From the moment Stewart Stevenson, the Transport Minister appeared on his ill-fated Newsnight Scotland interview, I knew there was trouble ahead, and in a way, Raymond Buchanan’s (BBC) approach foreshadowed what the Holyrood Opposition approach would be – blame, demands for apologies, with no attempt to explore the issue in any depth.
Stewart Stevenson was, I am forced reluctantly to say, was badly briefed and badly advised, if indeed he had received any advice or training in how to handle such an interview. (I have already addressed such sterile political interviewing styles blog 18th Nov. 2010 at some length.).
Although the weather crisis was not quite a disaster, it came close – Scotland’s main trunk roads closed, thousands of motorists stranded and at risk, commerce badly damaged, the passage of emergency vehicles hindered – and the first political imperative in such situations for politicians or organisations involved is acknowledge responsibility and apologise. From Piper Alpha on, governments and global companies have understood this principle and applied it.
So we had the unedifying spectacle of Stewart Stevenson refusing repeated – and quite pointless – demands that he apologise to stranded motorists, making his valid attempts to explain the problem and congratulate the work of the emergency services appear as evasions.
Given five minutes before the interview, I would have offered him the following simple words to say -
"I am deeply sorry for the plight of motorists, and for the fact that the herculean efforts of dedicated transport workers and the police in these exceptional and unprecedented circumstances were unable to to alleviate the full effects of this freak weather. I take full responsibility."
Any neophyte PR junior could have offered the same advice. Surely the resources of the Government run to this at least?
Events then followed an entirely predictable path. The failure to apologise would become the issue, rather than how to solve the problem. The opportunistic -and almost entirely contemptible - self-serving opposition in Holyrood would demand Stewart Stevenson’s head and demand a debate. They would, of course, offer no solutions or analysis, only blame, and would attempt to extend the issue into questions of the wider competence of the SNP Government, aided by a media press pack only to eager to join the gadarene rush.
There has been one notable Opposition exception to this – Jackson Carlaw, MSP and Tory Transport spokesman. Interviewed yesterday afternoon at Holyrood and last night on Newsnight Scotland, he offered the only solid, statesmanlike contributions to have come from any opposition MSP, recognising the quite exceptional nature of the freak weather conditions, acknowledging that no government would have done better, and focusing on the real failure (that of communication to the public) and the real issue – what do we do as a nation to avoid this disruption repeating itself.
In modern society, we often act as if we believe we are in control of the elements, and if they don’t behave, someone must be to blame! In our more rational moments – and as we know from recent event, politicians and financiers are only partly rational beings –we try to predict the occurrence of extreme natural events, and prepare for them.
So we have building regulations, civil engineering standards, fire services, emergency services, flood defences, emergency supplied, contingency plans, rapid response and rescue services, etc. We have an infrastructure that tries to ensure that as far as possible, civil, commercial and industrial life – and personal life – can continue with some approach to normality even in the face of disaster. We try to ensure that the road, rail and communications networks and health services will continue to function, and the continuity of gas, electricity and water supplies. We also try to recognise the vital inter-dependence of these components of modern society.
As a society, we are not too bad at these things. What we are lousy at is the political process that is meant to oversee these elements, and the decision-making processes that are supposed come in to play to act on information received from experts.
What is the worm in the apple of this decision making? It is, without any doubt, short-term political gain considerations and electoral timing.
Let’s look at weather and its impact on infrastructure.
WEATHER – SNOW AND ICE
I have lived in the central belt of Scotland for most of my life, in both the west and the east – Glasgow and Edinburgh. In all of those years, I have never seen any government, local or national, fully and adequately prepared for adverse weather. In the distribution and transport industry, we used to have saying on the East Coast – “Edinburgh Council is always astonished when it snows in winter …”
Firstly, the weather forecast and the MET Office. A weather forecast is an informed prediction of what is likely to happen, given all the meteorological information available to the forecasters. Although the accuracy of weather forecasts has improved immeasurably in my lifetime, they are not exact – there is a margin of error. Politicians, emergency services, businesses and public services and drivers can only make plans based upon what they are told about these weather predictions by the media: we can effectively discount the press, because the immediacy of radio and television is vital in this regard.
What must be considered by Government and the emergency services and what must their priorities be?
The priority must be to keep major trunk roads and motorways open and viable, and keep the rail network functioning. Certain other routes, e.g. those to major facilities such as hospitals, fire stations, power stations and routes necessary for access to essential services must also be kept clear.
Private businesses and private individuals must come second to these major priorities, and must accept a significant measure of personal responsibility in maintaining their own access routes.
The citizens who fulminate that the gritter lorry never came up their street, and demand to know why they are paying their council tax must be politely ignored. (They are usually the same people who can be found abusing the drivers of the gritting lorries, utterly contemptible behaviour. They are the kind of people who know their rights, but not their duties and responsibilities.)
The other priority must be to keep the public informed. This is easy to say but hard to do. Governments of all colours and at all times do not have a great success record in communicating with the public. In another age, when the only broadcasting medium was radio, and the cinema and the newspaper were more significant than they are today, a Government could make a major impact in communicating, as demonstrated during the Second World War.
Today, the media and the new media are dominant. Radio has acquired a new and different significance in the television age, and may be considered the main medium of communication with the motorist and the professional driver. Television, in the form of news bulletins, weather forecasts and current affairs programmes, plays an vital role in keeping the public informed. The new media have an increasing role, but tend to address a limited demographic.
Any government attempt to communicate with the public must recognise and utilise all of these mediums, but they do so against the background that the people at large are infinitely more sceptical about the views of politicians and about their motives than they would have been a couple of generations ago. The loss of political innocence among the population may be tracked back to the Macmillan Era and the paradigm-shattering impact of the satirical television programmes of the early 1960s.
In these circumstances, Government must choose its spokespersons very carefully indeed, especially when they are faced with a hostile, opportunistic and cynical opposition, as the SNP are in the Scottish Parliament. When that difficulty is allied to a biased and hostile media, the problems of communication become formidable indeed.
Investing in infrastructure to cope with major weather events that have to date been extremely rare, and which cannot be predicted in the medium to long term is unpopular and difficult for politicians in normal times. (This is demonstrated by the climate change debate, when the utter cynicism and wilful blindness and denial of major interest groups threatens the planet.)
At a time of major financial stringency, brought about by the criminal incompetence of the bankers and the equally criminal incompetence of the last Labour Government, it is infinitely harder to do. But this bullet must be bitten, and there are rare, responsible opposition voices such as Jackson Carlaw’s to support the Government in the interests of the people of Scotland.
To date, the role of Labour in this debate has been both totally predictable and utterly irresponsible, and the hapless Tavish Scott has been little better, since his party is facing electoral meltdown in May 2011, and expediency reigns. Perhaps there are new forces at work in Scottish Conservatism, and perhaps Jackson Carlaw is a harbinger of things to come. We can only hope …
I close with a story told to me by a Diageo distillery manager in 1990, about a Baron Munchausen-type local character from the town of Keith in Speyside, about snow and extreme weather.
Dinnae talk tae me aboot snaw!
In the winter o' 1978, Ah wiz drivin' ma horse an' cairt alang Keith Main street, and the snaw wiz comin' doon an' comin' doon. It wiz hard tae see onything, ye ken, but Ah decided to tether the cairt. But whit to tether it tae
An' then Ah saw a wee bittie spike, stickin' up oot the snaw, so Ah tied the horse tae that, ye ken.
Ah went intae the pub, an' ah had a wee goldie, then Ah had anither wan, an' Ah felt even better! Ah thawed oot, an' aw the ither drinkers thawed oot, an' we a' had a rare auld time!
An' ootside the pub, the weather thawed oot as weel ..
So, Ah thocht - Ah better go an' get ma horse an' cairt. So Ah went oot intae the street, an' the snaw wiz all but gone. But Ah could see nae sign o' the horse and cairt.
Then the church steeple bell chimed, an' Ah looked up.
An' there wiz ma horse and cairt hingin' doon frae the
wee bittie spike oan tap o' the steeple!
Snaw! Dinnae tell me aboot snaw ...