RECENTLY I HAD the pleasure of chairing a book event in Aboyne with Dennis Canavan and Tam Dalyell. A pleasant and liquid weekend was had by all. But one question that was put to them struck me – ‘Can Labour recover?’
There was a silence. And then both expressed the deepest doubt. At first I was surprised. After all most opinion polls currently predict a Labour victory. The coalition's economic travails would seem to represent an open goal even for the kenspeckle Mr Balls. It took a little time for me to realise that they were not really speaking of an electoral victory. The vagaries of our tweedledum and tweedledee electoral system mean that outcome may well come, but about the soul of the party, and what it actually stands for.
They lamented the modern politician who has gone from intern to special adviser, possibly via Public Affairs, from hopeless seat to safe option and then is elected bright-eyed and bushy tailed with absolutely no idea of a world outside. They pointed out that the Millibands, Camerons, Osbornes and Cleggs had in many ways far more in common through having come up by this route than they would have with the electorate they claim to represent.
Both felt that they - Dennis and Tam - would no longer be selectable in todays climate – they were just too well, bloody awkward.
But both Dennis and Tam's awkwardness comes from the sheer depth of their background, from being rooted in the communities and people they represented. Both have written (as politicians' memoirs go) books that have sold very well and both are clearly held in the highest respect by the audiences they address. Now I don’t agree with Dennis on many topics, and I don’t agree with Tam, but their views are founded on the rock of real life experience and in any debate they give the respect and courtesy of people who are so grounded and know exactly where and why they stand.
I then started to reflect on our modern politicians and how the method of progress up the greasy pole changes the way decisions are made in this country. Firstly, if your world is spent in a bubble with a series of defined goals to rise through that world, then the views you will espouse will not be those designed to appeal to the outside world but to those of your colleagues whom you wish to appeal to.
Those views will be those that maximise your and their chances as they see it of success against an opposition group of people of identical mien and desire. There is in fact little difference between you and them so your view of policy will merely be a series of tactical differentiations designed to score a point or win a round, while playing lip service to the movement of which you are a member.
Of course this is not something you realise you are doing but merely something your lack of any roots outside politics means you do instinctively. You are surrounded by focus groups and advisers all advising gain without pain, all seeking to soothe and not frighten the voter. The result means that ‘policy’ becomes not that which needs to be done out of a deeply held set of beliefs, not an articulation of a way of thinking or life but merely a form of decoration, of bells being run to articulate your adherence to a cause without actually making any radical and therefore threatening change.
Your approach to your vote becomes a series of bite sized propositions involving the distribution of cash or use of patronage but not any fundamental address of the problem in the first place.
An MSP of my acquaintance was commenting on how many problems he had to solve in his constituency. As I listened to how they were ‘solved’, a drop of cash here, a promise to review there, a guarantee to take up with a Minister, I realised that in fact there was no desire to really solve any of these problems, that in fact he felt he acquired meaning in his role through sticking plasters over the massive dysfunction of the governmental system of which he is nominally part. In other words the greater the failure of the system the more he felt he rode to the rescue in plugging its holes. Two very concrete examples of the failure of governance and politics spring to mind.
Recently, Visit Scotland decided to buy all its books centrally, another example of the compulsive centralisation so beloved of the modern Nationalist. There was of course the usual lip service to local publishers being able to sell directly. One of these is based in Lewis. Suddenly it found itself barred from its local tourist board despite being one of the major producers of books on the Western Isles!
I spoke to the local MSP at a party. He then took it up with John Swinney as it was an issue about procurement. Thus the full majesty of the Cabinet Secretary for Finance ended up deciding on the stocking policy of Stornoway Tourist Information centre! The Cabinet Secretary was happy as was the MSP. A problem had been ‘solved’ while a rotten system had remained unaddressed. The essential problem of course of this type of politics is it is entirely about noise not real purpose, the ‘busyness’ of the politician is in inverse proportion to their effectiveness.
My second example concerns our esteemed Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander. At the Liberal Democrat conference prior to the local elections Danny stood up and announced with a flourish that through some arcane deal with fuel suppliers rural fuel would be reduced in price by 5 pence. It was I think intended to be an election winner. Since, however, most fuel supply to rural areas is done on a monopoly basis, prices dropped for a day or two and then rose again as the monopolists said ‘thanks very much for the subsidy’. It was the classic response of a man who had spent all his life in politics of one form or another and simply regarded any problem as a matter of applying a subsidy to create a solution. No doubt bureaucrats are still labouring somewhere to make the scheme work while, meanwhile, fuel prices in the Highlands have returned to their previously exorbitant level.
For the individual to be treated as an object to be bought and sold only contributes to our disengagement and cynicism from the political process. We will of course jump through the hoops to get the money while having utter contempt for those who try and buy our love.
It was Tam who proposed an elegant solution which I think Dennis agreed with. No politician should be allowed to stand for office until they have spent ten years doing a job outside and unconnected with politics. What a satisfying swathe that would cut through our current parliamentarians in Holyrood and Westminster. And what an elegant demonstration of why they are determined to prevent people like Tam and Dennis ever standing again.