Skip to main content

Planning for uncertainty

Mondays are always a day for looking forward to the week to come. I see eight online meetings of one sort or another and know there will be have been others added by Friday.

Suggestions from some quarters that we need to be physically in Edinburgh to hold anybody to account are the most manifest rubbish I have heard for some time. Taking time out of members' diaries to expend on travel, in my case twelve to fourteen hours a week, is the political equivalent of eating cardboard to assuage hunger. An action to generate the appearance of our being busy but without any of the value.

That isn't to say that I don't miss being Parliament. Of course I do. But that feeling is a selfish one based on my missing the banter of the corridor, the canteen, the coffee lounge. Missing human "contact".

So; to the real business of the week.

As we ever do, we shall be probing Ministers for weaknesses in their plans. Yes, even those of us who support the Government, as I do, shall be doing that. Because I want the Government to do even better and it's my job, and earnest desire, to find the best in their plans and encourage them to focus on that.

We supporters of the Government have to be their most rigorous critics. That is to use the word in its original Greek sense. Criticism was at the heart of their philosophy. The very word critic comes from the Greek kritikós (κριτικός) and means a person who offers reasoned judgment or analysis, value judgment, interpretation or observation.

Like anyone in politics, I have never had to seek criticism of my words or actions. Comes with the territory. But seek it I do.

I have a view of my weaknesses. Objective analysis might conclude that my view is incomplete. Having recognised that I still strive for personal perfection without having yet reached it, I seek the assistance of those around me.

I have written over the last couple of days about how I work with my interns and am focussed on their personal development. In the first week and after I have delivered the first speech which they have written for me, I solicit criticism from them.

I ask them to compare the words I spoke with the words they provided. To identify where any of my omissions may have weakened, or strengthened, the argument. And how additions have affected the message.

They are invited to view the video recording of my speaking. And to identify opportunities for improvement in my "stagecraft".

Mostly they find the idea of picking holes in the actions of their "boss", someone about five decades older than they are, quite daunting. But being able to mentor, encourage and criticise a staff member with more experience, more years, than they have, will be part of their future if they are to become one of tomorrow's leaders.

And yet, I rarely fail to receive a constructive and useful suggestion from the exercise. I don't always take the advice. But then advisors advise; those who receive the advice decide. Sound familiar? It's what any mature politician will say.

I go on, as I do with all my staff, to describe what I believe to be my weaknesses and solicit their assistance in avoiding adverse impacts that derive from them.

I have a weakness, as almost all of us do, for avoiding some tasks. My spouse could assist with a list, perhaps a long list, here. Of the many things on my desk, some seem magically to slide sideways until they are out of sight. And to escape any meaningful attention.

In particular, I hate making phone calls. Indeed I am probably on the verge of being phobic about it. So my staff will often put the time for a phone call into my diary. Then come into my office, dial the number and hand me the phone. They are finding life quite difficult just now. Haven't seen any of them since mid-March.

So for this, and other perpetually postponed tasks, we have a mechanism we have agreed - the "bully" list. If it appears that I am being dilatory about something, they threaten me with their adding it to the bully-list. And then they do. And they move responsibility for "bullying" me around the group until I finally give in and do it.

But the bottom line is that it an agreed process that means when a member of staff has to draw my shortcomings to my attention it is within a framework I have asked for. That protects the member of staff from grumpiness that may derive from their actions. And protects me from (some of) my imperfections.

I seek to include my interns in the list of licenced bullies. Most don't believe it until they begin to see it in operation. And then move to be the most vigorous of its proponents.

So when Michael Russell comes before the COVID-19 Committee meeting this week, our vigorous questioning is to help him.

I recall in 1971 when I first took my Institute of Advanced Motorists test that I thanked the examiner for his criticism after his de-brief at the end. He immediately denied that he was criticising my performance. It's a shame that so many people see criticism as a negative thing. It's actually a force for good. That's how the Greeks saw it 2,000 years ago.

The Greeks also laid down the rules for public speaking. I have previously described how I view a Parliamentary speech. Aristotle identified three elements for rhetoric - Ethos, Pathos, Logos - Showing the character of the speaker, Appealing to the emotions of the listener, Providing facts and figures to support the argument.

I have bid to speak in a debate on Tuesday on the next steps for the economy in the pandemic-driven world. I won't have to be physically present there to make my point. Any more than my using a video link to question a Minister on Wednesday will.

Before me this morning are some preliminary scratchings, on the back of an old piece of paper, related to what I might say. Our paper doesn't go into the recycling bag until both sides have been used.

And these initial musings may be supplemented by quotes, some of them my own originals, from my "quotations" database. Anyone says anything pithy and of interest within my range of hearing, their words become a prisoner of mine to be re-used until they are exhausted by overuse. I have hundreds of them.

Tomorrow I may ponder the start of my own working career. Graduating with a modest degree, I was blessed with three job offers. Today's much better-qualified graduates have struggled for some time to match that. And the pandemic has created new difficulties.

I went into "computers", nobody recognised this as a profession in the 1960s when I started, and rode the rapid expansion of the industry to a position of well-paid seniority.

Where are the new opportunities for today's job seekers?

Parliament has moved to a new way of working. As many in our workforce have.

What's the long term? How to give people the confidence they need to strike into new areas of endeavour?

Those are some of the questions I expect to address this week.
Senior cat, Donald Ruiraidh, is however entirely content with the status quo


Popular posts from this blog

Advice to the new MSPs

A contribution made to Portland PR 's weekly briefing on Holyrood A new job is a time to look in the mirror and undertake a self-assessment about what one can contribute in a new role. And what weaknesses one may have that could inhibit success. Being elected an MSP is no different in that respect. But very different in many others. One has become public property and every action, or action thought to be by you, will be open to public comment, often unfairly. Silence is often your best response. When one comments on criticism one lengthens the “war” and widens the knowledge of it. Set your own agenda rather than respond to that of others. Who can you trust among your fellow Parliamentarians? Make contact with as many as you can as quickly as you can. And make it a priority to interact with political opponents. The first substantive decision in the new Parliament is the election of a new Presiding Officer and it will be a secret ballot. Understanding the dynamic of other partie

End of an Era 2016-2021

Written for  Holyrood magazine's "The End of an era 2016-2021"  published 07 April 2021.    Neil Findlay is the man who loves you to hate him. As he rises from his habitual place in a distant corner of the Parliamentary Chamber, a snarl as firmly attached to his face as he is disconnected to any symbol of middle-class values such as a tie, tension flows as he selects his target for the day. Is it dapper John Scott? The record-holder for the shortest time between his being sworn in and making his first speech in Parliament; a mere twenty hours. Does Willie Rennie attract his ire? Confession; we went to the same school. Almost anything liberal is bound to attract this Labour very-back-bencher’s contumely. Greens rarely attract his attention but he should remember that John Finnie, another member of this year’s escape committee, can efficiently direct a canine arrest. Now of course, I have sought to avoid any engagement with the fellow. I never, just never, even acknow


When big things go wrong, and one feels powerless to do much about them, small things in one's life can become surrogates for one's anger. And there are quite a few big things around at the moment; COVID-19, No-Deal Brexit; A US Presidential Election where the incumbent leads with racist statements. As the end of the current session rushes towards us, many of my colleagues are concluding that they will not be putting themselves forward at the forthcoming election. A couple of our younger colleagues are placing their families first. But most are looking at being in their eighth decade, as I already am, at the end of the next session. When the two leading candidates for the US President are both older than I am - seventy-four in five week's time - it may seem surprising that retirement may be beckoning for me and others a lustrum younger than I am. But it illustrates the profound differences between being a back-bencher in our Parliament and the political life of a US Senator