22nd May 2009 at 01:00
The Scottish Parliament was going to be different, so we were told ad nauseam before its opening 10 years ago

Forget the Westminster bear-pit, Holyrood would be more cuddly bear: a civilised, cross-party quest for common ground.

So let's move quickly on from the braying one-upmanship of First Minister's Questions, and consider the very different setting of the education committee. Here, indeed, it's difficult for casual observers to spot party stripes: emotional outbursts are frowned upon, language is neutered and painstaking deference prevails.

The committee's fastidiously consensual approach leaves little room, however, for the mercurial, the eccentric and the outspoken. So Donald Gunn MacDonald always risked coming a cropper when he bounded in to speak last week on rural schools, mindful, perhaps, that this was a final chance to fire shots across the bows (see p3).

With an arch and blustering manner, the vice-president of the Scottish Parent Councils Association aimed pot-shots at local authorities, sniped at a rival parents' group (who can that be? - Ed) as its spokeswoman sat feet away, made oblique reference to a 1964 parliamentary debate, and delivered a potted history of education in the north of Scotland.

Then he said it: a reference to "cohesive communities" - grannies, uncles, neighbours, pupils, teachers and such - included the phrase "white settlers", the now very non-PC description of wealthy southerners who choose to populate the Highlands.

Convener Karen Whitefield waited for a suitable pause, pursed her lips, and thundered that someone in the room had uttered something offensive. She could not bring herself to utter the perpetrator's name, and a panicky Sandy Longmuir, of the Scottish Rural Schools Network, asked afterwards if it was something he'd said.

A chastened MacDonald was reduced to asking sheepishly for permission to speak. Other committee members pulled rank with the convener by studiously looking bored when he did so. One observer, initially irritated by MacDonald, confessed a little sympathy after his savaging.

It was not just that MacDonald's faux pas was deemed inherently offensive. Committee members were also irked by someone who didn't see fit to mimic their strained attempts to say the "right" things.

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