Thursday, May 21, 2009

One For The Connoisseur

As long-term readers will know, I'm a close observer of Lib Dem election literature. Not because of its quality so much as my having a morbid fascination with the low-grade cunning they use which no other party stoops anywhere close to - for example, claiming to have supported that which they haven't, the selective editing of newspaper quotes to imply endorsement, the transparent ruses of "many people have been saying..." etc etc.

Nowhere is this exhibited quite so brazenly as in the bar charts which they churn out, alongside the 'can't win here' arrow directed at those who are often in fact their nearest rivals. A particular favourite of mine was the one they had in Glenrothes, which actually used the result of the Dunfermline and West Fife contest! I can only imagine the squeals of outrage there'd have been in Lib Dem quarters if I'd decided to barchart the last Banff and Buchan result to indicate SNP momentum in Gordon...

Fortunately, thanks to Alex Salmond and Brian Adam representing every last square inch of the Gordon Westminster seat at Holyrood, that's not something the SNP would ever have to stoop to, even if we were of a mind to do so. It was therefore with some surprise that I saw the bar chart which the Gordon Lib Dems have opted to use on their literature to promote their Euro campaign:

Take a close look. The bar chart, perhaps understandably, refers to the last Westminster result rather than the more recent Holyrood results which if repeated, would also give the SNP a majority on the Gordon Westminster boundaries. The 'can't win here' tactic aimed at the SNP is therefore clearly rubbish. Nevertheless, even if this chart were an accurate reflection of the current state of play, it would still be completely irrelevant in an election which is being counted on a Scotland-wide basis.

Just take a look at the 'It's so close here' heading, though. Normally, the Lib Dems deploy this tactic alongside a chart which they've manipulated to show them within touching distance of those whom they are hoping to unseat. However, this one's above a chart which shows the Lib Dems outpolling their nearest chosen rivals by over 2:1!

While at one level it's interesting to see that they're trying to deny the fact that the SNP has improved its position in this part of Aberdeenshire considerably since 2005, there's a more subtle message in there. When they say 'it's so close here', what I suspect they really mean is that with Scotland seeing her number of MEPs reduced from 7 to 6, with their precarious position in the national polls it's touch and go as to whether the Lib Dems will manage to get an MEP elected from Scotland at all.

Whatever else you might be able to say about Lib Dem election literature, it is nearly always hallmarked by a clear message, whether it stands up to scrutiny or not. This one, on the other hand, tries to claim that those who are winning can't win, while pointing to a closeness which on their own terms of reference, simply doesn't exist.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mucking The Stables Out

So farewell then, Michael Martin. After a fevered build-up to his statement, it was done and dusted in less than a minute. The brevity and suddenness of his statement spared us, at least for the moment, from the glutinous, treacly tributes which politics tends to reserve for these occasions.

The charge sheet is well-rehearsed elsewhere. However, in his defence, Speaker Martin was generally fair to the minority parties in terms of giving them opportunities to speak in the chamber. He was also excellent at keeping order in the Chamber, letting the setpiece occasions flow with an easy, softly spoken humour.

Nevertheless, weaknesses were there to be seen. He relied heavily on the direction of his clerks during debates. It was noticeable that whenever complex bills were being discussed, it was his deputy, Sir Alan Hazlehurst, who was generally in the chair. And when it came to reform of the procedures of the House, he had become too much of an obstacle to ever credibly be part of the reforming process.

Usually a charming and courteous man, his uncharacteristically stinging rebuke to Kate Hoey last week appeared to galvanise opinion against him. Following his statement yesterday, the succession of MPs seemingly prepared to wound but not kill is what finally did for him.

The TV studios have been filled with ‘friends’ of Mr Martin over the past few days, throwing around accusations of class prejudice and sectarianism at those who failed to back him. This does him no service whatsoever. That goodwill has been exhausted has nothing to do with his not having gone to a fancy school. Quite simply, he had gained the confidence of the House after a shaky start, but went on to lose it through a series of poor decisions. That’s really all there is to it.

That said, the problems with Westminster expense claims didn’t start with Mr Martin, and nor will they disappear with his resignation. The advice offered to him regarding expenses was cross-party in nature (Labour, Lib Dem and Tory). It’s going to take more than a ceremonial beheading to calm people down after the scandal of ‘flipping’, and using expenses for moat cleaning and tennis court repairs.

The best thing which could happen now is for an independent audit of expense claims to take place, so that people can see objectively which claims are legitimate and which are not. ‘Flipping’ must be stopped – and consideration should be given to only allowing MPs in need of a second home in London to rent at the public expense rather than buy.

When the expenses scandal threatened to engulf the Scottish Parliament, George Reid took the problem by the scruff of the neck. Every receipt and claim was published – while it resulted in a few red faces and a couple of high profile casualties, the effect was salutary. Sunlight truly is the best disinfectant sometimes and not only were voters able to see that their MSPs were, on the whole, a pretty honest lot, the knowledge that each claim would be made public doubtless helped a few of the others to temper their desire for reimbursement.

There might be a few more high profile casualties yet before the system can be said to be clean. However, if MPs are going to be able to look voters in the eye in future and reassure them that the democratic system is sound, nothing less than full disclosure of expenses, as we have at Holyrood, will do. That desire for a clear-out might be tough on Michael Martin right now, but as a creation of the establishment, it’s perhaps to be expected that his position would ensure he was amongst the first to be swept away.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Breaking Up Britain - II

Here's an article from me on the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' website, related to the book mentioned below.

'Breaking Up Britain' - On Sale Now

One of my projects over the past few months has been to contribute a chapter towards a book on how Britain might look like post-independence, with the emergence of Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland as distinct political units.

The book, edited by Mark Perryman and titled “Breaking up Britain”, has contributions from all corners of the British Archipelago. The contributors have very different views but agree on one thing – the need to consider post-British Union politics and how the relationships which will exist thereafter might look. My own chapter was on the development of a model of civic nationalism and social democracy in the SNP.

I'll put up more details later, but in the meantime, here's the publishing details and a link which will allow you to buy from the publisher:

May 2009 will be the tenth anniversary of the first elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. This was the beginning of a decade of change - which now includes the restoration of powers to Stormont - that is showing every sign of being an irreversible process. Breaking Up Britain is a unique collection of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish contributors, featuring key political activists from the nationalist parties, commentators and campaigners, academics and journalists. Each writer explores the change that the break-up demands in their own nation, but also discusses its impact upon the whole. This dialog of differences is essential reading for anyone interested in the shape of politics and culture after a Union. Contributors: Arthur Aughey, Gregor Gall, John Harris, Michael Kenny, Peadar Kirby, Inez McCormack, Eoin O'Broin, John Osmond, Mike Parker, Lesley Riddoch, Richard Thomson, Vron Ware, Charlotte Williams, Kevin Williamson, Leanne Wood and Salma Yaqoob.
'This brilliant book helps us understand what Scots, Welsh, Irish and English neighbours, freed from an unhappy Union, might look like.' Billy Bragg

Breaking up Britain: Four nations after a Union - Mark Perryman (editor)

ISBN 978 1905007 967 256 pages £16.99 May 2009

Lawrence and Wishart, 99a Wallis Road, London E9 5LN
tel 020 8533 2506 fax 020 8533 7369

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Some Recent Campaign Pics

If you want to see pics from the Gordon campaign as it develops, then please sign up for my Facebook group. In the meantime, here's a sneak peek of some recent images:

With the First Responders in Pitmedden (Photo Credit: Ted Bartlett)

Litter clean-up in Inverurie, with members of the Aberdeenshire Litter Initiative (Pic Credit: ALI)

Glasgow Conference (Credit: Tony Grahame)

Glasgow Conference (Credit: Bellgrove Belle)

Saturday, May 02, 2009

A Parallel Scotland

It's a nice afternoon, so I'm away to tackle the front garden with a strimmer in an attempt to turn jungle into bowling green. To keep the pot boiling on the blogging front, here's my latest article for the SI, which should be dropping through all good letterboxes soon.

Imagine for a moment, if you will, that you live in not so much a parallel universe, but a parallel Scotland. This parallel Scotland is identical to our Scotland in every last detail, except one. In this Scotland, the press and media exhibit an ingrained, subconscious bias towards the SNP and Scottish Independence.

I know it sounds fanciful, but bear with me. Were such an unlikely set of events to take place, just what would media coverage of Scottish politics look like, and what would be the overall effect on the body politic?

In our Scotland, you might have seen the post-budget edition of The Scotsman, where Hamish MacDonnell wrote that: “John Swinney sparked further tension with Westminster yesterday when he claimed 9,000 jobs could be lost in Scotland as a direct result of efficiency savings announced in the Budget.” In a parallel Scotland, it might have read “Alistair Darling sparked further tension with Holyrood yesterday when he dismissed claims that 9,000 Scottish jobs would be lost as a direct result of spending reductions announced in his Budget.”

A bit of a turnaround, no? The same facts are all in there, but the emphasis is changed to give the reader a totally different take on events. Now imagine that you'd tuned into Reporting Scotland the previous evening and heard presenter Jackie Bird prompt Brian Taylor to comment on whether the emerging fuss was all down to Westminster 'picking fights' with Holyrood, rather than as she did, express it t'other way about. Inflammatory stuff, which you imagine would elicit squeals of outrage about media bias from Labour and a barrage of complaints to the BBC and the editor of the title concerned.

Let's take another example. In the week the UK Cabinet decided to meet in Scotland for the first time in 88 years, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Milliband decided to attack the Scottish Government for making clear its willingness to use planning powers to prevent new nuclear power stations being built in Scotland. However, since the constitutional demarcations here could scarcely be clearer, just imagine for a moment that Milliband had been told by all and sundry to 'grow up', and to stop Westminster's 'obsession' with 'picking fights' with the Scottish Government.

Now imagine that the reporting of other post-2007 intra-governmental spats had been portrayed similarly – that Hilary Benn had withdrawn Foot and Mouth compensation for Scotland once there was no prospect of an early election; that the DWP was being petty in refusing to allow Scotland to continue to benefit from local tax benefit following replacement of the council tax with a local income tax; or that Westminster had ridden roughshod over Holyrood in negotiating with Lybia to repatriate prisoners without consulting Scottish Law Officers beforehand (sorry Kirsty – not even I can twist my mind enough to imagine you prosecuting that case with any conviction).

Unthinkable, no? No matter how much truth there might be in these observations, it would be like having editorial policy set by Special Advisers and SNP Press Officers. So why, rather than getting a dispassionate middle view which might encourage people to make up their own minds, do we get lumped with the precise opposite so often?

Even allowing for the adversarial nature of political questioning which often demands the positing of a polar opposite, even if only to be knocked down, there seems to be a leitmotif at work that the SNP picks fights with Westminster. Period. Just as there is with the automatic, lazy assumption that uniquely in the UK, more government spending takes place in Scotland than is raised in taxation and proportionate borrowing..

Let's leave aside the fact that it's not really in the interests of the SNP to allow itself to be portrayed as a wrecking influence. For me, the astonishing thing post-2007 has been how few spats have actually bubbled over in public. Privately, Ministers and Civil Servants at Westminster are pretty complimentary about their Scottish counterparts. Alex Salmond has always been feared and respected in equal measure as both strategist and parliamentarian, while Ministers like John Swinney, Nicola Sturgeon and Bruce Crawford have won kudos in Whitehall for their command of their briefs.

So why do we get left with this impression in Scotland that the traffic of aggro flows one way only? The famed 'Scottish Cringe'? The desire to generate interesting copy? Or is it that having been supplicant to the Labour Nomenklatura for so long, the Scottish media is incapable of weaning itself from the teat of Labour's PR machine?

It would be remiss not to point out at this juncture that a few Scottish papers did come out, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, for an SNP led administration in 2007. Just as it would be not to point out that Labour is convinced that BBC Scotland is simply crawling with Nats – you can take from that about the collective state of mind of the Labour party what you will...

No-one forms their political opinions on the basis of the stance of one particular outlet – rather, it's the drip, drip, drip effect over time which has the greatest influence over the susceptible. As such, no-one votes Labour because the Record tells them to, or even votes SNP even because the Sunday Times suggests it might result in more “vigorous and imaginative government.” It's the periods in-between which have the greatest effect.

Returning to our parallel Scotland, the very fact the spin I've given these stories seems so inflammatory is because of the filter through which we're presented with large elements of our news. These filters can be broken – think Labour's past theme that SNP 'sums don't add up' – when self evidently they do. I also think that once Labour is booted out of office in London, that there's likely to be a very big change in the way Scottish politics is reported at home, which might lead to a similar change in how Westminster/Holyrood 'disputes' are portrayed in future.

Some of which might be good for the SNP. Nevertheless, I've no more desire to read an SNP version of Pravda than I have a unionist version, whether that occurs through design or more likely, laziness and a desire not to stand out too far from one's peers. The question remains, though - wouldn't democracy be so much healthier if we achieved balance not through competing extremes, but by having our journos remember that comment is best left to the editorial and the columnists?