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.

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