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Showing posts with label FMQs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label FMQs. Show all posts

Thursday, 30 January 2014

The formidable powers of an independent Scotland that Johann Lamont thinks are “wee things”: Scottish Labour’s nadir at FMQs

Scotland doesn't control the currency or interest rates at the moment. Neither does UK - they're controlled by Bank of England. We won't control them under a currency union either, but we'll have more influence than we have at the moment, as an independent country, a partner in a currency union.

ECONOMIC LEVERS: Excise duty, air passenger duty, VAT, capital gains tax, oil and gas taxation, national insurance, income tax, corporation tax, competition law, consumer protection, industry regulation, employment legislation, the minimum wage, energy markets and regulation, environmental regulations.

ALL THESE THINGS ARE CONTROLLED IN LONDON UNDER UK

ALL OF THEM WILL BE CONTROLLED IN SCOTLAND AFTER INDEPENDENCE.

We'll be able to set the minimum wage, abolish the Bedroom Tax (not just mitigate it). We will be able to transform childcare.

WE WILL BE ABLE TO REMOVE WEAPONS  OF MASS DESTRUCTION FROM SCOTLAND

WE WONT HAVE TO PARTICIPATE IN ILLEGAL WARS

Bur all of these things - which we can only do with independence - are, to Johann Lamont, "wee things".

The prospect of this woman and her cohorts leading  even a devolved Scottish Government is not to be contemplated.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

The IFS FMQs – Lamont and Salmond deconstructed – and a transcription question.

JOHANN LAMONT: Presiding Officer, this week the Institute of Fiscal Studies – a respected independent think tank often quoted by the First Minister – said that because of falling North Sea oil revenues and their(sic) ageing population, an independent Scotland would face significant tax rises or public spending cuts.

Now, I don’t suppose any of us really here (sic) imagine that we’re going to get an answer. But with a cock of the head and an indignant sideways look, could the first Minister tell us why the IFS is scaremongering like this?

This is the Leader of the Opposition, Herald Debater of the Year, in the Scottish Parliament, asking her first question of the First Minister of Scotland. The first part is factual as far as it goes – the IFS report did say this, among many other thing.  Johann Lamont reads this directly from notes, with occasional fleeting glances up to try and make it look just a little unscripted.

The next part (highlighted in red by me) doesn’t even pretend to be a genuine question, and indeed the loaded question is preceded by a laboured scripted insult that foreshadows the total lack of respect for the Parliament, the proceedings and the office of First Minister of Scotland that sets the tone for much worse to come.

Despite JL’s pessimistic forecast, those “of us really here” did get an informative response from the FM, although since he had not accused the IFS of “scaremongering”, it was impossible to answer the question as framed.

ALEX SALMOND: Well, I thought we’d do as the IFS report itself indicates – we decrease the Scottish tax base by growing the economy and generating extra revenue.

COMMENT: What the FM is doing is answering the question a responsible Leader of the Opposition should have asked, namely

Given the two stark alternatives the IFS Report offers, of significant tax rises or public spending cuts to close their forecast fiscal gap, does the FM accept they are the only alternatives, and if he does, which would he choose, and if not, what alternatives does he see? Or does he in fact reject the IFS forecast?”

This would have been a focused and hard-hitting question, allowing the FM no real point of retreat, and it is the question the Parliament and the electorate want an answer to. Alex Salmond recognises this, does not retreat from it and spend the next twelve or so minutes answering it - despite a torrent of abuse and irrelevancy from Johann Lamont - because he recognises his duty to inform the Parliament and the electorate even if Johann Lamont (or her scriptwriter) doesn’t.

ALEX SALMOND: I do not know if Johann Lamont is aware of this, but on the model that the IFS were using – it’s called the R model -  it suggests that the United Kingdom will be in deficit for every one of the next 50 years - for the next half century - and then indicates that UK Governments will have to raise taxation or reduce expenditure to meet that sustained position - that’s what the model tells you.

I think, instead of looking at that, what we should be looking in Scotland is how we change the circumstances of this country by using investment to grow the economy, to generate more jobs, more revenue and to give us a sustainable future.

JOHANN LAMONT: The IFS is just asking us to look at the real world. Why would we bother with all that malarkey when we can just make things up as we go along? But presumably, how we’ll deal with an ageing population – we’ll all just get younger under independence. £300,000-worth of Oil of Olay for each man, woman and child.

Because of course, the IFS said that even in their most optimistic of forecasts, income tax would have to go up by 8p or VAT rise to 27 per cent to fill the fiscal black hole.

Now - chuckling at his own jokes, as he likes to do, and selectively quoting lines that suit his argument. Selectively - I’m sure that he is looking for them right now - selectively quoting lines that suit his argument, could the First Minister tell us why the people of Scotland should believe him rather than the evidence of their own eyes?

ALEX SALMOND: Let’s talk about what is agreed in the IFS report. Page 9 – which confirms that Scotland pays more tax per head than the UK at the moment. Or Page 11 – which confirms that currently Scotland is in a stronger fiscal position than the rest of the UK.

I’ll quote you exactly

“the average revenues raised per person in Scotland (£11,079 in 2013–14 prices) were higher than for the UK as a whole (£9,342 ... )”.

So, the IFS has validated an argument which I have brought to the chamber many times, from the “Government Expenditure and Revenue in Scotland”- the GERS forecast, that Scotland more than pays its way in the United Kingdom at the present moment. And that, if we take the last five years, has amounted to many billions of pounds which could have been invested in Scottish public services, or alternatively could have lowered the rate of borrowing, or a combination of both: and because of our position with the United Kingdom, these resources haven’t been available to the people of Scotland.

Now, our case is a simple one: and that is instead of not having those resources available, why not invest in the economy? Why not grow productivity - grow our exports - make sure we have growth in the economy, which generates more revenue, and then we will not be able to have the dreadful future forecast over the next 50 years for the UK by the IFS’s own forecast, which says that it will be in deficit for the next 50 years?
Now, Johann Lamont says that in an independent Scotland we are going to change the age structure of the country. How would we do that?

Perhaps we could do it by allowing young Scots who want to work in this country to have the opportunity to stay in Scotland - or perhaps we could do it by not kicking out the country,  the many skilled young people who come to study at our universities, desperately want to work  for a time or permanently in Scotland, but are kicked out by the Borders Agency -  wouldn’t help to change the age structure of the population? Of course, these things must be right because they are controlled from London and Johann Lamont backs control of immigration policy from London which of course, would consign us to that prospect.

And the central forecast of the IFS, which has been taken from the Office of National Statistics, postulates population growth in Scotland of 4% over the next 50 years. The population of Scotland has grown by 5%over the last 10 years but, what the IFS does tell us, if we remain trapped in the policies governed from Westminster, then we’ve got a very poor prospect indeed for Scotland. If we grow the economy and put the investment in, we have a bright and certain future.

JOHANN LAMONT:  Another of the First Minister’s tricks is to go on and on answering a question that he wasn’t asked. And only – only the First Minister, when the IFS says that in its most optimistic forecast, income tax would have to go up by 8p or VAT rise to 27 per cent to fill the fiscal black hole, only the First Minister could say that the IFS validates his position. It does not.

Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if convicted Enron executives across the United States were, at the moment, planning appeals, saying, “I know we fiddled the figures, but Alex Salmond has taken it to a whole new level.” With every – with every – with every - with every economic paper the First Minister publishes, Fred Goodwin must feel a day closer to redemption; each prospectus – each prospectus must make Bernie Madoff spit out his prison breakfast in admiration.

So, feeling free – feeling free – feeling free to quote the former Labour chancellor in a falsetto voice, or digging up a blog he was trawling through last night or - some more selective quotes like the last few we got there, can the First Minister just explain to this to us - why is it that the fiscal black hole the IFS exposed actually doesn’t exist and there is nothing to worry about after all?

COMMENT: This is pathetic stuff from the Debater of the Year, especially the part I have highlighted in red.  (Had the FM said anything like this to the Leader of the Opposition, the media would have been loud in their condemnation.)  Additionally, she ignores the inconvenient fact that the FM has not challenged the IFS figures yet, nor has he said the gap doesn’t potentially exist. In so doing, she walks into the elephant trap set for her. That’s what comes of following a bad script regardless of how a dialogue has actually unfolded – Johann expects the FM to follow her scriptwriter’s prompts. The Vulcan Death Grip duly arrives on cue …

ALEX SALMOND: Can I point out to Johann Lamont that I quoted from the IFS because I do think it very helpful in agreeing the current position. The IFS backs the Scottish Government figures -  GERS figures - in showing that Scotland more than pays its way within the United Kingdom—[Interruption.] Well, I hear from the Tory benches that it’s not true. I have quoted one quote already; the quote on page 11 points out that

“Scotland exceeded revenues by £1,550 per person”

Now,  that is a direct quote from the IFS, and therefore let’s agree that over the last five years – over that period - Scotland has more than paid its way within the United Kingdom.

I have pointed out to Johann Lamont that I don’t think that the population structure of this country is a given; I think the population structure of this country would be enormously improved if we didn’t refuse young Scots an opportunity to work in their own country and if we allowed other skilled people, many of whom we have educated, to work in Scotland. That, to me, would bring about a substantial, important change in the sort of challenges facing all European economies that the IFS was indicating.

Now, I have got substantial admiration for the Institute of Fiscal Studies, unlike Westminster politicians, including Alistair Darling, who’ve dismissed  various reports of the IFS, or the Deputy Prime Minister, for that matter, who accused them of  - this is Nick Clegg’s distorted nonsense

“taken the highly unusual step of attacking the ... Institute for Fiscal Studies, describing its methods of measuring the fairness of the coalition's controversial spending review as ‘distorted and a complete nonsense’.”

That’s exactly why I have pointed out that on the basis of the IFS report we can now be reasonably certain that the arguments that we have been putting forward about Scotland being in a stronger fiscal position than the rest of the UK are actually validated over the last five years.

What happens over the next 50 years will depend on the policies that are pursued in this country, and that in turn, will depend as to whether we’ve got control of the policies that pursued in the country. Therefore I say let’s get control of these economic levers, let’s increase productivity, increase our exports,  invest in our economy. Let’s grow the Scottish economy and move forward to that better future.

JOHANN LAMONT: The First Minister is not just guilty of selective quoting,  he’s guilty of selective thinking. The problem with the First Minister is he says that the IFS is helpful, but only to the extent that it agrees with him. Now we know the back benchers are only helpful to the First Minister when they agree with him:  he really ought to look at the whole of the IFS study and take it on board.

Just like when he started his campaign, the First Minister is going to the cinema on Tuesday. What is he going to see—“Historic Day V” or “Honey I Shrunk the Fiscal Gap”? If the First Minister is to be believed, we won’t just be a new country after independence – he’ll  invent a new arithmetic, while in every other country in the world, the choice is between tax rises or cuts in spending. Alex Salmond will have you believe  we are the only country- the only country where the future is this: how big a tax cut can we give to big business and how much more can we spend on good things? Isn’t the case that at the very heart of next week’s white paper and at the heart of everything this Government does, is this belief  - that if the First Minister and his colleagues say something confidently and often enough, no matter how wrong it is, the people of Scotland will be daft enough to believe it?

ALEX SALMOND: Let me try another quote from the IFS. Johann Lamont will say is selective, but this is what they say, which I think actually underlines the points that I’ve been making. They acknowledges that there are

“…factors in the report are inherently uncertain and could also evolve differently if Scotland were independent rather than part of the UK; in addition, they could be substantially affected by the policies chosen by the government of an independent Scotland.”

Now, that is basically what I am saying.

Johann Lamont says you have to take the choices between cutting spending and increasing taxation. That would be the choice, if that is the Labour Party’s position, according to the IFS/OBR analysis, with a deficit for every single one of the next 50 years. We  know now, if Johann Lamont’s got any influence, what exactly the policy of the next Labour Government’s going to be, on that particular argument.

I don’t think – I don’t think that Johann Lamont is in a particularly good position either to talk about economic advisers or the real world. Fred Goodwin was the economic adviser to Alistair Darling, not to me. The current economic adviser to the Labour Party is the Rev Paul Flowers. I do not think that that’s going to give us a tremendous indication of what the future should hold.

And in terms of the real world at present – what’s happening in the real world at the present moment – is that Labour figure after Labour figure is saying exactly what they think of the Labour Party’s current coalition with the Tories. For example, the Labour Party chairperson, Labour activists “simply can’t stomach” working alongside the Conservatives in the No campaign. In the real world, key Labour figures like Alex Mosson are coming out in favour of the Yes campaign. That’s what’s happening in the real world.

And as the white paper is launched next week, then that campaign will be reinforced. Why? Because this party - this Government has ambition for this country. We think that we can invest in the future, grow our economy and give all our people a decent future.

SUMMARY AND POSTSCRIPT

This interchange at FMQS was a particularly egregious example of the arid style of questioning and interaction used by Labour Party Holyrood opposition leaders throughout the life of both SNP terms, and must be one of the low points intellectually for Scottish Labour. The model adopted by Johann Lamont and her advisers is to seize upon the last statement by any public body or organisation - UK Government or independent – then present a loaded question encapsulating a simplistic summary of that point, framed in such a way that it is impossible to answer rationally without agreeing with a false premise, then accusing the FM of avoiding the question, and going into broken record mode for subsequent exchanges, regardless of facts and information offered.

All of this is larded with contrived bon mots and stilted jokes of such poor quality and wooden delivery that the perpetrator would be jeered off a beginners’ comedy club stage. (Somebody at the Herald thinks otherwise, and considers it debate of a quality warranting an award.)

The outcome however – apart from being game set and match to Alex Salmond – was to offer an invaluable insight into the essentials of what the IFS actually did say, which was in essence that the UK had got its component nations into deep economic shit and massive debt by mismanagement of just about every sector of the British economy, regulation of banks and profligacy over defence and foreign wars and nuclear weapons, and that Scotland, if it remains in the UK, will be in a little more trouble than rUK.

The IFS made it abundantly clear that this scenario did NOT have to unfold if Scotland achieved its independence and did things differently from the failed UK model. For that at least, we are indebted to Johann Lamont for acting as a clumsy feed and prompt to our First Minister.

POSTSCRIPT
The above analysis represents what I set out to do in offering the transcription. After I started to laboriously transcribe the FMQs Lamont/Salmond interchange from the FMQs video, I realised belatedly that there might be a Hansard equivalent in Holyrood with the spadework already done, and was pointed by a Twitter follower to the Scottish Government online transcription.

But in comparing the part I had transcribed with the Holyrood online version to my surprise I found that the transcribers had ‘tidied up’ what was actually said, presumably in the interests of grammar, syntax and clarity.

I didn’t like this at all, since I think the essence of politicians lies in exactly how they choose to express themselves, and I see significant potential dangers in such approaches, no matter who is responsible for them, politicians or civil servants.

It is common with minute taken of live meetings to tidy up syntax and correct misleading facts in the context of a subsequently jointly agreed minute, but I hope such an approach is not taken with Hansard or Holyrood. I therefore reluctantly reverted to my hard work, now with the additional burden of checking my version against the Holyrood official transcript. I didn’t like what I found.

By the time I had finished, it was evident that the re-wording of what was said in the Holyrood transcript was quite significantly different at various points from  actual words used. I would observe that in most instances, they do not change the sense of what was said, nor do they distort it in any way, and on occasion the changes added to the clarity of what was said, in sequence and emphasis, which one might argue is desirable for an informed electorate. (In many cases. the changes were simply contractions– such as “we’ll” “haven’t” etc. – being expanded to “we will”, “have not” etc. which is the exact reverse of current best practice in writing and speaking, which is to use contractions as closer to real life speech.)

But there were examples that left me uneasy – I won’t itemise them, and if you want to find them, do your own homework!

But that doesn’t alter the fact that the changes represent either what the transcribing civil servant thought the FM or Johann Lamont should have said – or, more worryingly, what the FM or Johann Lamont thought they would have liked to have said – not what was actually said. I think the potential dangers of such an approach to reporting the Parliament are significant for any democrat, regardless of party or affiliation.

Quite simply, I think there are only three  possible explanations, given the nature of the changes. The two most likely are either a zealous and well-meaning civil servant or aide, perhaps acting on a standard brief, using their own judgement to re-word - or politicians involved taking the opportunity to tidy up and alter what they actually said to make it read better.

The third possibility is that the transcribers have used in part the politicians’ original notes and scripts prepared before FMQS instead of what they actually delivered on the day.

I think this matters, and someone should look at it.


Monday, 30 April 2012

The BBC

My views on the BBC are well-know by now, and it is clear that a number of nationalists don’t like my defence of the BBC. Since I have an aversion to repeating myself endlessly, here are a few links which say more or less all I have to say about the BBC and its relationship to the independence movement and the SNP.

BBC – Role and future
BBC - political coverage
BBC - hard to defend
BBC- Marr and Purcell
BBC - Call Kaye
BBC - Unionist bias

As can be seen, I have been critical of specific instances that I perceived as bias, inadvertent or conscious, and I will continue to highlight these. Occasionally I have been exasperated by the BBC and sometimes furious at it. So has every other political party, which is evidence to me that it is doing its job as a public service broadcaster.

Over the last five years I have watched thousands of hours of political coverage of news and Scottish affairs, and I have clipped, YouTube posted and commented on over 740 videos. (Most of these I have taken down – but still have on file – because of the workload in managing comments.)

A summary of my position on the BBC -

1. The BBC performs a vital role as a public service broadcaster and has done so since early in the last century. It is widely regarded internationally as the best public service broadcaster in the world.

2. Without BBC coverage of the SNP and the independence movement on news bulletins, political programmes such as Newsnight, Newsnight Scotland, the Daily Politics, the Sunday Politics, the Sunday Politics Scotland, the regular broadcasting of FMQs at Holyrood, The Parliament channel, Good Morning Scotland and radio news broadcasts and discussion programmes, its online sites and by specials devoted to elections and other matters of interest, the SNP would have not achieved the high profile and electoral success it has and Alex Salmond would not have become the towering figure he now rightly is in Scottish, UK, European and international politics.

3. Without all of the above BBC programmes, services, and the dedicated work of its highly professional producers, researchers, technical staff, presenters and commentators, I would have had no blog and no YouTube channel, and other bloggers and online nationalist newspapers would have had a gaping hole in their content. A vital platform for the nationalist case and the nationalist voice would have been absent, and an actively hostile press and indifferent commercial channels would have compounded that.

4. The vast majority of the criticisms I hear of the BBC result from an apparent ignorance of the processes of television journalism, television production and editing, news values, and the role of presenters, commentators and interviewers. They are also characterised by gross stereotyping, highly selective analysis and frankly, naivety.

5. There is also an ugly thread of what I can only describe as McCarthyism among some critics, in their constant references to the backgrounds, partners, spouses and general contacts of BBC presenters and commentators.

I do not think the background of commentators is entirely irrelevant, and I comment when I feel it is appropriate, but I do not expect BBC staff to have had no existence, life, political involvement or career prior to entering the Corporation, nor do I expect them to have taken monastic vows to have no personal views or political allegiances. I also think there should be a statute of limitations on how long they have to have their past roles and affiliations raked up every time they appear on television.

As far as the reference to spouse, partners, etc. is concerned, I think it is offensive and contemptible. BBC staff are not politicians, they are not legislators – they are not bound to make disclosures of interest as MPs or legal professionals are.

SUMMARY

I will continue to comment on aspect of BBC coverage and editorial policy that I feel relevant, and to be trenchant in criticism when I think it is warranted. I don’t need any help with this.

I think the present pattern of criticism of the BBC by some nationalists is profoundly damaging to the independence cause in the crucial lead-up period to the referendum.

I have said all I have say on the BBC in general terms. Please do not offer me an endless stream of comments and emails on what you imagine to be examples of bias. Go to someone who will give you a sympathetic hearing, because I won’t.

Better still, start your own blog and YouTube channel and have your say in that way. Or write to the BBC, or do whatever you feel necessary. Leave me out of it – please ..

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Sectarianism, religion and politics

I had hoped to stay out of this debate, since almost anything anybody say makes things worse. But it won’t go away, and in the hope that most of Scottish population are rational and fair-minded, whatever their background and beliefs, and still display the healthy scepticism and willingness to question the hidden agendas of those who seek to persuade them that characterised Scots for most of my life, here is how I see it.

You can skip the next section (800 words) if you like, and jump straight to my views on the sectarian debate, but reading it may help you understand my position. To any religious bigots about to consider my views I would suggest that it will save you a lot of trouble later. Some of you won’t get beyond the first paragraph, perhaps even the first sentence. To others, it will induce a misplaced confidence that I am about to endorse your prejudices. I’m not ..



WHAT I AM AND WHERE I STAND

My background is that of a Glasgow East End Scot from a devoutly Catholic family with their roots in the Republic of Ireland. My mother was born in Glasgow, but my father and all my grandparents were Irish. I was educated in a cradle of Irish Catholicism in Glasgow, St.Mary’s Primary School in the Calton, fondly know by its historical name of St. Mary’s Ragged , with the church just round the corner in Abercrombie Street, the old South Witch Lone, renamed in 1802. St.Mary’s Church was built 40 years later in 1842. I attended its centenary celebrations in 1942 as a seven year old, the year of my first Communion. St. Mary’s was the cradle of Celtic Football club, founded by a Marist Brother, Andrew Kerins, known as Brother Walfrid. All of the males in my family were keen Celtic supporters.

I followed the natural progression for many St.Mary’s boys and went to St. Mungo’s Academy in early 1948, where I remained until 1950 when I left.

From the age of seven I had serious doubts and questions about religion, and at the point I left school, I was simply going through the motions of church observance for the sake of my mother and family. When I started my National Service in 1953, I was an atheist, and more than that, formed the belief that has stayed with me ever since, that organised religion, together with inequality, racism and greed was the root of much of Glasgow and Scotland’s problems and most of the world’s problems. I also believe that secret societies, organisations and clubs that include or exclude based on religious belief, ethnic origin, gender, or sexual orientation are inimical to democracy and a free society. I believe that totalitarian states and dictatorships are almost always structured on principles similar to those of organised religion, even when they are nominally secular, and are equally destructive to human values.

I was a Labour supporter and internationalist in my political beliefs for most of my life, but the progressive failure of the party in the post-war period to address Glasgow’s problems and the needs of the poor, the deprived and the under-privileged, eventually led me late in life to the Scottish National Party. I am totally opposed to nuclear weapons, but I am not a pacifist. I believe in defence and the concept of a just war, even though such a thing is an extreme rarity historically. I saw the Second World War as a just war, and one that had to be fought, but was appalled at the use of nuclear weapons to end the war with Japan.

My friends and social contacts cross religious, ethnic, sexual orientation, political and social boundaries, and such distinctions have never mattered to me in choosing friends nor in selecting employees when I was engaged in recruitment in industry, either as their boss or on behalf of another. In my recruitment and managerial roles over the years, in common with all who hire people, I have been accused of every kind of discrimination imaginable, the range of alleged discriminations effectively cancelling each other out.

I have never been interested in spectator sports, and support no football club, although like all Scots of my generation, I played street football, played school football and rugby, albeit  under duress. For a brief period in the late 1950s I was involved in judo and the old Osaka Club in Glasgow.

All of the above – especially the lack of interest in football - should be enough to make me an object of suspicion and instinctive distrust by both sides of the sectarian divide in Scotland, and to cause them to dismiss anything I have to say out of hand.

But all my old Glasgow street experience - and experience of more subtle sectarian bigotry in industry - tells me that it is better to get it all up front than leave it to the kind of sordid speculation and nose-tapping that otherwise ensues. The old Belfast question can, of course, still be asked - “You say you’re an atheist, but are you a Protestant or a Catholic atheist?”

FACTS AND BELIEFS – SHARED AND PERSONAL

Let’s start with a few facts, ones that are accepted as fact – I hope – across the range of opinions on the subject.

1. Sectarianism is a significant problem in Scottish life.

2. No government, national or devolved, passed any legislation to combat it until the Scottish Government’s 2011 legislation.

3. The Scottish police believe there is a need for such legislation, and have welcomed the new powers it gives them to deal with sectarian behaviour.

4. The most egregious examples of sectarian behaviour have been at football matches, especially Old Firm matches, or have been directly related to football, e.g. the bombs sent to Neil Lennon and others. That is not to say that they are the only manifestations of sectarian behaviour, nor to say that other, less visible instances of such behaviour may be damaging Scottish life in even more fundamental ways, e.g sectarian behaviour in employment, in the Police and in the Law.

If you don’t accept all of the above as facts, then little that I have to say will impress you, and vice versa. To misquote Sydney Smith – “We will never agree, we are arguing from separate premises (sic)”

Here are a six additional things that I believe - in addition to beliefs set out in my preamble - and I don’t expect general agreement on these, because there is abundant evidence that many religious believers and their spokesperson don’t accept them, or pay only lip service to them, and indeed the UK Government and the Scottish Government do not accept all of them.

The state and the apparatus of government should be secular and not religious-based, and should not favour any religious group over another, or over people of no faith.

The government of a country should permit all faiths to worship and believe as they choose, and should protect that right by law, except where the behaviour of any group seeks to impose a belief, or belief system, or practice by law on those who do not share it, or restrict their freedom within the law.

Individual and groups who are not elected by the democratic will of the people may be consulted about their views, providing they do not seek to bypass the democratic will of the people as expressed by the government they have elected.

There should be no such thing as an established church in a country or state, e.g. The Church of England.

A state or country should not be described as, or present itself as, or see itself as one specially linked to a specific religion, or indeed to religious belief, e.g. “The UK is a Christian country” etc..

There should be no such thing as faith schools or schools segregated on a religious basis or on the absence of belief, e.g “Only atheists children will be admitted to this school, and we will inculcate atheist values.”

But I start from the assumption that the Scottish Government accepts at least the first three as principles of government, tries to govern by such principles, and has consistently adhered to them throughout the debate on sectarianism, and will continue to do so.

 

HOW WE GOT HERE – RELIGION AND HISTORY

Certainly since Henry VIII, the history and politics of Britain and its monarchy have been inextricably bound up with, and distorted by religion, and the history of Scotland has been even more influenced by it. Central to all of this was the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy, which claimed supremacy over all secular authorities and all nations. After the Reformation, the Papal worldwide influence progressively declined, but it still bulked large in relations between Scotland and England, and between England and Ireland. Monarchs and politicians ruthlessly exploited religion for their own ends, and organised religion reciprocated with enthusiasm, and exploited monarchs and politicians, in an unholy – in the truest sense of the word – set of alliances.

The effect of the Reformation and the ideas of Martin Luther were adopted with energy in Scotland, especially by those attempting to shift power to the people from prelates and priests, and there is no doubt that we owe much of our democracy to this great religious and intellectual movement, but with dreary inevitability it produced another kind of undemocratic autocracy of the mind, with the Kirk becoming the thought police, and proving themselves just as capable of the torture, hangings and burnings as the previous Catholic hegemony. On the credit side, the Kirk undoubtedly was also a binding force in Scottish society, vital in education and poor relief, and in defending the rights of ordinary people, up to a point. Such are the contradictions inherent in religion when it supplants democratic politics. But democratic politics as we know them are a comparatively recent thing, with for example, the full vote for women coming as late as 1928 in Britain.

But the fatal flaw of deference infected the Kirk too, and some of the writings of Scottish Presbyterian ministers on the fate of their flocks during the Clearances make depressing reading, with expressions of sanctimonious concern mixed with nauseating obsequiousness to landlords and clan chiefs and fatalism in the face of a gross injustice masquerading as faith in the Lord. During the Enlightenment, this fog of almost medieval superstition began to lift, but even a great thinker – and atheist – such as David Hume had to be circumspect: the Kirk still had people hanged for questioning religion, including a teenage boy.

In the late 17th century the Irish dimension began to exert the baleful influence it has had on Scottish politics and Scottish life ever since, and it is a sad fact of life that generations of Scottish children have grown to adulthood able to name only a couple of dates in British history – the Battle of the Boyne, or the Easter Rising,  and have a greater identification with, and knowledge of Irish politics than the 21st century politics of their native country. Football clubs founded in the 19th century – Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers - with predominantly working class roots, admirable intentions and the wish to play a great game are now international money-making machines – or were up until recently – with players and managers who are often entirely unrepresentative of their native city, Scotland or indeed the UK. They are now the focal point for religious tribal loyalties based on ancient history that is largely irrelevant to modern Scottish life.

Since I do not aspire to be the poor man’s Tom Devine, I must move on …

 

THE SECTARIAN SITUATION – SCOTLAND IN 2011

sect: a body of people subscribing to religious doctrine different from others within the same religion, a group deviating from orthodox tradition, heretical, body separated from an orthodox church, nonconformistConcise Oxford dictionary.

The definition also covers philosophy and politics, but we can confine ourselves to the religious dimensions, although there is an irony in the fact the sectarianism is now being used in a thoroughly contemptible way by unionist politicians in Holyrood as a tool of opposition, just as they used minimum pricing for alcohol in the last Parliament.

sectarian: bigoted or narrow-minded in following the doctrine’s of one’s sect. COD

(In these definitions one might argue that Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are sects of the Christian religion, and Protestantism undoubtedly has sects within its total body.)

Here is an unpalatable fact for the Scottish churches – there would be no religious sectarianism without religion. Sectarianism is a product of the religious mind, just as pogroms, persecution, burning of heretics, torture, the auto da fé, the suppression of scientific discovery, the suppression of free expression and free speech, homophobia and almost all of the key conflicts in our tortured world are a product of the religious mind.

In that, religion has its mirror image in totalitarian creeds such a Nazism and the Stalinist regimes of Soviet Russia, and their up-to-date versions around the world, which displayed and display all the characteristics of religious dogma – the Great Leader whose word must not be challenged, the acolytes who are uniquely gifted with the power of interpreting it, the sacred texts, the censorship, the intolerance of any alternative political view or religious challenge, and the whole apparatus of punishing the deviant.

The Scottish National Government is committed to governing a country, Scotland, that has many religions, historically Christian religions, but in the 21st century, other faiths as well, and also has many who claim no specific faith, but profess to believe in a God, and some who do not believe in a God.  (If regular churchgoing and active participation in a church are the measures, Scotland is not a Christian society. If highly visible interventions into the ordered life of Scotland by religious groups and their spokespersons, either by violent or disruptive and sometime criminal behaviour, or statements by senior clerics to the media and to government are the measure, it is a Christian society.)

The SNP government tries, as any Scottish government of whatever political colour must, to balance these groups within Scottish society, firstly to protect their rights to believe and act -and worship where appropriate - in accordance with their beliefs, to ensure that they are not discriminated against for these beliefs, whether of faith or no faith, and to protect their rights to free assembly and free speech. They must also recognise de facto, the power of these groups, but also the limitations of that power, because in the case of organised religions, they are not representative of a majority of the population or anything like it, and they are, in their own organisation and structure, only partially democratic or completely undemocratic in the selection and appointment of the leaders. Where a form of election does takes place, it is by a small and unrepresentative group.

Let’s look at the dynamics of the situation that led to this legislation. Prominent Catholics had been calling attention to what they perceived as discrimination and actual violence directed against them as a minority group in Scottish society for some time. The behaviour of a minority of football supporters, notoriously those supporting the two Old Firm clubs, Celtic and Rangers,  before, during and after games, on the streets, in the pubs and on the terracing had become increasingly inimical to public order, criminal and eventually lethal to a young man wearing a Celtic strip, who was stabbed to death for no other reason than his dress, an act that led to the establishment of Nil by Mouth, an organisation campaigning against sectarian violence, and its two close companions, alcohol abuse and domestic abuse.

The attacks on Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, and the explosive devices sent to his home and that of others associated with Celtic, including an MSP and a prominent lawyer, led to a major police investigation and prosecutions.

On acts of violence that came with the definition of breach of the peace legislation, the police were and are adamant that the existing breach of the piece legislation is inadequate to combat such behaviour, especially the singing of  partisan songs with with unacceptable religious and violent associations, offensive banners and chanting  and deliberately provocative gesture calculated to inflame violence. (In this regard, there is a conflict with the Human Rights Act, and it has now become central to the dispute.) The flying of flags also presented certain difficulties, with no easy answers. Leaving aside the question of the violence itself, the cost of policing these games, cradles of violence, threatened the game itself, and the reputation of Scotland internationally.

Other political parties had talked about doing something – the SNP Government decided something must be done, but on the basis of cross-party consensus. After initially supporting the legislation, the other parties had second thoughts, and claimed that the legislation was being rushed through Parliament without proper debate: it was certainly being expedited with some urgency, in the hope of avoiding even worse scenes in the new football season than those that had disgraced the previous one.

THE REASONS FOR THE OPPOSITION TO THE LEGISLATION

There are two ways of viewing the opposition to the legislation. One is to say that it is soundly rooted in fears about the adequacy and the clarity of the legislation, and genuine concerns over its legality under the Human Rights Act and freedom of speech and expression.

The second perspective is mine, and I offer it as a personal viewpoint. Others may share aspects of it, but I doubt that any consensus supports my view. It does not represent an SNP view, since I can only judge the party and the Government’s view from their public statements.

I believe that the opposition to the legislation - leaving aside legitimate points on the drafting and implementation in practice, points that will be addressed in the review stages – is rooted in the same destructive opposition politics that lost the unionist parties the last election, namely, oppose blindly any legislation or initiative by the SNP Government that might actually succeed in addressing long-term problems in Scottish society, e.g. alcohol abuse and violence, on the basis that the SNP cannot be seen to succeed where unionist parties have failed for generations.

I believe it is also rooted in wish of small, innately undemocratic and violent minorities on both side of the religious divide, under the guise of football support, to retain their right to behave appallingly and illegally, to foment hatred and violence and perpetuate ancient and irrelevant feuds that feed their perverted sense of identity and tribal loyalty.

I believe that these groups are being exploited by both political and religious forces in Scotland, and perhaps beyond Scotland, in a manner that is at best short-sighted and misguided, and at worse, calculated and extremely dangerous.

I believe that a wider range of bodies have been sucked unwittingly and naively into this agenda, and with the best of motives, e.g. freedom of speech and human rights, are being manipulated.

I believe that the Catholic church hierarchy, having called repeatedly and forcefully for action against sectarian behaviour, discrimination and violence directed against them as a minority religious group in Scotland, are now behaving extremely unwisely in attacking the legislation and the Government, and run a grave risk in so doing of exacerbating religious tension and violence.

I find it extraordinary, to the point of being deeply sceptical, that two groups of supporters should suddenly, in what was virtually a synchronised protest, display elaborately crafted banners with closely similar core messages attacking the SNP Government’s anti-sectarian legislation.

I believe that the religious divide in the West of Scotland has been exploited for well over a century by political parties, especially the Labour Party, and that sectarian divisions have been used in complex and arcane ways to maintain the power of certain groups, especially in local government. (This is an open secret in Glasgow, and has been for all of my lifetime – in American cities run on similar lines, it isn’t even a secret, it is open and blatant, and an accepted fact of political life.) These political groups know which buttons to press, and are determined not to surrender the sordid apparatus of football loyalties mixed with tribal and religious loyalties and its associated provocative and polarised behaviour that underpins their power.

THE RELIGIOUS BIGOTS CREDO

I am loyal to my traditions and my faith – the other side is bigoted, discriminatory, and is determined to destroy all that I believe in. I want Government, the Law and the police to control and act against the behaviour of the other side. Since I never behave badly, such actions should never impinge upon my rights to proclaim my beliefs.

Democratic government is all very well, but I am answerable to a Higher Power. That higher power speaks uniquely to me, and through me, and other faiths and creeds claiming to interpret the Higher Power are mistaken if their interpretation conflicts with mine. I claim the right to demand that the secular, democratically elected government ignore the mandate of the people where I deem it necessary, and respond to my undemocratic and unelected religious principles and precepts. When the chips are down, I will use my undemocratic power to influence the democratic process.

PRACTICAL REALITIES

The beliefs outlined above were taken to their profoundly destructive and violent conclusions in Northern Ireland for generations, distorting the democratic political process that tried to address the real inequalities and grievances. But the bitter experience of what such tribal religious divides, exploited by unscrupulous politicians, actually resulted in has led the Northern Irish people, painfully and agonisingly, into true democratic politics – the bullet and the bomb have begun to lose their lethal potency and rational debate, negotiation and compromise – and above all the ballot box – have gradually brought the Province back to sanity.

But the Scottish sectarian groups who have identified with one side or another in that long conflict, and who got their kicks vicariously from the agony of another people without actually having to experience the pain, are frozen in time, and politically and emotionally immature, unlike the Northern Irish people, who have achieve political maturity by actual hard experience. Of course, at the extremes, there are those on both sides of the religious divide who have been and still are actively involved in the old destructive ways, and they represent an ever-present danger not only to Scotland but to the stability of Northern Ireland’s new democracy.

The phrase moral equivalence is much bandied about at the moment in the sectarian debate. The spokesperson for the Catholic Church and the Catholic community feel that there is a conspiracy by government and the forces of law and order to conceal the fact that the statistics on acts of sectarian violence do not show a balance of illegality – acts of violence against Catholics are far more prevalent than sectarian actions against Protestants.

Michael Kelly, in an article in The ScotsmanSNP will pay a heavy price ... claims that over an 18-month period, 64% of acts of violence were against Catholics and 36% against others, and draws two conclusions from this – one, that since Catholics only form 16% of the population, the ratio is much higher than 2:1, and that “any anti-sectarian campaign must focus on stopping attacks on Catholics …”

Whatever the validity of these statistics, the reality is that the new legislation can only focus on sectarian attacks and unacceptable and inflammatory behaviour wherever it occurs and on those who break the law. Any other approach would be the religious equivalent of racial profiling, i.e. targeting police action on Protestants.

I believe that Michael Kelly’s article is profoundly damaging to the debate and to the cause that he espouses, namely the Roman Catholic cause, because he conflated it with Labour Party and Unionist politics and an attack on the SNP. At all times when listening to a West of Scotland Labour apologist commenting on sectarian behaviour, we must remember that such behaviour has always been concentrated in the West of Scotland under a Labour fiefdom that goes back for over half a century, and Labour-dominated local government, of which Michael Kelly is a former leading light.

 

RELIGIOUS MATTERS

I also question the moral priorities of senior religious figures in Scotland. At a time when the world is a more unstable place than it has been for a long time, when our economy is in a state of near collapse, the poor, the sick, the underprivileged face an attack on the very fabric of their lives, while weapons of mass destruction are based in our country, draining our limited finances and posing a threat to millions and to the environment, the Scottish churches are obsessed with gay marriage, alleged discrimination and the right to bawl out sectarian songs and fly the flag of the UK and the Irish Republic at football matches in the name of freedom of speech. This is a strange sense of values, and if moral equivalence must be trotted out, there is a distorted sense of morality at work.

I have a last word for the Catholic hierarchy. I found this news report disquieting – if anybody else did, I have not yet come across their comments. Cardinal O'Brien present papal knighthood at Red Mass

The Papal Knighthood is an award by the Vatican – a legally constituted foreign state – to prominent Catholics who have distinguished themselves in their field of endeavour. (I am not aware that it is ever conferred on non-Catholics, but am happy to be corrected on this point.)

This award was made at a special mass to Lord Gill, the Lord Justice Clerk of Scotland by Cardinal O’Brien representing Pope  Benedict XVI. Present at the mass were the Lord Advocate, the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, and the vice president of the Law Society of Scotland. (I do not know the religious affiliations of those attending.)

The report from The Catholic Observer quotes Cardinal O’Brien as follows -

“In his homily at Sunday’s Mass, Cardinal O’Brien urged Catholic lawyers in Scotland to remain strong and true to their religious beliefs.

“There is no doubt that one of the biggest challenges facing Catholic lawyers in Scotland today is a challenge which has faced many people and different groups in society down the ages: how do you live and act out your professional lives while at the same time remaining true to the teachings and doctrine of the Church?” Cardinal O’Brien said. “Specifically for lawyers the challenge must be how can you represent your clients’ interests to the best of your abilities while applying the law of the land, when at times these two pressures may be in conflict with your own Catholic Faith.”

I can only say that I am deeply uncomfortable with such an award and such statements at a time when religious divides in Scottish society are problematical and legislation to combat excesses produced by them is being attacked by prominent religious leaders, including Cardinal O’Brien. I can only speculate about how such an event and such statements are interpreted by extremists in Scottish society.

I do not believe they serve the interest of the Catholic community in Scotland well, nor do they accord with my ideas of how the relationship between religious groups and a secular democracy should work. At worst, they can exacerbate religious tension.

I have to say that the award, and the status and roles of those attending does not suggest a Catholic professional population being discriminated against, at least in the legal profession. I can only express the wish that lawyers in Scotland, of whatever religious persuasion, remain true to the principle of the rule of law and the secular state of which they are a part.


Thursday, 22 September 2011

New jobs as investor confidence in the new Scotland grows–but Iain Gray can only moan …

This is good news, or I'm a Dutchman. Well, Ton Christiannse certainly is, and West Lothian and Scotland thank him, and welcome his vote of confidence in our country  and our people- and so do I.


Of course, Iain Gray could only receive the news today at FMQs with his customary bad grace, and then followed on to try and make mischief on jobs and education, but was effortlessly outclassed, not only by the FM, but by a new young member of his own party, Jenny Marra, Labour MSP for North West Scotland.

The sooner Scottish Labour elects its new leader, the better - for the health of the Parliament.



Friday, 17 June 2011

The UK Supreme Court–FMQs 16th June 2011 - Holyrood

Given the highly biased press and media reports of these exchanges at FMQs yesterday (16th June 2011) these complete clips offer an opportunity for a more balanced appraisal of the full exchanges. Holyrood FMQs offers a curious spectacle these days, that of two caretaker opposition leaders and one brand new opposition leader representing two failed parties and one dying party (Labour) attempting to hold a First Minister with a new and powerfully enhanced mandate to account.


POSTSCRIPT
I'm glad the Scotsman has recently followed my practice of actually timing question and answers at FMQs, instead of simply making unsupported and usually inaccurate statements that the First Minister was hogging the floor.
The paper selectively offers a couple of times today: let me help them out with the total Supreme Court exchanges -


Annabel Goldie 2m 19s
Iain Gray: 3m 57s
Willie Rennie: 1m 38s
Alex Salmond 10m 30s

Total question times: 7m 54s, total answer times: 10m 30s

Percentages of total of UK Supreme Court exchanges:

Questions 42.93%, Answers 57.07%



Sunday, 5 June 2011

Holyrood mandates, majorities - and questions, questions, questions …

The panic-stricken hysteria of the unionist media and pundits has risen to a crescendo since the scale of the SNP electoral win became evident - at least, I hope it is a crescendo, but I suspect that there’s worse to come

This has ranged for forecasting doom and disaster if Scotland achieved its independence, through demands for an immediate referendum, or two referendums, (no, I don’t like referenda!) or a referendum involving English voters, and probably Northern Irish voters, but certainly not Welsh voters (!) to thinly disguised challenges to the validity of the SNP’s mandate, under the guise of either the alleged failure of the d’Hondt method of proportional representation (it was meant to keep the SNP out of power, or at least stop them having any real power if they won) or expressions of concern about the turnout on polling day and the so-called democratic deficit.

(The democratic deficit is an expression that refers to the perceived inadequacies of electoral systems in reflecting the true opinions of the voters, especially on proportionality, the validity of mandates claimed by such electoral systems in the light of low voter turnout etc., and the abuse of mandates by governments when in power.)

The protestations of the unionists parties and their media shills after May 5th 2011 are in marked contrast to these parties when in power at UK level, as demonstrated by even a cursory examination of  Thatcher’s destruction of Scotland’s infrastructure and theft of Scottish oil, the Blair/Brown years (illegal wars, the destruction of the economy, etc.) and the ConLib Coalition’s betrayal of LibDem promises, attempts to destroy the NHS, and ill-conceived intervention in Libya, especially when their democratic deficit is examined in relation to voter turnout and party share of the vote. (Scottish Parliamentary elections tend to fall somewhere below UK general elections and somewhere above local government elections in voter turnout.)

So we have agonised squeals of pain in the letters columns from unionist voters who have spent their lives tugging their forelocks respectfully to one kind of Scottish party political dominance or another, so long as it was safely unionist and UK oriented, and who cannot believe that they suddenly are on the wrong side of political power and saluting the wrong flag, and the two non-tabloid Scottish newspapers, the Herald and the Scotsman rather in a state of retroactive confusion and cognitive dissonance, having belatedly backed the winner before the election, are not quite sure just what they have done.

Today’s Scotsman, for instance, carries a piece by Eddie Barnes, entitled Imbalance of power, asking in the sub-header “… have the scales tipped too far in Alex Salmond’s favour …”, which might have been more honestly sub-titled “My God, what have we done"?”.

Without really examining it properly, Eddie Barnes chose to open with the first FMQs of the new Parliament, and Iain Gray’s question to the first Minister on care in Scotland. Although he grudgingly recognised that the FM’s answer was “comprehensive”, he then went on to  criticise both Alex Salmond and the new Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick, who’s election by the Parliament had also been the subject of unionist criticism - the FM for “waxing lyrical” never needing a second invitation “to dominate a room”, and the PO for not slapping him down.

Barnes is simply echoing an endless series of such criticisms of Alex Salmond’s performance in FMQs since 2007, none of which contained any real analysis of what actually went on. Well, I’ve watched them all and still have many of them recorded, and the nature of inter-personal dialogue between individuals especially in joint forums has been central to my working life, both in industry and in my training and consulting business, specialising in negotiation and behavioural skills.

(If organisations, both political and private, would stop spending a Queens’s ransom on so-called motivational speakers, where the learning outcomes are unmeasurable, but everybody leaves with a warm glow, rabbiting on about Ladybird Book of Psychology concepts of left brain and right brain - having had fun of the kind that roughly equates to a bad, but energetic rock concert - and devoted their scarce development and training budgets to relevant behavioural skills that reflect real-life interactions, politics might be more productive, government more effective and industry more innovative and competitive.)

QUESTION AND ANSWER BASICS

At the most basic level, and  questions fall into two categories - information-seeking questions and rhetorical questions. Since rhetorical questions don’t expect - or invite- an answer, we can disregard them. (Probably the most famous rhetorical question in history was asked by Pontius Pilate - “What is Truth?” in the presence of perhaps the one of the only persons who could have answered it. But Pontius didn’t expect, or wait for an answer - his mind was on making a few bob out of a franchised exercise system that would appeal to ladies with cash to spare. But it took about two millennia to come to market …)

So a question is meant to elicit information. But this can be done in a number of ways, using a variety of question types. I won’t give the full analysis here, but confine myself to a few varieties.

First, we have a question that invites confirmation of denial of two possibilities - the closed YES/NO question, beloved by lawyers attempting to get a response that serves their particular purpose and no other, depending on whether they are prosecuting or defending, or a response - or absence of one - that either makes the respondent look as if they are lying or being evasive. Lawyers operate on the principle that, on such occasions, they never ask a question that they don’t already know the answer to. When this is inadvertently breached, it can produce unpleasant surprises for the questioner!

Closed YES/NO questions envisage only two possibilities than can be confirmed or denied by either a Yes or a No. When neither of these possibilities reflect reality as perceived by the person being questioned - or reflect a reality they don’t want to confirm or deny because it threatens their interests - they must reject the format of the question.

One example of this is the “Have you stopped stealing apples?” question type. If you answer Yes, then you used to steal apples but have given it up: if you answer No, you’re still at it … The person who has never stolen apples can’t answer Yes or No, and the one who did, or still does will either lie or evade the question.

Political interviewers - and politicians - constantly use this formulation, some times legitimately, sometimes mischievously - and sometimes with hidden, occasionally malicious intent. And politicians are equally adept at avoiding answering such questions …

The other main information-seeking question type is the open question. The open question ranges from the wide-open question - “Tell me what you think or know about anything, anywhere, anytime?” to the highly focused open question, but still open question of “Tell me what you know about what happened, what was said and what was minuted in the meeting of the xxth of June, 20xx when the topic of property development in Glasgow East regeneration area and Commonwealth Games site was discussed?

The oath - or affirmation - in the witness box in court is “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. Politicians don’t take such an oath, but observance of the principle is implied in their office, and the penalties for being misleading or lying outright can be severe.

QUESTION AND ANSWER - FMQs HOLYROOD

Let’s look more closely at the first question asked in the first FMQs in the new Scottish Parliament on Thursday the 3rd of June 2011, leaving aside the minor diversion of Iain Gray failing to ask the normal preliminary, routine question about the First Minister’s engagements. The topic was an important one, about the standards of care of the elderly and vulnerable in both private and public care homes in Scotland, with attention focused by the twin scandals of the Panorama documentary on abuse in England and the Elsie Inglis scandal in Scotland, both of which occurred in privately-run care facilities. Trisha Marwick was on her first gig as Presiding Officer.

 



Iain Gray set the scene for his question for almost one minute, referring to the Panorama documentary, then came the question itself, which took all of 8 seconds -

“What assurance can the First Minister give us of the capacity of the new Regulator to ensure standards of care here in Scotland?”

This question is highly pertinent, open but focused, fair and objective, and one to which the Parliament and the Scottish people have a right to know the answer.

The FM good-humouredly filled the gap left by Iain Gray’s omission of the routine question about the FM’s appointments and meetings, and gave related information about apprenticeship uptake, then replied to IG’s question, agreeing with the vital nature of the question, then referring to the new body, Social Care and Social Work Improvement Scotland (SCSWIS)  created by the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010,  which also set up and Healthcare Improvement Scotland (HIS), both  set up on April 1st 2011 and expected to coordinate and deliver efficient and effective scrutiny of health and social care, social work and child protection. Alex Salmond said that the remit of SCSWIS and its investigation would ensure that the Scottish position would be “up to scratch in all respects.”

Iain Gray referred to the Elsie Inglis care home scandal, then got to his real point - the capacity of the Regulator in relation to budget and staffing cuts - “25% budget cut, and 55 staff gone” and more planned. This led to IG’s second question - “Shouldn’t we look at Elsie Inglis and cancel this cut?”.

A couple of points here. Iain Gray has a slow, deliberate mode of speaking. There is nothing wrong with this, indeed his pace of delivery is similar to mine, but it does mean that what he has to say in FMQs takes up more time than that of brisker speakers. However, on the second point, I am more critical. IG was being disingenuous in the way he framed his first question and led to the second. If he was fully in the spirit of speeding up the Q&A of FMQs, then he could have asked one question at the start -

“What assurance can the First Minister give us of the capacity of the new Regulator, in the light of 25% budget cuts and the loss of 55 staff, to ensure standards of care here in Scotland, especially in the light of the Elsie Inglis scandal?”

This was the logical question to ask at the outset, and would have cut the time both of questions and responses. But IG didn’t, because he was playing political games and trying to set a trap. Iain Gray’s traps, rather than being elephant traps, are usually wonky mousetraps wi’ nae cheese in them, especially when dealing with a politician of Alex Salmond’s experience.

But the question, when it came, was nonetheless valid and relevant.

Another observation here. Properly constructed and delivered, Parliamentary questions are brief and pertinent, but of necessity, the person responding, even to a focused closed question like this one, will take longer to answer. Of course, it is always open to the respondent facing a closed question, one that in theory demands a Yes or No answer to do just that - answer yes or no. Had the FM answered No, of course, he would have been accused of trivialising an important question, so Alex Salmond answered fully, and attempted to “reassure Iain Gray on the generality, and the specifics of Elsie Inglis.”

He gave the figure for the total number of care homes for adults (1333 as of 31st May 2011) and during 2011/12,  a minimum of 961 of these would be inspected, carrying out at least 1549 inspections. Some care homes would be inspected more than once because of the risk-based evidence held on the service. He then gave specifics on Elsie Inglis, dating from the first complaint, on 25th of March, about standards. The Regulator had undertaken a full inspection in April and during that period, Edinburgh City Council and Lothian Health Board put their own staff into the care home by the 12th of May. By the 26th of May, all 46 residents had been moved to suitable settings, where their needs are currently being met.

AS said that the relevant authorities had acted effectively and quickly to rectify the situation, with the position and wellbeing of the residents as their primary concern.

This, of course, was not the answer Iain Gray wanted - he wanted to Alex Salmond to answer No, we should not cancel the cuts to budget and staffing, without responding to what really matters, namely, had the Elsie Inglis situation been dealt with and how effective would the future regime of inspection and control be? This was exactly what the FM did.

The context of this question is as follows. The last Labour Government ruined the economy. The present ConLib Coalition has made draconian and unnecessary cuts to the the Scottish budget. The only way to cope with this is for the Scottish Government to find efficiency savings while protecting vital services. This is exactly what any organisation in the public or private sector does when faced with a cut  in revenue that cannot be offset by raising money. It is exactly what is being done in the care sector in Scotland through SCSWIS, and given additional impetus and relevance by the Elsie Inglis scandal and the object lesson of the abuses revealed by Panorama in England.

Iain Gray, however, was not happy with the answer, so he returned to the question of the capacity of the Regulator to handle the demands of the task, referring to the move from regular scheduled inspections to a risk assessment model, which will mean less inspections, and the fact the number of staff had been, and would be cut. He attempted to broaden the base of criticism by Audit Scotland, by claiming that today, it “condemns the Community Health Partnerships, which are supposed to plan and manage social care. Doctors say these partnerships have spectacularly failed, and Southern Cross, who run 98 care homes in Scotland, are on the verge of collapse.”

Iain Gray then attempted to show a care system in a state of collapse, based on the Panorama documentary about English care homes, the Elsie Inglis scandal in one care home, and the budget and staffing cuts to the Inspectorate, claiming that “the social Care system has been declared not fit for purpose” and the biggest provider of residential care in Scotland is on the verge of collapse.

This summary, if accurate, represents a crisis in the Scottish care system, and must be addressed, and Iain Gray cannot be faulted for pursuing answers to what he believes is an unacceptable situation.

But regrettably, he then goes on to shamelessly exploit the situation for unionist party political ends, risking discrediting his entire argument, which is sad, because I do believe that Iain Gray does care about the issue. He does this by trying to make a case on priorities, raising the issues of the UK Supreme Court, where he claims, erroneously, that the FM “held an emergency Cabinet summit on the UK Supreme Court this week” and asks his next question, a closed, YES/NO question based on a faulty premise. “Does he not think a summit on the crisis in care is more urgent than that?” This received table-thumping approbation from the depleted Labour benches.

This is an outrageous conflation of two issues that are related only by happening within the same time frame, and reveals in the process the primitive managerial thinking of the Labour Party, that conceives of Government as a process where ministers make a list in order of priority, then move down the list on each item, to the exclusion of all else, an utterly nonsensical view of government. This is why Scottish business trusted the SNP to lead the Scottish economy instead of the Labour Party, with the egregious exception of the head of the CBI in Scotland, unrepresentative of business opinion across Scotland, but fully representative of UK unionist dogma.

(I spent a large part of my consulting career in major multi-national blue chip companies on cascade programmes on structured objective setting and prioritisation, because the CEOs of these companies wanted to break their directors and managers out of exactly that kind of simplistic thinking.)

The FM opened by saying that he didn’t have “an emergency Cabinet summit” - the matter was discussed in Cabinet as was the issue of Southern Cross. He said that he had given the figures on the care homes and the inspection regime even though the Labour Party “maybe didn’t want to hear them”. They indicated an impressive level of inspection. He added the crucial fact that all care home inspections will now be unannounced.

He had also responded to the Elsie Inglis situation and Iain Gray had seemed to agree that it had been an effective response to a difficult situation.

Southern Cross is a situation that the Cabinet Secretary is dealing with daily, in conjunction with the UK Health Department. 3000 of their residents are in Scotland out of a total of 98,000 across the UK.

All the relevant authorities were ready, if Southern Cross does move into administration, to ensure a continuity of care of the residents concerned. Southern Cross, a private company involved in social care, seemed to some people a model that should be applied across the NHS in England. In the past, the Labour Party had wanted to introduce private companies into mainstream service in the NHS in Scotland. This in fact should sound a cautionary note about private intervention in the NHS or social care.

(This last point has also been the main thrust of the national debate, including on last week’s Question Time on the BBC.)

Iain Gray’s response to this was to refer to the SNP council in Fife being currently engaged in the process of transferring their own care homes into the private sector. This is  not, Iain Gray said, an issue to try and score points about. He emphasised the need to move forward together as a Parliament on the issue. He said that the Parliament needed to hear the voices of the elderly and the disabled. He then went on to devalue this admirable point by again trying to score political points himself, again conflating it with political issues on the independence/union agenda - the constitutional issues, the Supreme Court, corporation tax and the Crown Estates.

Is Iain Gray seriously suggesting that these issues are either irrelevant to Scotland, or that they should all be shelved while the issue of care homes and the inspection regime are under examination? Thank God this man and those he represents were not chosen to govern Scotland, with this simplistic understanding of the business and mechanics of Government.

He then came to his last question - “What are we going to do to improve the situation?”, apparently having heard little and understood less of the clear answers given to his earlier questions.

The FM, in reply, summarised Iain Gray’s three points - references to

community health partnerships

the importance of the Parliament acting together

and

the importance of not making party political points

The Community Health Partnerships were established in 2004. The Audit Commission, today, as in the independent inspection report of last year, indicated there were some serious problems - not failing across Scotland, but serious problems in some areas of a lack of integration of health and social care. This is exactly why this government has established that integration as a priority. Alex Salmond said that,  if he was to take a non-political look at the establishment of community health partnerships, and something that we’ve learned from experience, but perhaps wasn’t evident when that legislation was introduced, then perhaps it would be that it left the coordination of health and community care as a voluntary aspect in the 36 partnerships across Scotland . Why is that important, the FM asked? The Audit Commission report didn’t indicate today that it was failing across Scotland. On the contrary, one of the key findings of the report was that in 20 of these partnerships, there was a co-sharing of services. The question that’s begged is -why didn’t that happen in the other 16?

The FM suggested that it was a flaw of the legislation of this Parliament, that “we didn’t realise in 2004 that the coordination that was hoped for had to be made a compulsory aspect - had to happen.” Integration had to happen and could not be left to individual health boards and local authorities across Scotland.

That was why this government has made a priority of making that happen. In the spirit of not looking to score party political points about whose legislation was best, and in the spirit of not saying this is a matter which is failing across the country, we should just recognise that, out of the community health partnerships, it is not the case, for example, that delayed discharges have been increasing. There were over a thousand delayed discharges in April 2004. As of two days ago, it was recorded at twelve. 12 is too many, but it would be wrong not to regard that as a significant improvement. We take what was good and proper and has worked of that change, and make sure the health and community care is integrated as a service across Scotland.”

SUMMARY

All of the above exchanges took place in just over 13 minutes in the first half of FMQs. Allowing one minute for the FM’s diary engagements and related matter, the total exchange was just over 12 minutes, of which Iain Gray spoke for five minutes and Alex Salmond for seven minute, that is to say, the questioner took 42% of the total time to ask his questions and the respondent 58% of the total time to reply, including providing relevant and vital details and facts and figures.

Through the exchanges, Alex Salmond was patient and courteous, although he could have been forgiven had he displayed some exasperation and impatience.

Just where do the critics of the Presiding Officer think she could have intervened, and with whom? The topic was clearly vital, the detail important. The number, type and content of the questions was in the hands of Iain Gray.

It can be argued that FMQs was not the place for what effectively became a mini-debate on a subject of such importance, and that FMQs should be confined to simple questions of fact. That is a matter for the Parliament.

If there was grandstanding and attempts at political point scoring, they came exclusively from Iain Gray, a man whose heart may be in the right placed but whose head clearly isn’t. Regrettably, it looks as though he is going to continue to give evidence, week after week until his successor is elected, just why the electorate and the business community did not think he was the right man to lead Scotland through the difficult times ahead.

I chose this first question as a benchmark of all that is, and was wrong, about the unionist opposition’s approach to the government of Scotland, the clear evidence of why they lost the election. It took me a day to analyse a 13 minute exchange, but I believe it was worth doing, because I believe that care matters, the NHS matters, the Scottish legal system matters, the Crown Estate matters and corporation tax matters and that they all must be addressed if the people of Scotland are to survive the desperate times bequeathed to them by 13 years of Labour government - a poisoned legacy -and just over a year of chaotic, ill-conceived ConLib Coalition government.

Most of all, I believe that the best hope of the people of Scotland, young and old, fit and unfit, lies in the independence of their country from the United Kingdom. I also believe we now have the best man and the best team in charge to make those hopes a reality.