Are the Tories gagging democracy?

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By Dorothy Bruce

Theresa may is fond of pontificating about British values – a belief in democracy, upholding the rule of law, a deeply embedded sense of fair play, integrity, tolerance. These were the values many in the UK believed, and were told, ruled an Empire on which the sun never set. But the never-setting sun was not allowed to use its rays to cleanse murky corners, and now the internet has prised open a number of history’s iron-bound chests to prodding by inquisitive fingers and intensive questioning – rather like enthusiastic and knowledgeable amateurs at an architectural dig. And what has been unearthed and brushed off rarely shows Theresa May’s British values in a flattering light.

More recently, under Mrs May’s tenure in office at Number 10 these values have crumbled to dust faster and more comprehensively than possibly at any time previously. What we have watched in the last years, months and weeks has not been an edifying sight.

We have witnessed misinformation disseminated at every turn and lying on an industrial scale. Unknown and untraceable shadowy bodies donated monies to the DUP (a party which only has representation in Northern Ireland) during the EU referendum to help sway the democratic vote in Scotland and England. SNP MPs have been barracked and nastily hustled at Westminster in attempts to stop democratically elected MPs making points and representing the interests of their electors. Democracy and fair play?

Tory shadow banking

More recently, investigative journalists have followed money spoors to other shadowy, illusory organisation – obscure trusts and unincorporated associations, floating like clouds in thin air, and which appear not to be registered with the Electoral Commission. Under UK electoral law all donations over £7,500 have to be registered and the source of the donation named. Over the last five years Tory election spending in Scotland has more than trebled. In the Scottish parliament election of 2011 the Tories spent nearly £275,000. By the 2016 election, they splashed out more than three and a half times as much – £978,921.07.

Pete Wishart asks for a debate at Westminster to shine a light on Dark Money swirling around obscure corners of right-wing conservative funding

Monies floated into Tory target seats to bankroll wins. Two of the largest beneficiaries of the recent so-called dark money scandal were David Mundell, Secretary of State for Scotland and MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, and John Lamont, MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk.

SUAT: a real Trust?

There was general sorrow and bemusement in the aftermath of the 2017 general election as to how well-respected, high-profile sitting SNP MPs were ousted by inconsequential, lightweight newbies, achieving large majorities. Now we might have some inklings why. Were votes for these newbies in target Tory seats in effect bought?

New twist on a pint for your vote

In the good old days at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, journalist and author Neil Munro records how lords and masters bought votes with pints of ale, with voters glad their vote had a sellable worth. If alive today Munro might believe money now bypasses voters to be lodged into party coffers or handled through organisations with no obvious track record.

In all these cases I am not suggesting any law has been broken – that decision is one for the Electoral Commission after investigation. But questions by the public require answers and those are sluggish as sloths on a slow day to materialise. Theresa May, after all, believes in upholding the rule of law – a great British value. However, it appears in the eyes of her Tories in Scotland that tablet poses a bigger menace to democracy than alleged manipulations of the electoral system.

Four nations in agreement – England decrees

Then there’s the Brexit saga and the EU Withdrawal Bill. Scotland voted by 62% to 38% to remain in the EU. Questions remain to be answered about the money that appears to have financed the overall UK result. During the campaign Nicola Sturgeon, our First Minister, put forward a proposal that all constituents parts of the UK should be required to vote for Brexit for it to be agreed and taken forward: that proposal was of course swatted away like an annoying fly by Theresa May. In Westminster debates and negotiations Scotland’s voice has been ignored and shouted down, and we are told we are leaving the EU with the rest of the UK, whether we like it or not. So much for democracy and fair play!

Debating the EU Withdrawal Bill was a thorny process, steamrollered through parliament with, at the end of the day, only 15 minutes for discussion of the effects of Brexit on Scotland, its economy and devolved powers (with 24 being powergrabbed by Westminster). The brief time allotted was taken up by the Brexit minister, and not one Scottish MP was able to speak. This travesty of democracy resulted in the walkout of SNP MPs from the chamber after their leader, Ian Blackford, had been expelled. We now have what has been dubbed the rapist’s charter where the Scottish Parliament is deemed to agree if it agrees, declines to discuss, or strongly disagrees. It matters not. Westminster will do what it wants.

Consent decision

It has become an accepted norm that Tory ministers refuse to appear on TV news and current affairs programmes to answer questions, and the publicity-loving leader of the Tories in Scotland disappears from sight whenever a whiff of scandal or bad news for her party floods social media and might get a cursory few lines in the media. The same media appears like a shy Amazon tribe unused to the 21st century and modern human contact when it comes to covering many recent issues concerning the so-called dark money. Twitter is awash with the story, but until the last day or two it has been strangely missing from the print and broadcast media in Scotland, although BBC Northern Ireland devoted a programme of intensive investigative journalism to it. British Tory values? Almost certainly – though not those so often cited and lauded by Theresa May.

BBC: hear no, see no, speak no – doubt about the Union

As days pass it becomes more evident that the Tory government at Westminster, aided and abetted by Labour and LibDems, is intent on stripping powers from the Scottish Parliament, burying independence and destroying the SNP for being so audacious as to challenge the antiquated Mother of Parliaments at Westminster. Nationally and internationally Scotland’s brand is recognised as one of quality. Prime seafood, beef, lamb, soft fruits and a myriad of other items are proud to declare themselves made in Scotland. Yet suddenly supermarket shelves are flooded with produce from Scotland marked as British and carrying a large union flag.

Identity theft

Is this sudden co-ordination of British branding the work of individual supermarkets, or as some suggest is this a project pursued and co-ordinated by the re-named Scotland Office now the UK Government in Scotland with a swelled body of staff and a large, spanking new office building in central Edinburgh, recently topped off and planned to open in 2020?

At council level in numerous areas we see voters’ intentions thwarted, with the largest party (the SNP) locked out of office by Tory/Labour coalitions while thuggish behaviour from a clutch of boorish unionist councillors brings any sense of integrity and tolerance crashing down into the glaur of sectarianism and misogyny.

Worse than Question Time

In one council, the Scottish Borders, SNP councillors have raised the issue of fair play allied with good governance. Twenty-one of the thirty-two Scottish local authorities have a committee structure with opposition members represented at every stage of the decision making process. Only eleven councils follow an Executive/ Scrutiny structure like that of Scottish Borders Council, where all key policy decisions about education, housing, finance, roads etc are dealt with by the Executive Committee. Of those eleven councils, only five have no opposition members on the Executive. This means opposition councillors can only challenge decisions at full council, not when decisions are being made.

The SNP group insist local democracy was again failed when the Tory led administration refused to re-consider their decision to exclude opposition members from the Council’s Executive Committee.  Councillor Heather Anderson, deputy group leader, expressed her dismay at this less than democratic state of affairs in the Borders.  “This is so inefficient. Less contested and less challenged decisions are never better decisions and as we know, the Council has been making some poor decisions recently.  We are restricted to submitting written questions to the Council in advance with only one supplementary question permitted, whether the original question has been answered or not.  It’s worse than Question Time!”

Worse than Question Time. Now that is indeed an indictment of how Tories and their cohorts run not only the Borders but the UK.

 

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