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Learning from the young

One part of my Parliamentary life is my working with students as part of their education. Early in my diary writings, I described my last "normal" day as an MSP when I visited Peterhead Academy. Such visits are relatively brief, one-off meetings with students.

By contrast, I have had over the years many interns working with me. They will generally be with me for three to five months. The term intern is one that has crossed the Atlantic, and as a description of an individual can mean a variety of things. The definition of the verb as provided by the Cambridge dictionary is:

"to work for a company or organisation for a short time, sometimes without being paid, in order to get experience of a particular type of work"

In recent years there has considerable debate about what seems to be an abuse of interns. In parts of the media in particular, a large proportion of the work in some offices seems to be undertaken by unpaid interns. And it's that word, unpaid, that is the problem. Too many internships seem to regarded as very cheap labour.

I have a clear view that being an intern is to be a student, formally or otherwise. To be in-post to learn, to gain experience, to ready oneself for the move from studying a subject to earning a living working at it.

Almost all the interns that I have worked with have been from the USA. And a very diverse group they have been. But they have shared one important thing. They have been with me on student visas that specifically prevented their being paid a wage.

Their student status has almost always been re-inforced by their spending a few hours each week taking classes at one of Edinburgh's universities. And through their having an academic supervisor for the duration of their placement.

I have always regarded the time an intern spends with me as a time for their personal development. Then also the acquisition of new skills. Finally the gaining of new knowledge.

It is a substantial investment of time, effort and money by these young folks and therefore their time with me is something I have always taken very seriously.

In the first hour of their placement, I sit down with them and ask what they want out of their time in our Parliament. For some that can be slightly disconcerting. They may have already had an internship with some in a US legislature. And quite a few have told me that in a placement lasting some months, they have never even met the elected politician whose team they have nominally joined.

In my small team in Edinburgh, me and two halves of a staff member, it would be pretty difficult to avoid me.

We start as I intend to continue with a genuine task, the completion of which I shall rely on. And very little guidance as to how to do it. I pitch them into the real world of problems where there may be little or no precedent.

Pre-COVID-19, the Parliamentary week included three "Member's Debates", at 1700 on Tuesday and Wednesday, 1245 on Thursday. Any member can table a motion on any subject and then lead a debate in the debating chamber of Parliament. Before the motion will be taken, their motion has to obtain support from a majority of the political groups in Holyrood. So they are generally on subjects that more interesting than contentious.

The last such debate I spoke in (19th February 2020) was about the Cochno Stone and the social value of Scotland’s prehistoric rock art. This stone was something in my colleague Gil Paterson's constituency. He was allowed to speak to the motion for seven minutes. As a supporting speaker, I had four (read my speech at

The day before, I asked my intern Airin Wu to write me a speech. I knew nothing of the topic. And neither did she.

I normally ask for a speech in my first hour with a new intern. We talk a little about how speeches are constructed. First, how many words? To answer that we need to know what my speaking rate is - 132 words per minute. And how many minutes? In this case, four. Arithmetic suggests we need 528 words.

But this is not a mere academic lecture where the speaker is in control. The Presiding Officer may decide that the number of speakers in a debate means that the usual time allowance may have to be cut.

The most severe cut I endured was on 14th December 2017 when my expected four minutes became one. Yes - just one minute. The sponsor of this Member's Debate was the person now our Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes. And the topic was bank closures. An issue in almost every constituency in Scotland. Especially in rural areas where bank branches have always been substantially further apart than they would be towns and cities. The demand for opportunities to speak was significant.

So what can be done by the drafter of a speech to cover such a cut in speaking time? And how can the speaker deal with it?

The first thing is simple. Understand that the speech written and the speech delivered may be quite different from each other. Why? We've just covered an adjustment of time for delivery. But we also have to remember the old political saw, "A debate is not over when everything has been said but rather when everyone has said it."

If, as I often am, you are the "tail gunner" in a debate, the last speaker before the closing remarks, everything in your prepared speech may already have been said. One can still decide to just read it out anyway. But that won't look good and will read worse.

The speechwriter, yourself or someone else, will likely have had lots of material which has been prepared to support you for the debate. Rule one: read all that stuff and then, if it has been generally circulated to MSPs, put it firmly to one side. It tells you what most Parliamentary colleagues will be speaking about and therefore identifies topics best left alone. Use some of the statistics by all means. But none of the words.

Find your own niche comments. Digging into history will often provide a reference point. One's own experience may inform the words you will use. I get teased regularly because I mine my own and my relatives' lives for inspiration. But am rarely (never?) criticised for bringing a novel perspective to a topic. Liam Kirkaldy of Holyrood magazine has even coined a hashtag to cover my doing this - I can't work out a context in which to search for it, I can't find it, can't remember it and hence can't share it with you. Sorry. Well anyway @HolyroodLiam, I don't mind a bit.

Managing time is easier. The last 40 seconds of my speeches, if they are written rather than extempore, are self-contained and start on their own page clearly marked "EXIT". So when you know that you have one minute of speaking time left, just bring what you are saying to a rapid close and pick up on that 40 seconds.

It won't matter that it's a bit of an untidy cutover 40 or 50 seconds before the end. No one will notice. But an untidy real end, with the Presiding Officer harrying you to sit down, perhaps even cutting your microphone off; looks bad.

The professionals kind of do it this way. When a journalist is doing a piece before a live camera, their earpiece will deliver instructions from the producer. In fast-moving pieces, they may start not knowing how long they have. The former Chief Political Correspondent at the BBC, John Sergeant, entitled his autobiography "Give Me Ten Seconds". That's because, given a ten-second warning from the gallery controlling the broadcast, he reckoned that he could conclude his remarks tidily in that amount of time.

Me? I need forty seconds.

Tomorrow I will write about how I construct a political speech. And much more about how my student interns help me.

And how I help them.


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