22 December 2009

Leaders' debates and devolution

I’m not daft enough to think that most Scots’ bedtime reading is the Scotland Act, or in particular, that most people have internalised and understood which powers were reserved to Westminster and which devolved to Holyrood in 1998. Schedule five of the Act contains a long roll of beasties, from treason to transport, defence and competition, weights and measures to measures outlawing possession of particular controlled substances. While a soporific reel of abstruse policy considerations by most people’s standards, its crucial that we understand competencies. Misunderstanding is the handmaiden of political paralysis, dame reaction’s favourite flavour of ignorance. If we are to take responsibility for our public choices, we have to have a clear-eyed sense of what is in and what is out.

While the reporting press is gradually getting to grips with the complexities in this area, misleading asides continue. Politicians – particularly those in by-elections – are regular sneaks on this point, talking about “this country”, “our health service”. References to the law of the land are generally misleading unless we clarify which land we are talking about. If Wales acquires general law-making powers within a particular territory – yet another level of complexity will assail simple-minded newswriters, looking for a brisk, punchy account of the day’s stories. This isn’t simply a chippy Scots lawyer’s quibble, for the reasons I’ve mentioned. If we’re to live up to our law, our public regulation and life, we must know what it is. Or at least, powerful mediators of our public knowledge ought not to mislead us by bland troping and lazy reporting. As others more consistently argue than myself, given my Scots biases, the main victims of this sort of thinking and this sort of slouching misinformation are the English public themselves.

Its in this context that I see the ballyhoo concerning the anticipated (and probably excruciating) debates between Broon, Cameroon and Clegg, come the new year. Defence, big macro-economic exchanges, spending cuts. Quite rightly, on top of these, I fully expect all three will have many of the English cares of government in view. In the loafy, clichéd phrase - voters' "bread and butter issues". Discussion will be a series of policy square-goes concerning schools, hospitals, universities et al. Institutions, all, south of the Tweed. In that context, the Maximum Eck would cut a curious figure, his commentary no doubt a bit befuddling to viewers tuning in from Ashby de la Zouch or Penzance. Yet, surely, that argument can be inverted quite as cogently. Interested in David Cameron’s grand wheezes for restructuring the English NHS? Maybe. But as an average Scottish voter, without that handy pocket-size copy of the Scotland Act to hand, am I not likely to be profoundly mislead by his remarks and the clout any future Tory ministers might have up North? What about Broon talking about mandatory knife sentences ‘in this country’? Might the technical questions of jurisdiction escape me in a way that fosters delusions about the respective powers of Holyrood and Westminster?

I don’t think understanding these things is beyond the ordinary person – but that understanding is only possible if we undertake not to patronise the public, not to feed them simplified falsehoods on the basis that ‘its too complicated’. Although people can be numpties – on this front, we make people stupid and keep them stupid by stewing them in fictions.

I realise that there is a difference between law and politics. I don’t believe that silence is mandated simply because Westminster reserves a particular policy, or vice versa. However, honest disagreement surely requires honesty about who has a say over what, what powers the would-be government can wield and which choices they aren’t in a position directly to influence. What concerns me is that the debates, as presently constituted, will gallop, chariot and horses, over these important distinctions. The resounding phrases – this country, our law – will roll basso profundo off debater’s scripts. And that culture of competence - across Britain, in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - will never bloom.


  1. Yes, this is my number one gripe about the whole idea. The Glasgow North-East by-election was the perfect example of a candidate confusing voters by promising things that he quite simply had no right to, due to them being reserved matters. Did the media pick him up on it? Of course they didn't. So do we really think Dimbles, Boulton or Stewart are going to stop them every few minutes and say "hang on, I'd just like to remind our viewers in Scotland that this is a devolved issue, so you should ignore everything the politicians say about it"? Of course not.

    There are just too many obstacles for this to go ahead in a fair and democratic fashion. Gordon Brown probably knew this beforehand though, and is banking on it not happening for these problems.

  2. Dear LPW,

    You do us wrong sir!

    Why this is perfect bedtime reading. Never fails to send one off pronto!

    Never got past the 2nd paragraph mind.........

  3. Splendid post. These debates really should be restricted to reserved matters - which still leaves a lot of ground; xenotransplantation, space, time, defence, foreign affairs, duck houses, social security, and taxation except where each is reserved, to name but a few - that would make excellent television!

  4. Perhaps they could have a large ticker-tape running across the bottom half of the screen when the debate is focussing on reserved matters.
    Something like
    I think that would sufficiently piss-off both Scottish viewers and English ones.