Three things happened in recent weeks that kind of exemplified what the once proud Labour party had become in Scotland. The theme running through each of these quite separate events was behaviour – or to be more precise, bad behaviour.
That there were three examples of this unbecoming side of ‘New Scottish Labour’ is bad enough, that the three individuals responsible were the current Labour group leader, a former Labour group leader and a senior MSP who is also a Lord just compounded the matter.
Just before Christmas the current Labour group leader Iain Gray insulted the peaceful nation of Montenegro by linking their move to independence with ethnic cleansing and violence. This latest bout of diplomatic Tourette’s was in keeping with Labour’s new found penchant for traducing the reputation of Scotland’s small neighbouring countries.
Ireland, Iceland and that Scandinavian ‘wasteland’ called Norway had all received a verbal smack around the face by senior Scottish Labour politicians – now it was Montenegro’s turn as Iain Gray duly landed another low blow.
It caused a diplomatic row that was reported in most Scottish newspapers but not the BBC who still are unable to provide any reason for the blackout. Gray took no notice of the Montenegrins’ objections and went on to pretty much repeat the offensive claims last week.
The second example of what might be termed ‘Laboorish behaviour’ came last week when veteran MSP Lord George Foulkes was threatened with expulsion from the chamber after very rudely shouting out “charlatan” at the Education secretary Mike Russell who was making a statement to Parliament.
Ironically Mr Russell was making a statement in response to yet another Labour inspired smear campaign (Labour wanted an apology) that ended up a damp squib, despite ‘helpful coverage’ from some Scottish newspapers and BBC Scotland who seemed to regain their keenness for reporting political news stories.
I have to digress slightly here and say that the Presiding Officer Mr Alex Fergusson has a near impossible task controlling the chamber during the more passionate exchanges. The main culprits (though not exclusively) are widely accepted by observers to sit on the Labour benches.
The final example of ‘Holyrudeness’ is as bad as it gets. Calling people names and gratuitously insulting small countries, bad as they were, were not calculated. They were simply examples of politicians not engaging brain before opening mouth. What happened on Tuesday 11th January at the Scotland Bill committee hearing was jaw dropping for the sheer scale of the disrespect with which two internationally respected economists were treated by some members of the committee – particularly Labour’s Wendy Alexander.
Professor Andrew Hughes Hallett and Professor Drew Scott had prepared for fully two weeks in the belief that the committee would, as had been indicated in the initial invite, seek evidence from them on the UK coalition’s interpretation of Calman – AKA The Scotland Bill.
Before you read on you may wish to take time to observe what happened to these two gentlemen who had given up their own time in order to appear before the committee. The relevant exchanges start just after 1 hour and go on for around 20 minutes. There are further exchanges at 1 hr 53 minutes and 2 hrs 04 minutes.
They can be viewed by going here: http://www.holyrood.tv/popup.asp?stream=http://vr-sp-archive.lbwa.verio.net/archive/110111_scotland_bill.wmv
Various terms have been used to describe what took place, with hijack and ambush being amongst the favourites. One thing that surely can be agreed on is that it was a very discourteous way to treat these two respected academics. It was clear from the outset that there were members of the committee who were intent on trying to railroad these two gentlemen into disassociating themselves from views expressed by the Scottish government. That they defended themselves and their academic research with such vigour in the face of such openly hostile and intimidatory interrogation is commendable.
Wendy Alexander of course was not the only ‘culprit’, we also witnessed the latest Labour/Tory smooching when David McLetchie joined forces in what looked like a clear set-up. However, as convener of the committee Ms Alexander was responsible for setting the tone, and as such bears much of the responsibility for the ensuing disgrace that followed. The treatment meted out to both men compelled the vice convener of the committee, the SNP’s Brian Adam, to issue an apology to the men.
That they, Alexander and McLetchie, had to resign as respective leaders of their Holyrood party groups after admitting financial irregularities is more than a tad ironic.
The scale of the damage they have done to the reputation of the Holyrood committee process is as yet unknown, but damage it they have. For within days of the unedifying spectacle another well respected academic announced that he would now be cancelling his own scheduled appearance in front of the committee.
Alan Trench described the treatment of Professors Hallett and Scott as “an inquisition” saying they were “ambushed”. Mr Trench opined that the eminent academics appeared to have become “collateral damage of the Committee’s pursuit of another objective, the SNP Scottish Government.” Jim and Margaret Cuthbert had already declined to appear in front of Alexander’s committee due to it’s make-up that is skewed in favour of the Unionist standpoint; their decision seems remarkably prescient given what took place on Tuesday.
Mr Trench published a devastating critique of the session on his blog entitled: How not to do business: Holyrood’s Scotland Bill Committee
The respected academic said: “In its zeal to build a case for the bill’s proposals by attacking the Scottish Government’s position, it has bludgeoned one of the few sets of critical witnesses willing to appear before it.”
So, two witnesses ambushed in a political partisan stunt and another now refusing to attend; seems job done for the Labour/Tory tag team. The day after the session The Scotsman newspaper carried a quite incredulous headline on the proceedings entitled: John Swinney called to explain as experts step back from autonomy claims … and newspapers wonder why their circulation is dropping.
The three examples of bad behaviour cited here are symptomatic of a party that, like a spoiled child, knows all too well that observers who are supposed to ensure good behaviour will turn a blind eye. Scottish Labour will continue this pattern of smears, innuendo, insults and a general lack of manners until they are forced to pay a price.
This rotting of the Scottish Labour soul can be left squarely at the feet of Scotland’s news institutions who have protected the once proud party in the same way as a misguided parent indulges a spoilt child.
The danger of course is that in their reluctance to take Labour to task they are also susceptible to the same rot that has affected Labour. The next step is when the parliament itself becomes tainted, and that is what is happening.
Verbal jousting is an accepted part of the political rough and tumble. However surely now is the time to say enough and to insist that we will no longer accept Scotland’s precious institutions and friendly neighbours being treated as mere collateral damage in a bid to stem the clear desire for constitutional change.
Let’s all make our arguments and have a mature debate instead of trying to silence our opponents or divert attention through intimidation and smears. Let’s also make sure that never again do we witness intelligent and respected contributors, who are prepared to sacrifice their own time in order to aid Scotland’s political processes, being treated in this way again.
In a dramatic development Mr Drew Scott has claimed that papers published by himself and his colleague Andrew Hughes Hallett were added to the list of committee’s official documents without their knowledge and that the papers “masqueraded” as evidence in order to facilitate the aggressive questioning of their academic research.
Mr Scott says:
“It is that our 2009 fiscal autonomy paper – which does not mention the Scotland Bill (obviously) – was put on the Committee’s papers (and web site) without our knowledge or permission, and therefore implicitly masqueraded as the evidence we submitted to that Committee on which we might be expected to be questioned.”
This is a very serious charge and suggests that someone may in fact have deliberately set out to misrepresent the professor’s work for reasons that can only be speculated on.
Professor Scott also described the hearing as an “ambush” and revealed that he and his colleague have written to Holyrood’s Presiding Officer on the matter:
“To my mind there is no doubt that we were victims of a pre-meditated and carefully orchestrated “ambush”, to use Alan’s term. And it is that which has formed the substance of the letter which on Friday we submitted to the Presiding Officer.”