These commentaries by John Macgill represent his opinions only and not those of any Ettrickburn client.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2016: A tribute to five retiring MSPs

Today is the last day at Holyrood for 24 MSPs retiring from the Scottish Parliament[i]. Each has had a chance to make a final speech and to prepare for the next stage in their working lives or retirement.

For others, who the electorate decide not to return to Holyrood, this will also be the last day. Tributes to their work can wait.

There are five retiring MSPs whose contribution, interest and commitment to better healthcare I would particularly wish to mark.

Malcolm Chisholm was already the Labour MP for Edinburgh Northern and Leith before becoming the area’s MSP in 1999. In 2001, he took over from Susan Deacon as Minister for Health and Community Care. These were the days before Cabinet Secretaries and Mr Chisholm was in charge of Scotland’s health service. In that role, he was voted Politician of the Year in 2002. His legacy includes overseeing the abolition of trusts in Scotland’s NHS, and the introduction of community health partnerships.

As editor of Holyrood in the early days of the Parliament, I remember interviewing Mr Chisholm for a profile. My recollection is that he laughed throughout the interview, perhaps as much in embarrassment that I should want him to talk about himself as because the subject matter was funny.

At the time of his Holyrood interview in September 2000, Mr Chisholm was not a minister. Instead he was an enthusiastic if somewhat exhausted member of two committees: Health and Community Care, and Equal Opportunities. Just a year into the new parliament he told me:

“It makes you realise what a farce Westminster was when you had one committee to cover Scottish Affairs and one hour a month to question people about it. We are finding it tough enough to cover the ground even though we are working as hard as ever and meeting once a week.”

His involvement in health continued right up to this week as a member of what has become the Health and Sport Committee, and also co-convener of cross party groups on cancer, health inequalities; mental health and rare diseases;

Another MSP who I will miss is Mary Scanlon. She was the subject of my second profile article during my tenure at Holyrood magazine (June 2000) in which she revealed that the seeds were sown for her to move from Mum to mature student to lecturer to politician, in the callous words of her ex-husband who said he had left her for someone “interesting”.

Ms Scanlon, who has been an MSP since the start in 1999, with a short break when she stood down to fight unsuccessfully the Inverness East Nairn and Lochaber by-election, served as health and later communities spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives.

Back in 2000 it was the plight of vulnerable Scots that she wanted to talk about most when being interviewed:

“The mentally ill do not complain and they tend to be thankful for whatever services they get and Mental Health is undoubtedly still the Cinderella service in the NHS. Most of us on the health committee realise that it is a priority and there is a long way to go.”

Though she had moved to a different brief, in this parliamentary session Mary Scanlon, remained co-convener of the cross party groups on both Dementia and Mental Health.

A successor as a health spokesperson for the Conservatives was Nanette Milne. A doctor, she had moved into cancer research so that she could have the flexibility to bring up her family. Elected in 2003 she was appointed health and community care spokesman in early 2005 and served several terms on the Health Committee.

Always approachable and concerned about what every policy really meant for patients, Nanette Milne has been a polite but firm interrogator of witnesses during committee sessions. A member of many cross party groups, she was convener of the one for asthma; co-convener for the cancer, diabetes, and funerals and bereavement groups; and deputy convener for the groups for Arthritis MSK, heart disease and stroke, muscular dystrophy, and older people, age and aging.

A second qualified medical doctor to step down from Holyrood today is Richard Simpson, Labour MSP for Ochil and later for Mid Scotland and Fife. A GP and psychiatrist, he is a Fellow of the Royal Colleges for both disciplines with a track record in addictions, and also in urology. A minister in the first parliament (1999 to 2003), he returned to parliament in 2007. In the most recent session he continued to work as a health spokesperson and was co-convener of the drug and alcohol misuse cross-party group and deputy convener of groups on epilepsy, and tobacco and health.

When I interviewed him for Holyrood magazine in April 2001, he drew parallels between being an MSP and a GP:

“It’s proved to be a heavier task in terms of the hours you work, even more than a doctor, which is interesting.

“As an MSP I run an appointment system for my constituents. I make home visits, which I think is particularly important for people with a disability or people who are nervous about getting involved in the system because they feel more comfortable on their home territory. Dealing with that is really no different to being a GP or a psychiatrist in that people are presenting you with a set of problems and inviting you to assist in the solution to those problems. I think the only difference is that, from time to time, you actually have to be able to make judgements and say no. Whereas, as a doctor, you don’t to the same extent and I think that is quite tough.”

Unlike Drs Milne and Simpson, Duncan McNeil, Labour MSP for Greenock and Inverclyde, did not have a medical track record when he was elected convener of the Health and Sport Committee. In this role he gained widespread respect as an excellent and, usually, calm moderator of discussions and proceedings. It has become clear that, along the way, he has developed considerable expertise in healthcare. The Committee’s work, and perhaps particularly its legacy paper[ii], are testament to the tenacity of the group he convened.

His final speech[iii] in the Chamber last week, closing his 17 years as an MSP, includes these passages:

“On my first day as the MSP for Greenock and Inverclyde—the first elected representative to have been born and bred in the area—I stood just a few feet away from Donald Dewar when he made his famous speech to open the Parliament. He said:

“In the quiet moments today, we might hear some echoes from the past: the shout of the welder in the din of the great Clyde shipyards.”

“I was a caulker/burner, not a welder, but I hope that I have provided more than just an echo of Scotland’s industrial past. I have always tried to be an authentic voice for working people in my community and the families there, and for the many communities like it.

“When I entered the gates of the shipyards on the lower Clyde at the tender age of 15—even younger than my granddaughter Chloe is now—I thought that I had a job for life. I could never have imagined that 50 years later I would be representing my colleagues, my family and my neighbours in the Scottish Parliament. What an honour that has been.”

 

Caricatures from 2000 and 2001 by Grant Pringle

 

[i] BBC Report http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-35354845

[ii] Committee Legacy Paper: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/CurrentCommittees/97634.aspx

[iii] Official Report 16 March 2016 http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=10440&i=96103&c=1922140