Thursday 2 June 2016

Would the First Minister please grow-up?

The purpose of First Minister's Questions is to allow the Scottish Parliament to scrutinise the policy decisions and implementation of the Scottish Government. This is vital in representative democracy. Governments, even those with the support of the majority of members of Parliament or even, dare I say it, the majority of the electorate, still are not perfect, and their judgment and their competence has to be kept under constant scrutiny. That is why a Parliament exists at all, rather than that we just let the government pass legislation uninhibited for a five-year term.

Just because you've won one, or two, or three elections, does not mean that you can or should just do whatever you like. Nor does it mean that everyone who voted for you agrees with everything, or even most, of what your platform for government entailed. Of course you are entitled to attempt to implement as much of that as possible, but popular support is not, in and of itself, a justification for making any policy decision whatsoever. Being popular does not mean that your judgment is good, or that your ideas are good, or that the way you put them into practice is good. And it is no defence to the accusation that your record or decisions are bad to say "but your decisions are worse".

To this end, the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has continued into this Parliament one of the most nauseating and childish tendencies of Scottish politics. Whenever she was questioned about her record in the last Parliament, her response was often to boast "we won the election" or "your party is a mess as we beat you". As several commentators observed in the election itself, she said she was happy to be judged on her record in government precisely because she knew that those planning to vote for her mostly would do so regardless or in spite of it.

"My manifesto" is not an answer

Today in Parliament, Patrick Harvie drew attention to a report on poverty, the findings of which the First Minister had agreed to implement. It stated, in relation to local taxation, that the council tax was "no longer fit for purpose" and was hugely regressive. This was a position the SNP had actually held for some time, and in the past Nicola Sturgeon herself had said that the council tax should be replaced with something fairer. However, the SNP government, after 9 years in charge, chose only marginally to tinker with council tax, making it slightly less unfair instead of replacing it outright.

He asked her why she wouldn't take the opportunity to be bolder, in light of that report, and abolish council tax in favour of a more radical alternative. This was Nicola Sturgeon's response:

"We put forward our plans, plans that I believe were bold. Patrick Harvie put forward his plans, and the electorate cast their votes. I'm standing here as First Minister with a mandate to take forward the proposals that we were elected on."

This is not an answer to Patrick Harvie's question. She provided no substantive argument as to why a more radical alternative would be a worse policy. There is no point in First Ministers Questions if the response we are going to get to substantive criticisms of her government's platform is "I was elected to implement my government's platform and we won." Just because you have an electoral mandate to do something, doesn't mean you should do it. Bad ideas are bad ideas regardless of how many people support them. The mantra of Keynes that when the facts change so should your mind is important.

Governments are supposed to be responsive to evidence and criticism and to explain why they are doing what they are doing and just as importantly why they are not doing what they are not doing. No one is questioning Nicola Sturgeon's authority simply to tinker with council tax. Harvie was questioning why that's what she wants to do. Just because she won the election doesn't mean that Parliament, and the people, are not entitled to an answer to that question. And she has, or at least gave, no answer.

"Your point is invalid because I have more votes than you"

Similarly, Willie Rennie asked the First Minister about a Memorandum of Understanding entered into between Nicola Sturgeon and two Chinese companies for £10 billion of unspecified infrastructure projects in Scotland. Those companies were SinoFortone group and the China Railway No 3 Engineering Group. The parent company of the latter has been implicated in corruption charges and human rights abuses in various projects, including a number in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rennie sought assurances that no government contracts would be awarded to this company, which has been heavily criticised by other countries, and was in fact blacklisted by the Norwegian state oil fund. He also drew attention to Amnesty International's criticisms of the company and the reasons they gave why economic cooperation with CRG was bad for human rights.

Sturgeon's response?

"Hold the front page. First Minister of Scotland seeks to explore opportunities for investment and jobs into Scotland. SHOCK HORROR. That is part of the job of First Minister of this country and the fact that Willie Rennie doesn't recognise that is a core responsibility of the First Minister is probably part of the reason why he will never stand here as First Minister of this country."
The only people impressed with a response like that must be those that unthinkingly clap their seal-like flippers for hands to absolutely anything she says. Literally no one that criticises a trade deal on the grounds of its human rights implications doesn't think it's the responsibility of a government to attract inward investment. What the question asked was about was the kind of compromises the First Minister was prepared to make in order to procure that investment, or the lack of due diligence undertaken before signing the Memorandum of Understanding. Instead, we get a response that basically amounts to "I got more votes than you so you can't criticise me ne-ne-ne ne-ne-ne". It's risible.

Just not good enough

This represents a hubristic tendency in the SNP leadership that basically thinks it does not need to accept or respond to the substance of criticism because 41.7% of the electorate voted for them.

One could just about understand the logic of "I hear what you're saying but I don't care, we have a mandate and we will implement it anyway" when the SNP held a majority of the seats at Holyrood. It's a crap argument, but at least in a technical sense, they could do what they liked under the terms of our representative democracy. It is easy to forget that if you're playing the top-trumps "the people agree" card, more than 50% of those who voted did not support an SNP candidate. The people do not completely and unconditionally agree with them.

But especially now that they have lost their majority, the SNP do not have a mandate to implement all of their proposals. They have a mandate to try, but a minority government has not just a functional, but a moral imperative to listen to criticism on the substance of what they are doing and why they are doing it, and not simply to waive away criticism with "we won you lost".

The Scottish Parliament was supposed to herald a new politics. A break from the yah-booh childishness of Westminster. Yet our First Minister approaches her responsibility to account for her policies and decisions in Parliament with the mentality of a four-year-old child in the playground. For the sake of Scotland, it's time she grew up and dealt with criticisms of her government maturely instead of adopting an unwarranted indignance at the audacity of opposition parties to criticise decisions taken under her watch.

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