JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 28.10.11
FIDDLING WHILE ROME BURNS: it’s been a favourite occupation of third-rate politicians throughout the ages, and we have seen some royal exhibitions of it at every level, this week. In Brussels, the elected leaders of 17 great European nations, with a population of almost 300 million people, have been bickering, grovelling, and raiding the pockets of ordinary taxpayers once again, in obedience to the demands of capital markets that should have been reined in, reformed, and put under proper democratic control within weeks of the 2008 crash.
And at Westminster – well, if there has ever been a more lamentable week in the history of Scottish representation in the UK parliament, then I would hate to hear of it. The Scots, let’s be clear, are not the only group of Westminster MP’s gripped by mindless tribalism, or by various forms of chauvinist delusion; this week’s mass Tory rebellion on Britain’s membership of the European Union came as a sharp reminder of that.
There is no doubt, though, about the single most depressing spectacle at Westminster this week; and it lies in the ugly row, in the House Of Commons Scottish Affairs Select Committee, between the committee’s chair, the Labour MP Ian Davidson, and SNP member Eilidh Whiteford. Without question, Davidson is the prime culprit in this affair. Unreconstructed to a fault, and prone to outbursts which go well beyond the bounds of civil or useful debate, Davidson represents a style of Scottish Labour politics that has always been objectionable, and is now completely out of time; this is the man, remember, who in recent Commons speech referred to the SNP as “neo-fascist”, a phrase which suggests that he lives in a world of self-reinforcing prejudice completely divorced from the current realities of Scottish politics.
Anyone who has taken part in Scottish public life will have met some men of this old school, most of them Labour, some Tory, some representing other traditional interests; men whose language is full of violent imagery, who think it clever or even amusing to make bullying threats, and to whom feminism – and all the changes in thinking and language it entails – is largely a foreign country. The remark Davidson allegedly made to Eilidh Whiteford – about “getting a doing” for leaking information about the committee’s work – is thuggish, stupid, inept and unacceptable; and it raises the most profound questions about the calibre of the people being sent to Westminster by the Scottish Labour Party, questions to which that failing organisation currently has no answer at all.
The truth about this sad affair, though, is that in a gloomy microcosm of current Scottish politics, the SNP emerge from it smelling of roses only because the performance of the other parties is so lamentable. In their handling of the Davidson affair, the SNP have in fact been indulging in political games-playing of a pretty contemptible sort, and have made at least two decisions that show them in a less than flattering light. In the first place, they have encouraged ambiguity about what a “doing” in fact means to a politician like Davidson, and have whipped up a fine head of steam among leading Scottish feminists about the gender implications of Davidson’s remark. The bitter truth, though, is that this phrase implies nothing but physical violence – a beating-up – and is likely to be used to both men and women, in bullying situations. Whiteford is right to object strongly to it, and right to demand an apology; but there can be little doubt that Davidson would be capable of using the same language to a young male MP, in similar circumstances.
And then secondly, they have used this incident as a pretext for what is beginning to look like a complete withdrawal from the Scottish Affairs Committee, a body whose existence irritates them, and which they wish to undermine. There is no chance of Davidson resigning from the Chair of the Committee at the SNP’s behest, or of Labour women at Westminster – many of them seasoned feminist campaigners – accepting tenuous arguments about the gender dimension of this dispute from a party with a much less impressive record than Labour, when it comes to real action on women’s issues; so the deadlock seems absolute, and the scrutiny of a bill whose detail may be vital to Scotland’s immediate future will suffer as a consequence.
Add to this litany of poor behaviour the kind of infantile bickering in which the parties indulged on Wednesday evening’s edition of Newsnight Scotland, and there seems little cause for anything but despair. The relationship between Labour and the SNP in Scotland is bad enough, and a source of misery to many voters, who can often, on major social and economic issues, see little dividing the parties except knee-jerk tribalism.
At Westminster, though, this relationship now seems to have turned wholly toxic, to the point where both sides are behaving in ways which call into question their emotional and moral fitness for public office; there now seems, for example, to be no practising politician, on either side of the Labour-SNP divide, mature enough even to reach that elementary first stage of conflict resolution which involves a recognition that not all the blame rests with the other party.
To say that Scottish voters deserve something better than this is to state the obvious. What is most alarming, though, about the current state of Scottish politics, is that it is not untypical of a political class that has largely surrendered its power, over the last two decades, to the lords of international finance; and is now left bickering, in chancelleries and comittee-rooms across the planet, over how to manage the detail of the decline made inevitable by its own misjudgments. Small wonder that the calibre of people attracted into politics is declining. And small wonder that so many politicians now waste our time and theirs on a dumbed-down, personalised politics of grandstanding and insult; while the big decisions are made elsewhere, in boardrooms far beyond the reach of democracy, by those who long since learned how to shape the whole political process to their own ends.