advisor. People want to work, not wanting to work is untrue, they are not getting the help they deserve."
- "20% less will get help even if they need it. That is wrong."
- The circle of ESA/JSA/ESA/bad decisions "badly effects mental health of the most vulnerable."
She spoke with the full authority of years of experience, and with the full passion of someone who had first hand seen the hopelessness and victimization of the vulnerable in the name of society.
For fear this is turning into the SNP propaganda society, up next was Siobhan McMahon, a young Labour MSP of whom I was unaware of. It is hard to argue that her opening gambit was not one of the most strongest in the debate. "I have (a form of) cerebal palsy. It is surprising how easy it is to forget how you can't do normal things." She added: "I am better off than many others though, and it is for them I am passionately opposed to the [WRB]." McMahon showed an effective and well honed use of the orators mantel, noting of those who screamed about 'unnecessary benefits' that "Benefits cheats in this suspicious society invade their dreams like so many sprites and goblins." A brilliant use of rhetoric. The SNP may have held the floor and had the most condemnations of the ConDemNation (sorry, couldn't resist), but this was the most flowery and brilliant Footian quote of the day. Siobhan McMahon went on to warn that Scotland will "suffer disproportional by this reform, due to our high level of disabled people", and that, as an example against those who say looking harder for work is the solution to all our welfare woes, "Only 12% of people with aspergers in this country are in employment."
Annabelle Ewing, SNP and Winnie's daughter, was up next. She had "Concerns about devolved areas - housing benefits, carers etc - to be adversely effected by this [WRB]." She said there was "New assessment tests" but "little optimism the flaws of the Work Capability tests will be learned." She reiterated that she was "infuriated that disabled and sick are 'made to feel like second class citizens'".
Kezia Dugdale (Labour) took charge next. Her key points:
- "If the Tory government is about the bigger picture, why does the [WRB] gain from broken marriages?"
- "One of the most abhorrent aspects of bill is changes to child maintenance proposals ie Lone parents needing to pay their own."
- "Child care costs, contrary to popular belief, does not pay to work."
Christine McKelvie (SNP) was up to reiterate the SNP policy that "UK benefits system is needlessly complex", and "doesn't ensure people better off in work". We need to " treat systems not causes." She was damning of the Tories: "Instead of lifting poverty, the Tories plan to plunge more poor families into it."
Our sole Lib Dem summed up. Liam McArthur (Lib): "No one can identify what welfare reform would look like in independent Scotland. Still need to reduce budget."
David McLetchie finished for the Conservatives, stating that "Responsibility should be at the heart of our benefits system. Tinkering the edges of broken system wont work.". He was also, sadly, the only man to bring immigration as a sniping point. I may be rather cruel as I suggested that his whole debate could be summed up as "I agree with the SNP, but...". Given he was odds to stress both his support of certain sections of the policy but also his full support of the Tory reform, it wasn't unfair though. Players of David McLetchie Bingo - "Labour inheritance", "SNP record", "problems of independence" - would have had a happy day at the office though.
Drew Smith, the rather nervous Labour MSP, summed up for his side: "We see merit in simplifying system for those who can't..." He then talked up Universal Credit. He seemed genuinely terrified of Mary Scanlon, staring a hole through him constantly and trying to interject.
Alex Neil, the Secretary for Capital Investment, summed up for the SNP. He blamed everyone - the Labour, Tory and Lib Dem parties - for slashing capital spending. He pointed out the sole Lib Dem in the Chamber, and stressed that "No one is opposed to welfare reform. Purpose in reform isn't to do down vulnerable society, it is to make a fairer society." He also got in a less than subtle dig at the Labour party: "When Labour are in government, they introduce Tory policies. When they are opposition, they oppose the policies they introduced".
All the amendments went to division (ie, no clear decision) in the Chamber, so were voted on. The amendments of Mary Scanlon and Liam McArthur for the Tory and Lib Dems were rejected, and the combined SNP/Labour/Green alliance saw through Nicola Sturgeon and Jackie Baillie's amendments, to be proposed for the Welfare Reform Bill. That being, that matters which effect Scottish people should be ratified by the Scottish parliament before coming into effect.
It was nice to see Labour and the SNP unite on a principle. This didn't stop them digging at each other in much a Tom and Jerry style, but like Tom and Jerry, they united when someone else threatened them. In this, it was the WRB.
So was it Holyrood's finest moment? Rome wasn't built in a day and it will be hard to tell for some time if it was the making of anything but futile gestures.
It was, however, a delight to see some genuine factual, passioned but mostly good spirited debate on a matter which effects so many people, not just in Scotland, but in the UK today.