8 July 2010

A cri de coeur: Taking Holyrood's stock...

Summer can be a difficult, parched time for political blogging. Denied our daily and weekly doses of scandal, we're left to tend to our own sunflower days without palpable legislative progress or parliamentary drama. Even worse, if our politicians cannily quiet themselves and conduct the summer in masterly silence, July's azure skies also promise to remain uncluttered by puffy political missteps and ministerial mischances. That is the theory anyway. So what is to be done? Certainly, the recess can make room for reflection and discussion. A mid-year sunlit stock-taking, strategic speculation, dreams of what the future might hold. Alternatively, it can be a phase warranting drought notices. In Westminster, we're still at the sleepy start of the coalition. Although the media may try their best to wedge a crowbar between Tories and Liberals, one suspects this sporting lark is largely a strategy to pass the time, for want of much else to say. 

The coalition's enterprises are only just beginning to prosper (in their own minds, at any rate). Their offices are probably only now coming to feel familiar. And what is more, shrillness despite, while there are traceable consequences of  the coalition's scytheman rhetoric, it still seems a bit iffy to blame them for everything and anything and ignore the continuity and consequences of Labour's demised captaincy of the country. No doubt I'm not alone in finding it a mite rich to observe the extent to which our red-coated friends so heartily and so briskly think to emancipate themselves from their own history, their choices, the gravity of the party's responsibilities. They've slunk from office with an oily slickness - and have slurped into opposition with all signs that they intend to make the ghoul-haunted case against everything under the sun. 

In Holyrood, I'd submit, two concerns might be worth thinking about. Firstly, there is another year of the parliament to go and much serious business afoot. In particular, it is worth reminding ourselves that amongst others matters, the next year will see evidence taken and debate conducted on Margo MacDonald's Bill on assisted dying. There have been interesting developments in the Committee which have largely escaped public commentary, but which I'll return to later on in the week. Secondly, and most obviously, there are interesting questions to be asked about the election in 2011. Thoughts must be turning to concrete policies, rhetorical positioning and the contents of the parties' manifestos. What , if anything, will Labour propose in the alternative to the "unfair council tax"? Of late in Holyrood we've mostly heard noun-verb-spending-commitment sentences from Iain Gray and his cronies. Will they commit to fund the expansion in the prison population, exceedingly likely to follow the imposition of mandatory(ish) prison sentences for knife carriers? What about the GARL project? Will Andy Kerr  perform a fiscal ritual - perhaps using a hanged man's vertebrae and a pinch of gravedust - and do his necromantic best to summon up the skeleton of the cancelled rail project, as he has so often implied? Is it their submission that if Labour were in office, all monies would be found? If so, what alternative spending options are they proposing to do away with? What paper cuts would have to be performed to pay for the purposeless and fruitless expansion of Scotland's already burgeoning prison population? 

I'll assume, for the sake of argument, that Scottish Labour wishes to be taken as a serious contender to form the next government of Scotland. There is an obvious and very substantial danger that Gray's Saturnine - and asinine - denunciations and detractions of public spending decisions by the Scottish Government will do little more than eat his own children. Not literally of course. Politically. 

We've all heard his spurious allegations of the Salmond slump and attempts over FMQs to finger the SNP simultaneously as policy-lite  but also Thatcherite hackers and hedgemen. On this case, reducing funding for anything seems to amount to a grave and ghastly assault of every fundamental value conceivable. And the future of our children. And fwuffy kittens. It is a grim testament to how gormlessly flatulent Scottish political life can be that the Maximum Eck  has largely conceded the logic of Gray's case and submits to the stifling governance of the taboo. Any meaningful discussion of what things matter most, whether more spending is productive in every area, whether better approaches might be found - seem ruled out prima facie. Snarling partisanship and the trading of party darts and barbs displaces all else. Holyrood becomes arid as a result. If Gray hopes to enter office, how pray is he to recover his poise, having cursed all cuts under the sun? If the gentle yoke of opposition lets him flaunt whatever fancy might enter his head, will office's more stringent bonds not chafe like the devil? In particular, with his enthusiasm for crying SNP cuts, won't he and his would-be cabinet face some challenges, if their own unavoidable "cuts" are to evade the bite of the negative case he has made in opposition? Don't you think the media might notice this during the election campaign and ask some rather pointed questions?

I'm a chap with a naturally sardonic disposition. I enjoy a gentle but pointed jest at the expense of those with whom I disagree. Pervasive seriousness is the refuge of those without a sense of humour, unrelenting gravity the pinched mask of the tedious. That said, at times over the last six months, at times  I have looked at Holyrood and lamented. Recently, I've touched upon other areas in which I believe that our politics is impoverished and impoverishing. While it may seem mildly curious to append this thought to a post which spends much of its time having a go at the Labour Party - I'm becoming tired of the cut-throated opposition, the SNP-Labour mutual caballing, the intellectual dishonesty this produces on both sides. Both in sorrow and in anger, it seems to me to be a dismal alchemy to have performed, to have erected an institution notionally unfettered by old fustian stupidities, which innovates and conspires to produce its own enervating logic and empty contemptible forms. I tire of the apparent impossibility of discussion, the consequent disciplining of dissent,  the sniffishness and susceptibility to cheap pointless points. I intensely dislike the Obamaesque vogue for the political transcendence over politics - the depoliticisation of the politician for political advantage. Disagreement is a good thing. Or to be more precise, disagreement can be a good thing, when we have good reasons to take alternative views. We do not need our parliament to be the cradle of ideas. No such grandiose bunkum or absurd pomposity is necessary. Rather, I would dearly like it if our parliament exhibited the reticent capacity to think. To reflect clearly and honestly and humbly on the state of the nation, what we have done, what we can do, what we should alter. 


  1. I fear that the Press have shown little interest in exploring the raving illogicality of Gray's position hitherto and - should Labour win the election - I am quite certain they'll not do so then either. Our Press is something to behold.

    On minimum sentences, I am delighted to see there's someone else who sees them for the total nonsense they are. The minimum sentence for guns has been made to look stupid enough this last month, with a granny being sent down for 5 years for keeping her dead Dad's rusty old pistol, and no ammunition. But for knives...if they ever passed this one I would be tempted to go about with one of my fine silver dessert knives in my jacket, just for the frisson.

  2. Anonymous,

    Certainly I'd agree with you that, save for a few gallant exceptions, the Scottish press have been largely muted on the plausibility (and mutual consistency) of Gray's various incompatible arguments on the Scottish Government's responsibility for unemployment, reduced funding of particular initiatives and so on. My favourite was the "global economic crisis" combined with the localised "Salmond slump". Then again, I know Labour figures who would agree that this is ludicrous. Indeed, I know a chap who mentioned it to none other than Labour MP Tom Harris during the 2010 Westminster Election. According to my informant, Mr Harris agreed that Gray's argument was absolutely vacuous.

    It may be a Quixotic fool's hope that springs eternal in me, soon to be dashed, but I'd argue that there the possibility for a good inquisitorial examination of all parties' policies and arguments remains. A possibility only, mind. One which can easily, all too easily bounce us by. Recall the treatment meted out to Jack McConnell and Cathy Jamieson on the Cooncil Tax policy in 2007. It was calamitous.

    On quasi-mandatory minimums, I entirely agree. I've gone on (and on) about them several times during the legislative progress of the Criminal Justice & Licensing Bill. I regret not getting around to blogging about the case you mention. Worth revisiting. A manifest example of injustice.

  3. We get the politicians the media deserves. How many 'thinkers' would want to get involved in a sphere of public life where one wrong step gets you a starring role in the Daily Wrecker's next morality tale? Chris Harvie is unquestionably one of the great post-war Scottish 'thinkers' - yet the only article I can recall him making an appearance in since being elected, was his calling Lockerbie town centre a dump or similar and getting pelters for it (despite it being completely true).

    And that sort of gomer low-rent nonsense just sets the scene for the low-bar debate. A hypothetical example based on reality - I had an Economics lecturer at Uni who was a top class guy, eager to think outside prevailing orthodoxy, sharp as a tack, personable - in short exactly the kind of guy you'd want, say on the SP Enterprise Ctte. But he had a habit of telling students to "shut the fuck up" during lectures if they were blethering at the back, and had a line in scathing one-liners about one thing or an other. If he goes for selection as an MSP - bam! The press are jumping on him for being foul-mouthed or what have you. The parties are too in league with/feart of the press and commentariat to call bullshit on this, and so really bright Economics guy is deselected from his candidacy.

    You could paint the picture with a thousand different people with a thousand different foibles, all of whom know if they stick their head above the parapet will get it stomped on. So we end up with primarily the chaff who've never put a foot wrong in their puff. And that's a considerably reduced pool of 'thinkers' to choose our chamber from.

    Just my (badly though out) ten bob's worth!

  4. I appear to be stuck with "Anonymous" since I'm not technologically advanced enough to know how to appear as anything else.

    I accept the mild correction implied by "quasi-mandatory" since, yes, I have been following your remarks on the Bill. But I am astonished at how the Gail Cochrane case has been allowed to slip by without protest. I would like think Lady Smith imposed the sentence in an effort to demonstrate the absurdity of this law (and, given the timing, "quasi-mandatory" sentences in general). Unfortunately this is the same Lady Smith of the "leaders' debates" case...

    I have some sympathy for the Baron's views. One wonders how that young firebrand Salmond would get on nowadays if standing in front of a selection committee!

  5. Not badly thought out at all, Baron.

    There are few things that are more noxious than the press' gleeful indulgence in hypocritical cant. I'm always left astonished and rather appalled at the way in which trivia prompts "fury" and hard-done by "feeling" while substantial wrongs done in our public life and real tragedies are treated listlessly. Hacks hive outside the door of some wretched but minor truthteller but leave other tales totally untold. They have a warped sense of priorities at times and undoubtedly entertain persecution fantasies.

    The curiosity in the media's case is that they fantasise about being the persecutors, not the persecuted.

  6. Fear not "Anonymous", it merely lends your remarks an air of mystery!

    My intention with "quasi-mandatory" was not disciplining - I've been struggling for yonks to find a good and brisk way of capturing the (ex) provision's presumptive character and the fallaciousness of this compared with that rousing motto "Carry a knife, go to jail" simpliciter.

    On the Cochrane case, I really must revisit it soon. As you say, the points warrant connecting.