The all-consuming beetle in the room

Brian Taylor
Political editor, Scotland
@tannadiceladon Twitter

  • Published
Nicola Sturgeon
Image caption,
This week's FMQ's were challenging for Nicola Sturgeon

It is reasonable, entirely reasonable, that today's discourse at Holyrood should depart momentarily from the hideous plague, from coronavirus.

On the order paper, after all, the event is listed as Questions to the First Minister. It is billed as such when called by the presiding officer, Ken Macintosh.

And so we all listened attentively as Ruth Davidson, for the Conservatives, raised the highly sensitive issue of the treatment of victims in Scotland's judicial system.

More sensitively still, Ms Davidson linked the issue to a heart-rending case; that of Michelle Stewart who was stabbed to death by a former boyfriend.

Since her killer was released in 2018, Michelle's family have pursued a campaign to improve the lot of victims. As I can attest, having covered the story in the past, they have done so with passion, dignity and determination.

In pursuing this issue, Ms Davidson made her points well. She raised a series of grievances, each exemplified by Michelle's family or others.

Image source, collect
Image caption,
Michelle Stewart was 17 when she was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend

This was, as it was fully intended so to be, exceptionally difficult for the first minister. She cannot dismiss the complaint, given its ultimate source, nor would she wish to do such a thing.

Rather, she sought to set out the various measures intended to give greater attention to the rights of victims - while noting that ministers and the criminal justice system must also have regards to the due process of law. And, yes, the rights of the accused.

After several valid and valuable exchanges, Ms Sturgeon concluded, in a quiet voice, that the families of victims would always want more to be done, while the Scottish government has a balance to strike.

The point is well taken. In essence, those who are grieving, those who are experiencing incalculable pain, largely want their world to be other than it is. They seek redress. A reprieve which can only partly be granted, in that the grim facts cannot be rewritten.

Image caption,
Ruth Davidson pursued her case with vigour

But Ms Davidson pursued her case with vigour. And, to be clear, she has pursued this topic - and indeed this particular example - with assiduity in the past.

So it was justified. Entirely justified. It is right that we do not succumb entirely to this virus. Right that we consider other aspects of the FM's remit.

And yet. And yet. Reflect upon the novella Die Verwandlung by Franz Kafka. This work has generated endless critical scrutiny since publication more than a century ago.

We consider the relationship between the protagonist, Gregor, and his family. We consider his circumstances, his employment, his seeming lack of emotional intensity. It is right to range widely in our discussion.

But, when all is said and done, there is one factor that rather stands out. That draws attention. It is that, overnight, he has transformed into a giant insect.

That rather subsumes other issues associated with Gregor. It is all-consuming. It is the beetle in the room.

So it proved at Holyrood. We had a valid and worthwhile shift of attention to criminal justice. And then it was back to Covid 19.

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Richard Leonard voiced concern for workers in Glasgow residential homes for children

Labour's Richard Leonard raised a series of points, separately and cumulatively in a rather effective fashion.

He talked of a "growing backlog" in testing. He voiced concern for home care workers.

In particular, he raised an apparent anomaly in that workers in Glasgow residential homes for children were, he said, being simultaneously advised to self-isolate at home - and yet to remain at work, characterising that place of employment as their de facto residence.

'Not playing politics'

Ms Sturgeon deployed sympathy and empathy in her response. She offered the attempted reassurances with which we have become familiar anent testing. She promised that care home workers would in no sense be forgotten.

And, with regard to the Glasgow issue, she promised to investigate, urgently and personally.

For the Greens, Alison Johnstone attempted to muster a degree of indignation. Firstly over testing, where she said the UK-wide system was "collapsing" and that Scotland would pay for the resultant "chaos".

Secondly, she lampooned the suggestion that social gathering rules might feature an exemption for hunting and shooting expeditions.

If she expected comparable anger from the FM, she was disappointed. Ms Sturgeon insisted she was not playing politics in noting that there had been problems with the UK testing regime. Rather, she was keen to sort those problems.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
Grouse shooting was among the items on the agenda

Then, somewhat wearily, she confided to the chamber that she had not had a single meeting or discussion on the topic of hunting and shooting. Outdoor sports, she said, such as angling and pony trekking, could be afforded distinctive treatment, provided the rules were met.

Finally, the chamber turned to Willie Rennie, he who leads the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Mr Rennie raised, with vigour and vim, the issue of family visits to people who live in care homes for the elderly.

He cited a particular example - of a daughter who has not been able to hug her elderly mother for six months, whose visits are conducted through a glass partition.

'Hideous plague'

Once again, this was notably challenging for the FM. Indeed, she said she had found it "genuinely upsetting" to take decisions which she knew would make things worse, in the short term, for some care home residents and their families.

She chided Mr Rennie, suggesting that his challenging tone implied that she, the FM, was deliberately causing problems for such families. It was vital to balance family needs with generic health protection.

Mr Rennie responded, robustly, as is his wont. Families, he said, could not afford to wait any longer.

Just contemplate the range of topics. Care of the elderly, care of children, jobs, the health service, testing, schools - and pony trekking.

All important to us collectively, all critically important to many individuals. At their core, a common factor. What to do with this hideous plague?