25 November 2010

(Eck's)press remorse...!

"I apologise". Say it properly. "I repent." With more feeling, if you don't mind. "I regret my actions". Really? "Yes". I don't believe you! Can't you make the answer catch in your throat, your eyes mist? "Er..." You see, he doesn't mean it! "I humbly beg your forgiveness, I assure you". Not good enough! Etcetera, etcetera. I've written here before about the odd conceptions of responsibility and purgation which attach to political apologies. In fairness, this week's John Swinney, guilty silence and the Scottish Variable Rate ballyhoo is a different case. For those who think they've detected a knowing, abashed restraint in the SNP blogosphere on this tale, no doubt my brief, belated thought or two - apologies having already been elicited from both Swinney and Salmond - could be seen as taking my line from the party's high heid yins and only endorsing an assessment of failure which they themselves are willing to sanction. However, in brief, here is my sense. In his budget statement of the 17th of November, for John Swinney to utter the following sentence was foolish:

"Within the Parliament's existing revenue powers, we have explored options for maximising our income. We have been mindful of the need to consider the effect of the significant tax rises that the UK Government has announced before we act. I therefore confirm that we will not raise the Scottish variable rate of income tax."

Although on one level, this is perfectly consistent with a number of facts including (a) no revenue power has been theoretically lost and (b) the use of the power would entail significant expenditure, no doubt weighing against any income-maximising assessment, frankly I'm bemused at why this information didn't receive a public, parliamentary airing before now. In which context, we should remember that the Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland was able to access this information, and amid the great gulps of Loch Lethe which Labour are inviting the electorate to swallow, we shouldn't forget that they only left Westminster office earlier this year.  Even further back in time, it is absolutely relevant that contrary to the impressions given by some, when the SNP entered office, the SVR does not seem to have been "fully" operative at all.  Yet fundamentally, as Swinney and Salmond both recognised this week, this is a screw up.

As I suggested in my previous piece on apologies, curiously, repentance is often a great falsifier, turning accident into intention, in part because making a wrong decision looks more robust than simply blundering. I have no insight into what transpired internally and scanty time or interest to spend combing through the wads of paper to find out.  That said I also agree, by the by, that effectiveness is the important criterion here and critics are right to talk about the effective loss of powers, insofar as they caveat that observation with the condition that large expenditure could effectively revive them. Equally, I think those members of the SNP benches who attempted to offer a cavilling defence of John Swinney based on legalities were not helping, primarily because thinking in terms of effectiveness is the friend to the SNP here because effectively it doesn't make a blind bit of difference. For those who live in a Manichean universe, who like to see things sharply delineated in black and white, all that matters is what side of the schism an issue falls. Am I right? Is he wrong? Often - all too often - people who conceive the world along these lines fail to examine the issues along the vital third axis - how much should we care? What is a proportionate analysis of the right or wrong? It isn't a tasteful little irrelevance that no party save for the Greens proposes employing the SVR mechanism. I noticed there was talk in yesterday's Holyrood debate of conflating the issue of justifying the decision with the argument that parliament should have been informed and have a chance to contribute to that decision, basically, that process values were being commingled and confused with substantive issuesMaybes aye, maybes naw. While I'd agree that folk like Linda Fabiani were jumbling the issues - its important to notice that various members of the opposition made precisely the same conflation. Where they disagreed and why both sides might well wield the language of missing the point - are their profoundly different positions on the bigger question what matters here? What is the more significant issue? Are angry opposition parties all saying that they'd have made a different decision? If not, is this only about institutional process, parliamentary prerogatives? In his contribution, Patrick Harvie most clearly and helpfully distinguished the two related but distinct issues, primarily because unlike many of the  toerag Labour members, his position on using the SVR is clear:

"I do not want this debate to be seen as a debate between the Labour Party and the SNP; it is, most centrally, a debate between Government and Parliament. Both sides in the debate have a detailed narrative about which Governments said what or did what at what time, but I am clear that, soon after coming to power in 2007, the current Scottish Government understood very clearly that this situation was developing and was not being resolved. Why was I, as a member of Parliament, not told at that time? Earlier, Stewart Maxwell said that everyone in the Opposition parties should have said which budget the money was to come from if we wanted it to be paid. I would have been delighted to have the opportunity to say what I think ought to have been the priority—but I was not told."

How you respond to the brouhaha will depend, I fancy, on what you think is more important, where you put the emphasis. Like Mr Patterson and others:

"I’ve had time to do no more than skim-read the various acts of correspondence on this matter and have only just made the time to ask myself what would be the obvious consequences of action X. And having done so, I have concluded and argued that the consequences of letting the SVR lapse are less negative than actually using the SVR either way, and less perverse than just letting it sit there."

Incidentally, I also recently heard it suggested that the SNP sends e-mails around bloggers, suggesting issues, individuals or subjects we ought to blog on. For the sake for categorical certainty, I for one have never received any such e-mails nor know of anyone else who has received such a communication. But since tu quoque allegations of hypocrisy are in vogue this week, just a little mischievous thought. Understandably enough given his employment, I'm not sure I've ever read James criticising Scottish Green party policy, so even the most loyal cybernat must dissent from the party line in public more often that Mr MacKenzie. Or alternatively, perhaps he would like to identify a particular issue where he has criticised his masters and thereby transcends our particular benighted Tartan Taliban band of ardent adherents? (I'll file this one on the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" shelf...) 

Its a rather interesting question actually, why are nationalists more amenable to characterisation in this way? After all, think about the wee column of Scottish Labour bloggers which have popped in and out of the scene. Hardly notable for their rousing critiques of their own tribe's orthodoxies, are they? One familiar answer would be a consciously biased, scornful Unionist media, who sit in their offices perpetuating a conception of the party and its supporters as a band of unserious cranks, Quixotic romantics, with every opportunity to scoff or condescend greedily seized. Yet the phenomenon is broadly based beyond the press, often curious so. I had lunch a few days ago with an English chap -  who was actually educated at the University of Edinburgh - who rolled his eyes when another friend said he was minded to vote SNP in May 2011. Indeed I discover that all Scottish Nationalists who stray into England should brace themselves for often passionate contempt, at best only vaguely connected to particular policy positions or perfectly mainstream convictions. A thought to be expanded on another day, that...


  1. Interesting piece LPW - thank you.

    Indeed I discover that all Scottish Nationalists who stray into England should brace themselves for often passionate contempt, at best only vaguely connected to particular policy positions or perfectly mainstream convictions. A thought to be expanded on another day, that...

    Look forward to that. I worked 'dawn sarf' a lot over the last few years and I would say passionate contempt (also backed up by Daily Mail type mis-information) is a good way of describing it.

  2. Although nobody has spoken up yet, I dare say a few folk might disagree with my assessment Ally K. As should be clear from the piece, mostly I was trying to use it as a cathartic way of working out what different folks' positions are, how they might stack up and what the devil I'm supposed to make of it all. Its a hard life, being an indecisive Scottish neo-Jacobin!

    On your second point, I've been meaning to write something on the issue for a while - both the English angle and how often one encounters dismissive folk, despite the fact that the SNP actually form the government. Rather odd.

  3. Indeed Lallands.

    My "Bestest Mate" who works for the man (F.O) in London, regularly scoffs at the SNP whilst we sup a pint or ten.
    Of course, I rise to the bait and after a few friendly fisticuffs, I point out that he lives in a highly subsidised region of the UK, which many "National" papers seem to forget...


  4. I find the line "Scotland’s done fine out the Union up to now, but that we are in the EU, the UK is holding us back. I mean how long do you expect us to go on subsidising you..." works quite well. It tends to lead to an interesting conversation going.

  5. Conan,

    Ha! I'd forgotten how much fun it was to see Paxman's rubber face pulled incredulously and that splendid moment when he noticed he was gubbed...

  6. And as both you and Calum imply, Conan - there is no reason to be entirely po faced about it. One can have a good deal of malicious fun toying with folk's prejudices and half-formed haughty notions. Fine ironic flyting to be had there, especially when nourished by a dram or ten.