Scottish politics fails the reasonable man and woman test

Two Scottish broadsheet Sunday papers, two quite different splashes. But they share a theme.

The Sunday Herald’s front page story tells of the Scotland Office sitting on internal government files relating to devolution. Despite the Scottish Government reducing the time at which such documents can be released publicly, the current Scotland Office has decided to sit on these ones, so it can have a wee look for anything in there that might prove embarrassing – or worse – to the Unionist parties. Why a Tory-Lib Dem controlled UK administration might want to spare the blushes of a previous Labour government neatly illustrates the complexity of the constitutional ties that bind. It’s them – all of them, most of the time – against the SNP.

Scotland on Sunday runs with a piece about Holyrood and specifically, about the failure of Cross Party Groups (CPGs) to file annual returns and declare benefits in kind and cash from third parties above £500. The inference is that if groups are not declaring who backs them and what financial benefits are donated by businesses and even, charities, then there is something to hide. Of the groups I know, I very much doubt it.

Now, I should – and do – declare an interest here: as part of the day job, I regularly attend cross party groups and their meetings. Not the ones where sometimes MSPs can be queuing up to get in, but the worthy but often dull ones which can struggle to be quorate in terms of MSP attendance.  Undoubtedly, the former type, which usually are related to commercial interests, have every right and reason to operate, as much as the cause-related ones I tend to frequent, and MSPs can and do argue of their legitimate importance to their constituencies and the communities and individuals they serve.

Where it all begins to unravel – and here is the theme, in case anyone was wondering – is when the behaviour of politicians and political institutions is subjected to the reasonable man or woman test. And it is how this mythical creature, who singularly holds little sway but as a mass helps us create and maintain acceptable standards of behaviour and activity across our society, sees the world of politics which matters.

And both stories, in their own way, demonstrate a lack of openness and transparency across politics and contribute, to some degree unwittingly, to the mistrust in politicians and institutions which when it reaches a critical point, can and does result in voter apathy and disengagement. The reason politics swims in ever decreasing circles is complex but tales like this certainly don’t help.

In the scheme of things, neither the Scotland Office’s behaviour nor that of Cross Party Groups in the Scottish Parliament, is of material importance. But both stories highlight the canker which exists at the heart of our political culture.

On the one hand, we have a UK Government which treats the people of Scotland with disdain, holding on to information which is rightly ours and which it – and the people elected and employed by it – forgets it is only the guardian of. This is information the public has a right to know and by holding on to it, the Scotland Office has set in train a bigger stushie than if it had just let it slip out. As Brian Wilson points out, given the enormity of the devolution exercise, it would be surprising if there wasn’t evidence of departmental and indeed, personal disagreements in the UK Cabinet at the time. Indeed, what these papers reveal might offer some lessons for the current constitutional debate.

And on the other, we have evidence at Holyrood of the foundations of a culture which mimics the worst excesses of Westminster. It matters, but only a little, that the CPGs operating at Holyrood are largely prosaic and rather dull. Once those annual returns are all filed, they will, by and large, be remarkable for their lack of juicy content: only a tiny number will show considerable financial benefits. Nearly every single MSP will be able to point to their attendance at such groups, sometimes flitting their way across several on one day, with nothing more than a lukewarm cup of tea, a curled up sandwich and permanent indigestion to show for it.

But that is not the point. The CPGs at Holyrood might be small fry compared to the burgeoning lobbying industry which operates in all party groups at Westminster. And by themselves, somewhat ironically, they evidence how little power our Parliament actually wields: if this was the Parliament with full control over all of Scotland’s resources, then big business would take a much closer interest.

What this story reveals is that despite every good intention to behave differently from the old, discredited ways of Westminster, our body politic in Scotland has failed to adopt the reasonable man or woman test by which to measure their actions. They are forgetting to see themselves as ithers see them.

Similarly, the arrogance of the Scotland Office in relation to papers that rightly should be out in the public domain can be glimpsed in the Scottish Government’s actions in withholding information it deems too sensitive or inappropriate to be released. How many times have we heard in recent years that they are only doing what the UK lot have been practising for years or that what they are doing is not nearly as bad as what that lot do?

But since when did people vote for the SNP in order to get more of the same? The reasonable man and woman voted SNP in 2007 and again in 2011 for a host of reasons, but he and she are unlikely to be impressed if perceptibly, the erstwhile political outsiders appear to be little different culturally when they get the chance to be insiders.

Both these front page stories are, in the parlance, tomorrow’s chip papers. But not only do they serve to show that our political institutions increasingly fail the reasonable man or woman test, they also illustrate precisely why we need independence.

For, as Stephen Noon pointed out in an excellent article last weekend, independence offers the opportunity to fashion a new political landscape and to initiate genuine institutional renewal in Scotland. And given what these two splashes show of the culture on offer currently, as the man says, “it takes a uniquely warped view of the world to believe that an independent Scotland couldn’t or wouldn’t do better than this“.

18 thoughts on “Scottish politics fails the reasonable man and woman test

  1. Seeing some of the comments. I recently put in a Freedom of Information request to the BBC to know the number of complaints they had received from listeners on a subject.

    They replied to say that because this was part of their journalistic coverage … it was exempt.

    Talk of utter claptrap. They claimed material produced by VIEWERS NOT JOURNALISTS. was exempt because their journalistic research was exempt from FOI.

    The only reason I did not pursue this, was because I’ve seen other people tied up for years in long running battles trying to get the simplest of information such as who attended a meeting from the BBC who continuously and completely automatically reject all FOI requests in clear breach of FOI law … and then they have the gall to criticise others.

    So, if you think the Scottish government is bad … try getting information out of the BBC!

    • It does seem an oxymoron; a tax-funded broadcaster with a public service remit that refuses to disclose information provided to it by the (tax-paying) public.

      The wider point, though, is the more impottant; “the canker which exists at the heart of our political culture”. My quibble with that is that it restricts the application to ‘the political’. The ‘canker’ extends also across many civic and non-government agencies and organisations in Scotland.

      Try phoning up as Jean or Joe Bloggs asking for some information on a matter of contemporary interest from, for example a: Health Trust; Community Planning Partnership; housing association; or even some of the more opaquely operating charities.

      A couple of years ago I had a need to connect with a range of community and voluntary sector organisations in a Local Authority locality. (The purpose was non-profit, legitimate, transparent and uncontroversial). I contacted the Council Office that dealt with ‘community’. I explained my need and requesting a list of the contacts for these organisations that the Council were aware of. I was treated as though I was some seriously suspicious character trying to access sensitive and secret material (e.g. ‘just who are you again’? ‘Do we know you’?). The tactic worked… I quickly gave up.

  2. Very interesting! I recently joined UKIP … and as you might expect from a party formed in England, the policies are a tad English centric.So, I tried google to find the big issues in Scotland so that I could have a list to think about (rather than the ones I personally take have an interest in).

    But YES!! Scottish politics is corrupt and that is largely why I joined UKIP. And I’ve seen these lobbyists in action in the Scottish parliament. I was actually working for industry on the side of the lobbyists but had that horrible sinking feeling that the whole thing was undemocratic.

    Month after month, I attended the Scottish parliament and I knew the MSPs were being fed drivel … but no one seemed to oppose the lobbyists.

    Worse, when I finally had enough of that industry and “jumped ship” to the other side, I found that MSPs were completely utterly dismissive. So,I know from both sides that if you are a lobbyists its “welcome old chum … when would you like to talk to the first minister”. But if you’re a member of the public … they effectively tell you to F*CK off!!

  3. Pingback: Take Eight Blog Posts and See Me in the Morning – Scottish Roundup

  4. Re your tweet about Newsnight, my expectation is that reasonable men and woman will find 2013 memorable politically as the best together win-win strategy of sovereign independence and confederal unions unfolds.
    IE not the polarised choice of independence or union, but the melding of both to accomodate most apolitical preferences.
    Union and the UK are not one and the same, but cause and effect turned sickeningly sour since Big Bang turned Adam Smith’s hidden hand from providence to the trousering of our and our childrens’ futures by abusive wanksters during the tenure of successive Conservative and New Labour financial maladministrations leading to Big Boom, Big Bust, Big Bankcruptcy and Big Bailout.
    Voting with our individual sovereignty for our joint and several sovereignty would bring optimal decentralised autonomy all round for our family of nations in a re-Union of the(se) Isles to serve the real debt we owe each other: our societies.

  5. I agree with most of Kate’s points but am less concerned about the Scotsman’s latest attempts with their smear campaign against Alex Salmond (they cry wolf/SNP/AS every day anyway).
    The suppression of information concerning devolution by the Scottish Office and Westminster is an affront to everyone in Scotland and not just the SNP. We have right to know the contents of these documents. The point made by muteswan about the here and now being ignored is spot-on. Politicians and the commentariat in general seem too eager to postpone the here and now to 2014 without accepting that the importance of what is actually done (not just envisaged) today, tomorrow and every day in the run-up to the referendum will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the outcome. If Nicola’s commission can come up with the right goods and the shovel-ready projects get going asap, bringing enough jobs (including jobs for young people and for women)then I think many fairminded women and men will forgive, if not forget, most of the shortcomings of senior SG bods.

  6. How would it work if a resident of Scotland or heaven forbid The Herald (under the 15 year ruling) put in a FOI ,to the Scotland Office,Scotlands representative at Westminster regarding the files ?

  7. Scottish politics fails the reasonable man and woman test

    Why? Because all of the MSM have a political motive and non are independence positive

    Is that healthy in any democracy? No.

    Gave up TV years ago and listened to radio only and that is now restricted to R4 as Scotland is mince bar 2-3 hours at the weekend. So to blame politicians per sea is nonsensical.

  8. The degree of potential nefariousness will vary by Committee but the dead hand of the State’s vested interests dominates all. The tricky bit seems to be persuading them that it is our best interests that should be theirs. Very strange.

  9. Just on a practical note; is there a composite listing of which MSPs attend what cross-party group meetings? It would be useful with respect to scrutiny of the commercial interest v non-commercial interests.

  10. The article contains the very bold claim that “we have evidence at Holyrood of the foundations of a culture which mimics the worst excesses of Westminster”. But where is this “evidence”? It turns out to be no more than one poorly researched and blatantly spun story in a newspaper which is these days known more for its anti-SNP fervour than for responsible journalism.

    I am not as trusting as Kate Higgins is of our mainstream media and those who provide its content. I am too well aware of the nefarious agendas at work not to have learned to be very cynical about everything fed to me by the “Scottish” press. As I read the piece by Eddie Barnes questions immediately came to mind. Why was there no response from those in the cross-party groups being accused of dereliction or worse? What is the actual deadline for filing the reports referred to? How many of the groups actually have reports in preparation?

    Bad enough that Eddie Barnes fails to ask such questions. (Or declines to publish the answers?) To then represent the resulting partial and biased story as “evidence” is deplorably naive at best.

    But the credulous acceptance of unionist media spin does not end there. It is evident again in the assertion about “the Scottish Government’s actions in withholding information it deems too sensitive or inappropriate to be released”. This, of course, was the line taken by the British parties in Scotland and their friends in the media in relation to the Scottish Government’s refusal of a frivolous and mischievous Freedom of Information (FoI) request by British Labour MEP, Catherine Stihler on the matter of “legal advice” on an independent Scotland’s EU membership status.

    Those of us who take the trouble to question such assertions rather than unthinkingly embracing them as fact know as well as Stihler herself that the reasons for refusal of this FoI had nothing whatever to do with the information being “too sensitive or inappropriate to be released” and everything to do with compliance with confidentiality provisions of the ministerial code.

    Kate is obviously right to challenge unwarranted secrecy and corruption in government. It’s just a pity that she’s not as rigorous about challenging allegations of impropriety from sources she really should know better than to rely on so implicitly.

  11. But since when did people vote for the SNP in order to get more of the same?

    I don’t believe they ever did. It’s just a pity that’s what they’ve got.


  12. Thanks, Kate. That’s excellent. Nighet, this piece by Kate is ideal for the website.


  13. I can only concur,with disdain of secrecy.This is a question that must be raised in Holyrood as to why the Westminster “government” wont release the papers relating to Scotland.

  14. Great post Kate, and I absolutely agree that lack of transparency and disdain for the ‘reasonable person’ are damaging democracy. I’m also sick of political types arguing amongst themselves about what has happened or what might happen rather than addressing the here and now. And whilst I agree that an independent Scotland could do better, I have yet to be convinced that it would. I welcome the SNP seeking to find an alternative to the current benefits system, which does feel like a more positive process than any I have seen for a while in the sphere of professional politics. But I still long for an end to the bickering and name calling, replaced by a genuine respect for the electorate and actual work to find solutions to the problems we face. And by that I don’t mean changing night-time kick offs.

  15. Pingback: Scottish politics fails the reasonable man and woman test | YES for an Independent Scotland |

Comments are closed.