‘It is a far, far better thing that I do . . .” mused the anti-hero in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, as he contemplated his out-of-character decision to replace the hero in a meeting with Madame La Guillotine that could have only one conclusion. Could a faintly distorted echo of Sydney Carter’s words be heard in Bill Walker’s announcement that he is to give up his seat in the Scottish Parliament?
That he should do so is the correct course of action, and it has also saved the parliament from itself. There was to have been a specially called session of parliament for the business of turfing him out because he has been found guilty of 23 counts of domestic abuse and as such is judged by everybody to have forfeited the right to sit in parliament and make laws.
So far, so good and self-evident. But one or two MSPs were so angry that Bill Walker had besmirched the parliament’s good name that they proposed reducing his salary by 90 per cent. In advance of the sheriff handing down a custodial sentence of up to a year or otherwise, they wanted to make sure he didn’t receive any money from the public purse. Mr Walker’s pursuers don’t think the sheriff has enough leeway in her disposal of the former MSP: they would prefer her to be able to jail him for more than a year. But that is the statutory maximum sentence in a summary trial, heard without a jury by a single sheriff.
We have been told that all will be revealed on September 20, when the court reports will have been completed and studied by the sheriff before she decides on whether custody or community service is indicated. Also, we will learn around that time if Mr Walker means to appeal. At that point, and not before, the processes of the law have been respected and allowed to come to a conclusion. And it is at this point that the parliament will be in full possession of the facts regarding Mr Walker.
Presumably it would be sensible to weigh these against the powers delegated to Holyrood by Westminster to deal with excluding a member who’s in prison, for example. But there was an impatience shared by MSPs and the organised groups that campaign against domestic abuse and violence against women. They believed the MSP to have been found guilty of 23 counts, and therefore unfit to represent constituents and no further consideration was needed before expelling him from Holyrood.
But for that to happen, all the careful processes we’ve developed for ensuring fairness, equity and transparency would have been overtaken by the rush to make an example of him. Yet before passing such a measure, assuming Westminster gives the power to MSPs to do this, a committee of the Scottish Parliament would consider the principles raised by Mr Walker’s imprisonment.
Firstly, there should not be a law passed that applies to Mr Walker alone. Any new law must apply to all MSPs. Also, it’s highly unlikely that, had he not resigned, MSPs would have been able to force him out. The electorate in Dunfermline might, but for MSPs to do so would require the legislation to be retrospective. There exists a tiny number of valid, retrospectively agreed laws in our systems, but they probably wouldn’t encompass the case of Bill Walker.
And is it only crimes of domestic abuse that would bring about the forced resignation from parliament? Or is it the sentence that decides? Can a non-custodial sentence justify, however superficially, the docking of wages? An MSP could still do more than half a day’s work if he or she was serving a non-custodial sentence, if the member is prepared to work double shifts every day.
The above are only some of the reasons I did not sign Willie Rennie’s motion. In all cases, the law must be allowed time to complete its course. Failure to do so could result in the verdict being challenged, and an appeal being lodged.
I cannot remember a time when I did not hate violence in the home. But I will not abandon the knowledge, skills and logic I have acquired since I was entrusted by my fellow citizens in Lothian to be part of a parliament that would produce wise legislation that would apply equally to all of us in every situation.
The doubtless sincere women who swept aside the sort of objection I’ve catalogued here may continue to protest that this dilemma is solved by having the fact and length of a custodial sentence as the decisive factor in determining whether an errant MSP goes or stays.
But will this apply to an MSP who’s jailed for protesting against Trident or nuclear weapons?