This last week has focused my mind on an issue that has been bothering me for a while. We have seen much written about legal advice on the question of whether Scotland will be able to continue in the EU or not. Whether it has or hasn’t been requested, time will tell. Peter A. Bell explains the mechanism around the Ministerial code in his piece on National Collective and I am not going to discuss whether Alex Salmond lied or not. I am more concerned with the current manner of the Independence debate.
Those of us who watched First Minister’s Questions on Thursday – from whatever side – saw Alex Salmond roundly defeat both Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson. The allocation system meant that Willie Rennie and Patrick Harvie – both of whom have a small but important number of seats in the Scottish Parliament, didn’t get to ask any questions. The remaining questions from the opposition didn’t really challenge Alex Salmond at all.
I was glad to see that the First Minister robustly defended the allegations both party leaders made, however what on earth do these two people think they are doing? It is their job and their responsibility to offer a credible opposition. A credible opposition is one which holds the incumbent government to account, which offers alternatives, and which scrutinises the activities and pronouncement of the governing party. It is their job to ensure that they are challenged. This is not happening in Scotland at the moment. The Times apparently described Ruth Davidson’s performance as not being able to hit a “bulls bottom with a banjo” – humorous the comment might be but there is nothing funny about her abysmal performances. Lallands Peat Warrior even went as far to describe her ineptitude as ‘startling’. Twitter was aflame with how woeful she was.
Johann Lamont was little better. Her demeanour is one of faintly submerged panic. She looks like she hates the whole experience of FMQ’s and she performs with a lack of ability which at times, makes her look completely out of her depth. She seems to get so cross that she can’t get her words right and she works from a script that I hope she doesn’t write herself, as it is so lacking in political acumen. When she scores even a small hit, which I thought she managed when she asked for information that the people of Scotland required, she couldn’t leave it there. She dropped into the “I feel sorry for Alex seeing his dream of Independence slip away” smugness that came next. By doing this she actually provided Alex Salmond with an opportunity to shout from the rafters the reasons why Independence would be good for Scotland. How could she fall into that trap?
Both Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson are intelligent women – Johann was a teacher and Ruth has an MA in English Literature and yet they seem incapable of forming a coherent argument that doesn’t rely on insults and name calling. It seems to me that both women are so busy trying to fling muck and hope it sticks that the real questions, the pertinent questions and the in depth analysis that we should see is being lost amongst what amounts to no more than a chorus of “We all hate Alex Salmond”.
This is all very good for the Yes campaign after all, here we are several days after FMQ’s and despite the best efforts of BBC Scotland, the question of whether Alex Salmond is a ‘liar’ is now missing from the frontpages of all the mainstream newspapers. It has even disappeared from the BBC’s Scottish politics pages. Yet, it still rages around the No campaign Facebook pages, but I suppose that’s to be expected.
The more worrying issue for the Scottish Independence debate is the lack of intellectual and political ability portrayed by the No campaign. Let us just imagine for a moment that some unnamed leader of a Scottish Government was the architect of a great cover up. Is there any likelihood that the current opposition could be, in any way, key players in uncovering or investigating this or even in pinning the unnamed First Minister down to answer questions? I would suggest not.
And when we add to this their party conference performances then we have to be concerned about the future of the Scottish democratic process. We have Johan Lamont talking about ending universal benefits and moving so far away from the roots of the Scottish Labour Party that even Ruth Davidson welcomed her into the Tory fold. And as for Ruth Davidson, well she apparently believes that 90% of people in Scotland rely on the public purse to fund their lifestyles. More of the ‘scroungers’ rhetoric we are used to hearing from the Westminster Government. Could she be more insulting?
This is perhaps to be expected in a political environment where some Scottish political parties are struggling to define themselves.
Despite the news this week that the UK is heading out of recession it doesn’t feel like that. What might have been the UK Government’s good news after several less cheery headlines, was negated by the news that Ford announced the loss of 1400 jobs. The West Coast tendering process showed itself to be yet another gargantuan mess up after the G4S fiasco. We have to start wondering whether Cameron or Clegg or indeed any of our politicians or the civil servants who advise them, actually have any idea of what they are doing. The Conservative Party are struggling to show they are in touch with ordinary people and David Cameron’s support of Andrew Mitchell showed this with complete transparency. It is, therefore, no surprise that Ruth Davidson went with the “Scots are scroungers” argument in her speech at her party conference.
At the Labour Party conference, Ed Milliband talked enthusiastically of “one nation” party politics to a cheering membership and yet speaking on Radio 4 later on the same day, voters in Bury North – a constituency I know well – expressed their distrust and their lack of confidence in him as a future Prime Minister. He seems to be unable to show a statesman-like presence. He cheers Johann Lamont when she talks about ending universality and makes no noise on Trident or poverty. There was much written about the failings of Scottish Labour and Johann Lamont in particular following her own conference speech. There was a feeling of glee and hand rubbing on the pro-independence internet pages. People were saying that Johann Lamont had handed over independence and asking whether Scottish Labour had become the Tories in a thinly veiled disguise?
The Scottish Liberal Democrats are faring no better. Willie Rennie might be a slightly better adversary than either Ruth Davidson or Johann Lamont, but he is suffering from the fall out of the Con-Dem coalition. I rather think his attempt to secure the vote of those who would have preferred a Devo-Max question in Scotland’s Referendum is too little too late. At their conference we saw Danny Alexander saying that they had secured credibility. Really? Where? It might have felt that way when addressing the party faithful but it doesn’t sound like that on the streets. Despite Danny Alexander’s assertions they are doing extremely badly in the opinion polls with just 8% of those likely to vote saying they will support the Liberal Democrats, who have now slipped behind UKIP. We’ve even read that they are preparing to support Iain Duncan-Smith’s cap of benefits on those with more than two children. Because of variations in families the Westminster Government will need to put in so many exemptions to this policy that it will be unworkable. And are we really going to say that people on benefits that marry cannot start families together? Will the the UK Government demand that benefit recipients choose between feeding a new baby or having an abortion – because that’s the choice folks. Pregnant by accident? Can’t afford to feed it without an increase in benefits? Here is your abortion clinic appointment. Well respected Independence blogger Wings over Scotland discussed the problems that this arbitrary rule will cause and ended his piece saying, “If you’re poor in the UK, it no longer matters who you vote for”. And he is right.
This would appear to be good news for those who support Scottish Independence. But is it actually good? I don’t think it is. I think the apathy of voters is being exacerbated by the similarity between the main parties and the ineptitude of Scottish political party leaders. We can’t choose between them and so we don’t bother choosing at all. When Cameron, Clegg and Milliband appear on the TV you often have to look twice. Ruth Davidson and Johann Lamont seem to speak with one voice on many issues and both use personal insults and cheap jokes which have failed to impact on Alex Salmond.
Many commentators say that the political landscape will change after a Yes vote. I would suggest that whatever the outcome of the Scotland’s Referendum, politics in Scotland will have to change. If Scotland is to be a vibrant, growing and blossoming democracy then it needs political parties with intelligence, commitment and vision. We do not want the only option to be the SNP. No matter how good some of us might think they are and how unlikely some of us may be to vote for anyone else, it is not healthy for any democracy to have only one credible party. If we have to wait for years without decent opposition then there is a danger that our society will stagnate. A lack of debate or challenge makes for laziness and complacency. Whilst we are applauding the ability of our opponents to stick their their own feet in their mouths, we should also be hoping that they get their act together and start to do the job for which they are paid. This means that they must stop making cheap shots, throwing around insults and start having autonomous ideas whilst developing a strategic view. A contrast to being ventriloquist puppets being worked by Westminster. Robust opposition can only have a beneficial effect on the democratic process and it can only have a beneficial effect on the engagement of the electorate.
We must all push for change and whatever our political view – whether it is pro-Independence or pro-Union, whether right or left wing – we must press the parties we support to work harder to engage in a robust debate of the issues, rather than make cheap jibes at the SNP or at each other. We need to encourage groups like Labour Voters for Scottish Independence, and political parties like the Scottish Green Party, who offer something a little different from the bland similarity of both the Scottish Conservative Party and Scottish Labour Party. Willie Rennie also needs to work to differentiate the Scottish Liberal Democrats from Westminster if he has any hope of impacting on the debate about the future of Scotland.
People want real and considered debate – not this dreadful mudslinging or sniggeringly unfunny jokes which deflect from the real issues at hand. Both sides have to engage positively with the Independence debate – I don’t mean that they have to agree and vote Yes (although that would be very nice). I mean that they must challenge and discuss the issues and offer a positive vision for a better Scotland. And now, not after the Referendum or in an Independent Scotland. If Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives do not get a grip and step up to the challenges, then I fear that the apathy which leads to low voter turnout will get worse and that there will be no real alternatives to the SNP for years to come. This would not be good for the future of Scottish politics or the future of Scotland’s democracy.