Thursday, 29 January 2009

It's Ma Baw!

So Alex Salmond is going to resign if his Budget doesn't go through?

Cheerio then.

It's starting to become a yearly event now, with the First Minister bluffing Parliament as to how he will storm out of the building, taking his pals with him, if the others don't do what he tells them. After all it's his ball isn't it?

The point is that Salmond is an astute political player. He has done well in working minority government, using the system to avoid making the difficult choices he might otherwise face, with the handy excuse of non-coalition government. Indeed, it has been good for the Scottish political scene to see that minority government is possible. The Scottish Parliament was founded on the principle of more consensual politics - this is reflected in the voting system used and the lay out of the debating chamber itself. We have had coalition government and now minority government and both systems have been shown to work. The basis of this success is cross-party working, whether that be in the formal environs of a coalition agreement or the less formal issue-by-issue agreements made by the current administration.

However, consensual politics does not mean that opposition parties have to agree with or support everything that the Government proposes, even (or maybe especially) in the case of something as serious as the Budget.

The Tories, who of course supported the Budget again, accused Labour of political grandstanding, however Labour would have been failing in its duty if it did not raise the issues that it did. This is not a case of opposing for opposition's sake, but rather a legitimate political disagreement between the governing party and the biggest opposition party.

The fact is of course that the Budget would have passed had the discussions with the Greens not been so badly handled. The last minute nature of the offer to them was a failure on behalf of Swinney's team and I'm sure questions will be asked as to how this opportunity was missed. Labour and the Green Party had made it clear that they were open to finding concessions which would allow the Budget to be passed (the Lib Dems were still focussed on the tax cut that no one else wanted) so the opportunities were there. The chances of the SNP making big concessions to Labour were always unlikely (Salmond's Government in debt to Labour - ain't gonna happen!) but the Greens were the crucial votes which they should have sown up.

But Salmond's latest threat to resign is a reflection of his misunderstanding of the political system. No matter how much he wishes it were the case, Salmond is neither God nor undisputed ruler - his word is not law. The people of Scotland (whose democratic voice he professes to value so highly) voted his party in as the biggest; but also voted in more parties who disagreed with them than agreed. Salmond cannot demand changes just because he tells us so - the Scottish system is such that he must build consensus.

The Budget will pass - the Lib Dems are already looking to drop their ill-thought out tax plan which would open up their support - but Salmond has to start to realise that he cannot throw his toys out of the pram every time he doesn't get his own way. Yes, the Budget is crucial and there are serious ramifications should it fall. However, political posturing does not help the situation at all. Labour should not vote in favour of the Budget on the basis of Salmond resigning - if he is willing to force an election upon voters who are already facing election overkill in the coming years then on his head be it. Parliament cannot be held to ransom by one man's ego, but must fulfil its role in scrutinising the Government and holding it to account.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Expenses and Accountability.

Expenses are always an interesting affair, particularly in regards to our elected officials. And it has now been smuggled through Westminster that MP's expenses should be exempt from scrutiny.

This is a complete and utter disgrace. MP's expenses should be completely documented and open to all members of the public so that we can see where public money is being spent. Listing under general headings and not requiring documentation for monies claimed is an insult to the electorate and severely damages public trust in democracy.

If I want to claim expenses at work I have to provide proof of what I am claiming, and this should be doubly true for MPs and other elected representatives. MSPs already have far more openness in their financial claims and this is the standard that Westminster should be aspiring to, rather than seeking to cover the details of what is claimed.

Part of the reason for the clandestine nature is that MPs are claiming for items and services for which it is hard to see any justification. Despite protestations to the contrary, MPs are already paid a very generous salary for their time and work. This is not to detract from the intensity and difficulty of the work that MPs do and it is right that they be covered for the legitimate expenses of their work. However, paying for furniture and home improvements is hard to justify for someone who is already earning over £60k.

I admit that I am idealistic, but political representation is not a job. It is a vocation, a call to serve the public and make a difference to the world. When my Papa served on the council for years, it was in a voluntary capacity. He and his colleagues, of different political stripes, served their communities in their spare time, working full time to support their families and then attending meetings in the evening.

I'm not recommending a return to this situation - I think the provision of a wage is important in order to open political representation to a wider range of people. However, a return to the ethos of that age would be welcome. Politicians serve at the public's pleasure not in their own right. They are public servants and this must be foremost in their minds and work. That is why I think of political representation as a vocation - it is not just a job, but rather a life that people feel called to, and which is bigger than just them.

MPs must, for the good of democracy, make all expenses open and transparent. The very provision of expenses must be reviewed urgently so that they expenses claimable are restricted to those required for the service of the electorate. If the Government is failing in this regard, then individual MPs must take the initiative and start to publish their own expenses in full.

More details about this campaign here. Send a letter to your MP, make clear your disgust and help restore accountability in democracy.

Monday, 19 January 2009

I do solemnly swear...

So tomorrow is the big day. President-elect Barack Obama will start to recite the words of his oath, and the transition to President Obama, 44th President of the United States of America will be complete. He will enter office at a time of global upheaval, with the economic system that underpins the US's global dominance collapsing; with US military hegemony strained by the entanglement in costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; with huge challenges confronting the citizens he represents; and with a weight of expectations upon his shoulders unmatched by any other holder of the office in recent times, if indeed ever. Can he rise to these innumerable challenges?

Yeah, he probably can.

Ok, not quite as emphatic as his campaign slogan was, but that is because the campaign is over and reality starts now. It is the meeting of expectations which I think will be the hardest for him. The other issues are political issues, requiring policy decisions, some of which he'll get right and some of which he won't. However, the expectations he carriers are incredible. Not just from the colour of his skin and the hopes of an entire swathe of the US population who have long felt excluded from the corridors of power; but also from the young people motivated to use their votes and the older people inspired to believe that their country could be different. From the Republicans who crossed party lines to vote for the man they believed presented the best future for them and from devoutly religious people who ignored the proclamations of some of the church leaders which threatened them with hell if they voted for Obama and who focussed on improving life before death.

No President will be perfect, as no human being is perfect. However, Obama has served to inspire a huge number of people who had disconnected from the political process and this presents the US (and indeed beyond) with a chance to re-invigorate democracy. I think he can do this. By focussing on listening to the people, to keeping their interests at the forefront of his Presidency, he can restore faith in an institution which has lost much of its lustre over the past 8 years, and restore the world's faith in the US as a beacon of democracy and leadership.

He can be the change that he has professed to be, and the world will be watching to see if it happens. I hope that as he assumes the Presidency he believes and adheres to his own message, and that we can see the United States of America restore the respect and affection that the world has for it.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Lies, damned lies and obsfucation

It is a sad, sad day for politics. Allegations are raging around Holyrood that the FM (and indeed other Ministers) may have obscured the truth in their statements. Should this be true then life as we know it is finished - how can we support democracy if our politicians lie?

Ok, the issue is a bit more serious than I am making out, but I don't think it is the end of Salmond that some folk seem to think it might be. Yeah, he was wrong in what he said - personally I think it makes him look stupid rather than dishonest. However, I don't know how much this is going to resonate with the public.

At the end of the day, the sad reality is that voters do not trust politicians. I am currently in the process of finishing a research report into the barriers that EM communities face in Scotland (hence the lack of blogging) and one of the regular comments I have received working with people is that they have no trust for politicians, or indeed politics in general. Respondents expressed an opinion that politicians are only out for themselves; tell you whatever you want to hear to make you vote for them then ignore you; are a closed network of 'old boys' who don't want new people involved.

All depressing stuff for anyone who is a democrat. And rooted in truth. Politicians do avoid answering questions they don't want to answer and they do appear at election time and then vanish for several years. It is the democratic contract between the electorate and their representatives which needs to change, with clearer explanations of the responsibilities that representatives have to their constituents.

In this context, the FM's obsfucation is an important issue, in that it negates the purpose of FM's questions. This process is intended to be an opportunity for Parliament to hold the Government to account, to demand answers and ensure that legislative procedures and priorities are being followed. This doesn't work well in the Scottish Parliament. Partly it is because we are stuck between systems. The Parliament is conceived as a co-operative body with opportunities for discourse and debate, yet the confrontational style of the bear-pit of Westminster still lurks in the corner over-shadowing the interactions. Salmond is in the position of being a better parliamentary showman than his rivals (partly due to his schooling in Westminster) and plays a pretty and effective game of bluff and patronising humour. However, whilst entertaining for him and his supporters, this does mean that the scrutiny of FM's questions, which is so vital to the democratic integrity of the Parliament, can be lost somewhat.

This was always going to happen as soon as a performer like Salmond was FM - his predecessors were less artistic in their abilities and therefore the smoke and mirrors were not as obvious (although they were still there). Now is an opportunity to revisit the procedures which the Presiding Officer operates under to ensure that they can support the correct functioning of the chamber.

Salmond will not resign, however he should admit that he was wrong. He should also use the opportunity to change the situation. Yes it benefits him just now, but he and his party will not be in power for ever. Labour made the mistake in power of not increasing support for the opposition and this has made life difficult since 2007 - if Salmond has sense, he will learn from this.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Come in Bearsden and Milngavie, your time is up!

Wonderful suggestion in the Herald in regards to the
re-organisation of Local Government in Scotland - most notably that Bearsden, Milngavie and the other 'burbs of Glasgow should be brought into the fold of a metropolitan council.

About blooming time I say!

If anyone wants proof that the citizens of these wealthy enclaves make full use of the services provided by Glasgow City Council without contributing to its running, you just have to check out the queues of 4x4s racing back to their countryside retreats at the end of another working week doing whatever it is one does in order to live in Milngavie. They tramp the streets and fill the litter bins that my council tax pays for, and then live in luxury unhindered by the common folk of The City (It always seems to be said in a dramatic voice).

Of course, the good folk of the burbs do not wish to be reunited with their urban brothers and sisters - in fact many of the urban crowd doesn't particularly want them back! This particularly goes for Labour Councillors who wouldn't get much benefit from some of the few remaining Liberal Democrats in Scotland suddenly appearing in George Square. Indeed, the inclusion of the 'burbs would actually lead to the Tories being more than a single entity in Glasgow, a distressing situation if ever there was one.

However, the chance to force these isolationists to actually pay for the services they use would help the City coffers, whilst restoring an element of fairness to life in Greater Glasgow. Such is to be welcomed.

Of course, this is actually all a very serious situation which deserves in-depth consideration and debate. Unfortunately that will have to wait for another day when I am not snowed under with work! So in the meantime, the campaign starts here to restore our comrades in Milngavie, Bearsden, Giffnock et al into the welcome embrace of the City of Glasgow, where they will pay for what they use. And in a spirit of niceness and welcoming, we will even allow them to still vote Lib Dem!

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Submission to the Calman Commission

In a work capacity, I made a submission to the Calman Commission on Scottish Devolution, and was subsequently invited, with my Director Colin Lee, to give oral evidence to the Commission. The transcript of the evidence is now online at CEMVO Submission. It's a pdf file, and our submission starts in the second half of the document following the Law Society.

Of course to clarify this blog is not connected to the Council of Ethnic Minority of Voluntary Organisations and none of the views expressed here are to be taken as representative of CEMVO's opinions, but are purely personal.

However, I think that our submission made some important points about the disconnection between many people, particularly those I work with in the Ethnic Minority communities in Scotland. The whole constitutional debate in Scotland is taking place, in my opinion, far too soon. The Parliament in still in its infancy, and the lack of understanding and participation amongst many people leaves them unable to assess the performance of the Parliament to date, let alone questions of fiscal autonomy and further devolution.

Unfortunately it is the situation we are presented with and so we must make the best of it we can. My work organisation is also involved in the National Conversation process - we do not have an organisational stance on what the best way forward is but rather strive to emphasise that everyone must be included in the discussions.

More about my work organisation can be found at CEMVO Scotland - my project is the Inclusive Democracy Project (IDP).

Monday, 5 January 2009

Education, Education, Education...

Liz Smith MSP, the Conservatives Schools spokeswoman has proposed that more testing is required in primary school to ensure that children are developing appropriate skills in the 3rs (

Now, I understand where she is coming from - it is a national embarrassment that so many young people are not gaining sufficient ability in such key life skills, and she is right to identify that testing the areas in S4 is far too late. However, I think that the desire to introduce even more testing is the wrong direction to take.

The problem we face now in our schools it that we teach the important topics in the wrong way, certainly in primary schools. If you ask primary aged children which lessons they most dislike, they invariably answer "Maths and English!" Yet, which two lessons are formally taught every day of the week? Yep, Maths and English.

I'm not arguing that literacy and numeracy shouldn't be at the heart of the curriculum - in fact, I would argue that they need to be more central. Instead of solely focussing on 'formalised' teaching of the two subjects, other more interactive and exciting topics should be utilised to develop these skills. For example, any of the artistic or sporting subjects provide opportunities for exploring a huge range of literacy and numeracy topics (spatial awareness in PE, communication in Drama etc) alongside other social and educational skills whilst science, history and other subjects can fill the children with an appreciation of the wonders that our world contains and a desire to learn and explore their own identities. And amazingly, this can be fun for the children too!

Testing has a place within the education system, as does rote learning and other dull methods. However, by forcing testing to ever earlier stages of the education system, we merely ignore the different ways in which children develop and hinder their natural curiosity and desire to explore the world around them. Play is one of the most powerful educational tools that there is, yet by enforcing testing (often for testings sake) we relegate play to something children do in their spare time or as a reward, instead of as a key means by which they can learn and grow.

The point is that much of the testing, including that suggested by Liz Smith, is introduced with the interests of adults and the state in mind rather than the interests of the children involved in the process. The testing is to allow us to see how our tax money is spent; or to decide which school is best for our children to attend; or to create beautiful league tables which serve no purpose other than to reinforce differences between schools and communities. They are not designed for improving the educational experience of our young people, indeed they can often impede it.

What is needed is a change in how we approach education. We need our classrooms to be places of wonder, where children and young people are able to question and challenge and explore. Teachers have an amazing vocation to accompany these young people on their journey - not to regulate everything and dictate the boundaries of what they can learn, but rather to support them in developing the skills that can then be used throughout life. Lifelong learning is one of the popular topics for governmental input and rightly so, but the key way to develop lifelong learning is not solely by providing educational opportunities for adults who have missed out but by also helping young people to develop the means by which they can continue to learn in their own time and own manner throughout their lives.

So, we do not need more testing, particularly in the early formative years when our children are learning to learn. We need to refind the joy of play and the wonder of learning - free up our teachers to teach and our children to be children.

As George Bernard Shaw so aptly said:

"We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing."