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A bad day for democracy?

Yesterday was dominated by two things for me. Both came accompanied by sound.

The more trivial was in the matter of a peacock. A Tory MSP sought support for an amendment to the Wildlife Bill we were considering yesterday. He wished to create a new criminal offence related to the theft of a pet. Now while I don't believe anyone in the Chamber would condone such a theft, such a proposal needs careful thought.

Many of us will be familiar with stories of cats turning up and, little by little, occasionally in a single bound, taking up residence in a new home. In our case, and this is the example I used in debate, it is a peacock that has been a regular visitor for about 18 months.

If we start to assume responsibility for these animals, exercising a relationship with them that has all the attributes of ownership, have we committed "theft by finding" and hence be likely to fall within the bounds of the new crime this Tory proposal might have led us to?

In the case of the peacock, I am pretty clear that the answer would be no. We offer it nothing apart from our implied consent to its occasional visits to our house and garden. We offer neither food nor companionship. It "entertains" us with eldritch screeches.

But for the new slave who has been subject to takeover by a cat who pitches up and demands care, attention and love, things may not be so clear cut.

It turns out that ostriches are pretty self-sufficient omnivores and our locally based one seems to be doing pretty well without human support.

But a stray cat will readily persuade us of their needs, have us jump to their tune. We may be adjudged by law to have assumed "ownership". I suspect the cat may have a different view. They own us.

All of which illustrates that legislating is not straightforward. And requires close attention.

The other noise heard yesterday was that of my own voice. Not intrinsically absent over recent months. But certainly absent in corporeal form from the Parliamentary Debating Chamber since mid-March. While I have been speaking via the electric internet and large video screens to my fellow MSPs on a number of occasions since lockdown started, Wednesday marked my physical return.

And it was good, at a distance, to be able to have a gossip with pals there. The day started with a minor difficulty. A new suit had not been perfectly matched with the contents of the pockets in an older one. In short; my Parliamentary pass was 171 miles away in Banffshire when I turned up at EH99 1SP to crave admittance.

But the ever-helpful staff at Holyrood, fixed me up with a smile and a temporary pass in very short order. All I had to do was to remember to return it at the end of a very long day.

I had risen at 0445 and we completed the day's Parliamentary business within touching distance of 2030, nearly fifteen hours later.

But actually I can, again this week, claim that I had worked more than the nearly 15 hours.

Two Committee meetings started for me at 0830 and continued to 1200. A very full morning indeed which might suggest I had put in an eighteen-hour day, not a mere fifteen.

One of the Committee meetings was legislating on agricultural support. The Convenor of Rural nearly caught me out by inviting me to speak at a point where my pre-prepared timeline had my being silent. There was less than ten seconds between the broadcasters switching off the microphone which was feeding my words into one meeting, before the other meetings' mike became live so I could ask a question in another online "room". A very close call indeed.

But later in the day, I was able to obtain confirmation from one Convenor, after a brief pause while he thought about it, that it would not have been obvious to any viewer that I was in two places at once.

So I will chalk up that morning's work as successful.

The afternoon's debate went reasonably well too, albeit that my oral contributions in a Chamber with 85 MSPs present, and three others contributing by video link, was inevitably more constrained. I did have to cast my vote on sixteen occasions, so my relative silence did not, and could not, speak of my being disengaged.

There was a pretty widely-shared view that there had been a clearly chosen attempt to bypass proper Parliamentary scrutiny on some policy proposals. The wildlife Bill being considered had been laid in Parliament at the start of its journey to the statute book some eight and a half months earlier on the 30th September 2019.

One member had, immediately prior to that, completed a significant consultation with the public on a matter about which she felt passionately. With that passion, she was not alone either within Parliament or in the minds of the public beyond our walls.

Her consultation showed that 74% of the respondents supported what she was trying to do. A clear mandate to proceed. Proper Parliamentary process would normally have led to her feeding that into the consideration of this Bill.

Consider this. A proportion of the 26% who did not endorse what she was proposing would have opposed it. I still do not know how many or on what grounds they might have done so. But by her choosing to remain silent on the issue for more than eight months, the minority was denied the opportunity to forward their concerns in Parliament. It might have refined the final outcome in useful ways. It would certainly have increased the credibility of the proposal by its having been properly challenged, adequately tested, and refined.

It is always an abuse of democracy when someone who purports to be a democrat by a deliberate act suppresses the views of a minority.

The difference between an authoritarian and a democratic country lies in this. In the latter, it is safe to be on the losing side of the argument. Democracy protects minorities or is nothing. But in a country ruled by authority, rather than being governed through an electoral mandate that may be overturned by the peaceful actions by the citizens, minorities espouse causes at odds with the majority only at very great risk.

If the small party who brought forward this proposal, popular yes, think they respected the views of the minority, they are very much mistaken,

They took the first steps, which if repeated in Government, would ultimately lead to a totalitarian state. Something they would say they would view with horror.

Time to look in the mirror guys and gals.

Ultimately Parliament understood the necessity for the principle behind this proposal brought forward by these anti-democratic means, and voted for it.

But the author's actions will neither be forgiven nor forgotten.

And I remembered to hand in my temporary access pass.

A day of little personal victories.


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