Sunday, 26 June 2011

John Lamont is entitled to a hearing

Sometimes you’ve got to give credit where credit is due. It is no secret that I was a vocal critic of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill. Nonetheless, as the First Minister observed, he had the votes to put it through and it is to his credit that, albeit late in the day, he listened to the chorus of dissent, not just from the opposition in Parliament but in the wider community, and decided to think again. We are in new political territory with one party having an absolute majority and no revising chamber. It would be a mistake for Labour to gloat, for if we are to have any influence over the next five years we will have to depend on persuading the Government to change their mind and triumphalism when that is achieved will only make such changes of course less likely.

My purpose here however is not to pour over the politics of what happened but rather to look at the inadequate process through which the Scottish Parliament operates, choosing this episode only as an example. And to comment on some of the tangential issues arising.

When the Presiding Officer called Roseanna Cunningham to move the procedural motion to treat the Bill as emergency legislation, her last words before the Minister started were “You have three minutes.” Paul Martin, moving the direct negative was given two. No matter what one thought of the Bill, this was absurd. There were cogent arguments on both side but neither could properly be articulated within such a tight time frame. As the debate continued, speaker after speaker was clearly constrained by the time limits within the Standing Orders required them to operate: having to curtail their remarks; being unable to take, or properly respond to interjections, simply running out of time. Now this would have been bad enough if the reason was that they were dealing with emergency legislation but in fact this is the way the Parliament operates all the time. It’s not good enough.

When the Scottish Parliament was first set up there is no greater illustration of the extent that Labour had not realised the full extent of our achievement than the ludicrous Standing Orders we decided it was to operate under. Never mind the task with which it was charged, the primary objective was not to create a Parliament to serve the needs of Scotland but rather a Parliament to reflect the personal prejudices of the first intake of Labour MSPs.  The Parliament was to be family friendly and there was to be no penalty on the inarticulate so, no matter the circumstance, debates were to last no more than a couple of hours; back bench speeches restricted to no more than six minutes and everybody had to able to get the 5.30 train back to Glasgow. Further, so long as any school, anywhere in Scotland, was on holiday, the Parliament was not to sit. These are rules more appropriate to a debating society than to a National Parliament. A debating society being what too many in the Labour Party hoped was all that we were creating. 

When the Westminster Parliament had its much publicised debate on the Third Reading of the Scotland Bill, Stuart Hosie spoke for 41 minutes. You don’t have to agree with him to acknowledge that he needed every one of these to present what was a detailed and complex argument. Similarly detailed and complex argument is needed in every Parliament and it has to be realised that the price of good government has, sometimes, to be borne by the personal lives of those chosen to serve there. If the need to change the law on football disorder was a genuine emergency then the Parliament should have sat beyond five o’clock to enable proper debate. And if the legislation needed to be in place in a window starting with the reconvening of the Parliament on 11th May and ending with the start of the Football season on  by 23rd July then a good starting point might have been to concede that everyone shouldn’t then  be shooting off on holiday on 30th June.  

We are about to debate great issues in relation to the future constitutional future of Scotland. It serves the interests of no-one, other than the personal comfort of MSPs, for these debates to take place in such a constrained and intellectually inadequate framework.

Which leads me to my second point, which is the most controversial speech made in the debate by John Lamont for the Tories. Mr Lamont suggested, with reference to his personal history, that one of the factors behind the polarisation of west/central Scotland was the division of children along denominational lines from the moment they enter Primary School. The reaction from the other Parties, indeed from within his own Party, could not have been more outraged if he had suggested the free circulation of crack cocaine. This simply illustrated  the fundamental dishonesty of current Scottish politics. One of the factors behind the polarisation of west/central Scotland is the divided school system. It is not the only factor but Mr Lamont did not say it was. And that unintended by-product of denominational schooling does not mean that denominational schools should be abolished but again that was not a proposal Mr Lamont made. He simply suggested that it was a contributory factor that had to be recognised.

Now, I am not a Roman Catholic but I have always been a defender of Catholic Schools because it has always seemed to me that in a free society people should be entitled to a choice when deciding how their children should be educated but I have always recognised that this is not a consequence free situation, as indeed are any number of other policy choices.

The smoking ban was a flagship achievement of Labour’s time in office but it has to be recognised that an unintended by-product has been an increase in people drinking at home, rather than in the pub and that in consequence they are drinking more, because its cheaper and measures are not......measured.

The decision by the SNP to keep open local A&Es meant people had a shorter distance to an emergency hospital but, bluntly, if they were seriously ill, also meant they were less likely to receive state of the art treatment when they got there.

I would have had (some) more time for our knife crime policy at the last election if we had at least recognised that it would have led to a number of abused women and misguided have a go heroes doing six months pokey but been prepared to defend that as the price of the wider objective. (Actually, this is not the best example as it assumes the policy was coherent, which it clearly wasn’t.)

I could however go on to list any number of other examples but my main objective is simply to point out the extent to which the current climate in Scottish politics assumes that some policies, particularly policies such as denominational schooling (or free personal care) which have all Party support, are deemed to enjoy, simply in consequence of that support, the virtue of having no downside. Worse still, those who might try to question that conclusion are treated as if they have no place in civilised company. That’s not the basis for good government. Indeed its not even the basis for a properly functioning democracy.

Which leads me to my final point which is that too often a similar mindset exists within the Scottish Labour  Party itself.  The Scottish Party’s attitude to choice in schooling is immovable in two things. Children can choose to go to a non-denominational school or denominational school. But, unless their parents can pay, they must go to a school run by the local authority. Now, one of the interesting reactions to Mr Lamont’s speech was the spokesman for the Catholic Church drawing attention to how many non-catholic children now go to Catholic schools. This is undoubtedly true. The reason for it is because the parents of these children have looked at what is on offer and made a choice to send their children there. There are many reasons for this but undoubtedly among  the factors are that catholic schools have a reputation both for better discipline and a greater commitment to the comprehensive principle that no child should be abandoned to ignorance or allowed to behave as if they were superior to their fellow students.

Now, many of my teaching friends will argue that this perception is unfair on the non-denominational sector but few would argue that it is not a perception that has wide currency.  My point is however this. If we defend that particular choice, why are we so opposed to other choices that parents might want to make for their children’s education; particularly the choice to choose a school not run directly by the local authority? The crucial issue is surely not bureaucratic structure but quality of education and standard of result.

So, let’s stop looking down our noses at some of the innovations Labour tried down South. They may not be applicable to Scottish circumstance; they may even not produce the results claimed for them but they are surely worthy of debate.

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