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“.