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Waiting for the last piece

Since I joined my first virtual meeting of a Parliamentary Committee just over a month ago, I have attended seventeen such meetings. Over exactly the same period one year ago it was thirteen. In 2006 it was ten.

So my personal activity level has risen quite a bit by that measure.

However, speaking in debates since 23rd April, my baseline date for this discussion, to the end of May has come down to two compared with five last year. The same figure applies in 2006. The number of words has similarly declined from about 3,500 to 1,400 over the various periods.

The baseline of 23rd April is not totally arbitrary. Lockdown started in the week beginning 23rd March, although the Parliament's over-70s were asked not to attend from 17th March. So it took the Parliament a month to move from a legislature that depended on physical presence to one which could work largely online.

As that involved finding software, testing software, developing new procedures and - this was the biggest challenge - educating and training MSPs in both the use of new technology and how to behave in an electronic space, it was a fantastically fast response.

We have yet to complete the process. Voting remotely after debates remains beyond our reach, except in Committees. Several trials that I participated seemed OK from my end. But apparently have not been so successful for others.

So, for the time being, we have restricted numbers in the Chamber, socially distanced from neighbours, and voting in person. To protect the political balance, each party has agreed how many of their members can be present so that due process remains proper. But it does not seem that those of us excluded can remain so for long.

I know that colleague Christine Grahame MSP is chafing at the bit to get back to full participation. We were, after all, elected to represent our constituents in the discharge of all of Parliament's responsibilities. In particular, in her case, she has been unable to undertake most of her duties as deputy Presiding Officer.

For my part, it is absence from voting in Chamber that makes me most uneasy as a Parliamentarian. For everything else, I can work at home albeit our narrowband means that the pictures seen by viewers of my online contributions see a very soft focus image; yesterdays COVID-19 Committee was watched by about 250 via Facebook and probably rather more on ParliamentTV. Anything that smoothes away my wrinkles and enables me to reduce the frequency of my shaving is not all bad.

So as a Parliamentarian, I have a mild itch to return to Edinburgh. As an individual that itch is more substantial. But it strikes me that sticking it out as so many of the people I have been elected to represent, have to, is a proper act of local leadership. Personal ennui has to be tolerated and not become a trigger for improper action.

I am not unfamiliar with doing things in a rush in the computer world.

I remember our receiving a call from Peter Burt, the late Treasurer (our title for our Chief Executive) of the Bank of Scotland, on the 29th of August. I forget the year and cannot pin it down because my paper diaries are down in the south. The call was to tell us that he had decided that we would launch a telephone banking system in five weeks' time.

That was challenging and we made no suggestions that it was impossible. As it undoubtedly was, under the normal rules.

Peter was an interesting character who could drive all around him. Without raising his voice. Much more by his own work ethic, innovative thinking and superb ability to delegate.

When he was in charge of our International Division some years earlier, an incident occurred that added to the legend around him. That part of the Bank was in St Andrews Square in Edinburgh and had been the British Linen Bank's HQ. The stairs from the upper floors were beautiful marble.

Peter was dashing down these stairs, he was a scratch golfer and regular squash player and hence pretty fit, and tripped. The legend tells of how he barrel-rolled down the remaining steps, rose to his feet on reaching the floor and resumed his running. He was a man who remained focussed on his objectives come what may.

He never denied the legend. Who would? But more to the point, when the tale was re-told, it just led to a smile and a nodding head from the listener. It was entirely credible and consistent with his normal behaviour.

So requiring us to develop and commission a system in five weeks was nothing to question. It just needed to be done. And we did. We were working with an internal test group of some 200 staff in four weeks. It launched for public use a week later.

For the customer, it worked just fine. Internally it was far from elegant. And it cost twice what it should have done to run it.

Normally there are four important one-word questions to ask upfront in projects. Why? When? Who? How?

This project had no time for any to be asked. But they were asked afterwards. And we had a warm glow of satisfaction when we heard the answers.

The Bank of Scotland was founded in 1695, a year after Scotsman William Paterson's plans for the Bank of England came to fruition.

The Directors made a bad call in 1715 when they backed the Old Pretender, who sought to wrest the throne from the Hanoverians and become James VIII (or III of England if you wish).

In 1720 the legal right of the Bank of Scotland to be the only bank in Scotland expired. Hanoverians took revenge and established the Royal Bank of Scotland in 1727.

Competition has raged ever since. And our new telephone banking system, and the speed of its implementation, stemmed from that.

Peter Burt had heard of, in the squash club changing rooms, RBoS's plans to launch a telephone banking service to be called "PhoneLine". The name made total sense after the huge success of their DirectLine insurance company. They intended to build a portfolio of products around the "Line" brand.

Peter's demand was a total "spoiler" operation. He pinched the name, and it was Bank of Scotland Phoneline, not RBoS Phoneline. I think one phone line, between RBoS and Bank HQs, would be red-hot the day our service launched.

Much more detail was confirmed to me many months later by my brother who had been part of, he may have been project manager, the RBoS Phoneline. We set their plans back for many months. They even had to pulp their literature.

Oh, frabjous joy!

But for Parliament, our approach to getting the remote voting for MSPs at each day's Decision Time working, it's normally at 1700, remains a critical task for our technical teams in Parliament.

Their ability to rise to the challenge of getting us online so far has been terrific.

But we cannot afford something as vital as voting to be the one thing we get wrong.

We cannot take Peter's approach to complete this part of my being able to work fully from home.

So maybe I shall be back in Edinburgh soon?


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