26 May 2016


May may not be the cruellest month -- but it is certainly the busiest. Between the election and its aftermath, the end of teaching and a small burst of sunshine, academic writing and conferencing, my examinations and the waist-high pile of marking they generate, this peat worrier has been crucified by work this month, by turns zonked, distracted and uninspired. 

So just a wee note to say -- I'm not dead; I haven't given up the ghost. The lectures are now over. The papers are graded. The brief sun has sunk beneath a more familiar Glasgow raincloud. Normal blogging service to resume here very shortly.

2 May 2016

Spinning Plates

It has been a slow April here on the blog. For the past couple of weeks, the inspiration for political writing has escaped me. Everything I have attempted has been lumpen, unreadable dross. But the mojo - happily - seems to be returning as we head into the final week of this Holyrood campaign. In the Times this week, I wrote a rather abrasive explanation of why I'm sick to the back teeth of Ruth Davidson, Scotland's most overrated politician. The Scottish Tory leader has emerged from this Holyrood race trivialised by her antics, a rather diminished figure.

 Although personally popular by Tory standards, Labour's weakness putting her in contention for second place, Davidson has run a relentlessly vacuous campaign which does her little credit. If straddling a bison and donning a captain's hat was all that was needed to detoxify the Tory party - Annabel Goldie should have tried it years ago. Though I admit, it is hard to imagine the late David McLetchie wielding an ice hockey stick or racing about on a snow mobile. Here's an excerpt:

But I'll be honest with you: I do not enjoy blogging elections. Unless you focus on some pernickety point of electoral arithmetic, or one of your opponents adopts a truly objectionable or dishonest policy, elections can be tough things for partisan writers who nevertheless do not want to become propagandists or cheerleaders. That'd be even more objectionable than bad writing. Even more intellectually compromised. Even duller.  And in any case, the role doesn't suit me. If this is what you're after, you'll receive a far superior service elsewhere. 

I will, as you might expect, be casting my constituency vote for Nicola Sturgeon in Glasgow Southside, and for the Nats on the Glasgow regional list too. I do so with few reservations.  I'm a fourth generation Scottish Nationalist. I'm in this for the long haul. Like the overwhelming majority of the party's supporters, I hope I'm no dupe, no drone, no uncritical robot.

I suspect I've enjoyed the personalisation of this Holyrood campaign about as much as the First Minister -- which is to say, not a great deal. The politics of personality isn't the kind of politics which attracts me most. That said, there is a great deal to be said for voting for folk whose judgement you trust, whose broad outlook you share.

Yes, politics and government is about policies. It is about what you achieve, and only passingly about who achieves it. But given the breadth and complexity of modern government, given the breadth of offices and issues which the next Scottish Parliament and Government must consider -- none of us can be the masters of every brief.  You might know your way around the economy, but be dumb as a brick about justice, welfare, the NHS. You might be hot on carers, or renewables, or tertiary education but cold outside your area.  Whatever. None of us - seriously - are capable of weighing all of the parties' policies in the balance.

Within the limits of the information available to most of us, however, we can judge the folk involved, weighing the kind of person who takes the decisions, and the sort of values they will bring to bear in making them. Nicola strikes me as a good woman, a smart woman, a sincere woman. She is aware of her limits. She makes no pretence at infallibility. But she's tough, fierce -- and most attractive of all, perhaps -- has visibly grown as a character.

You get the feeling that Alex Salmond sprang fully-armoured into life with a sharp tongue and a quick brain, an assured -- perhaps too assured -- political patter merchant even as a young man. The current First Minister has tracked a different trajectory. One of my friends compares her to Andy Murray - there is a residual touch of reserve there, of native shyness overcome, which I think many Scots recognise, recognise in themselves, and find attractive.

The tailored Mother of Dragons we see before us is hard won. This is not to imply the Sturgeon persona is confected, or artificial. We, all of us, play in and with roles. For my part, I suspect Nicola's now universal recognition actually makes life easier for her, as she has the battle-armour of the persona gird about her, wherever she goes. It is bound to burn off any residual shyness or reserve.

I'd be concerned if the campaign was only the game of personalities -- but it hasn't been. The SNP manifesto has a heft and reality to it which is to be commended.  We see an emergent Scottish governmentality, and an emphasis on universal services which is - just beginning - to pull together into a coherent story of Scottish self-government.  What is striking about this campaign is that it is only - really - the Tories who are in open dissent from the idea that prescriptions ought to be free, that tuition fees ought to be paid, that every baby should be boxed. Johann Lamont's "something for nothing culture" riff has been dumped. But there is a great deal more to do to weave all this into a coherent whole.

But if you have different political ideas and different allegiances, I'd encourage you to exercise them. All political activity involves compromises of some kind. Big parties, small parties, large movements, small campaigns -- all of them involve trade offs, and a cold eyed assessment of what your priorities are, and what internal compromises you are prepared to put up with.  People are generally reluctant to admit this is true -- particularly during election time -- but in my experience, most Nationalists understand an awful lot more about the compromises inherent in politics than many of their critics give them credit for.

You find individual policies - missing in the SNP manifesto - in the Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat efforts with which I have considerable sympathy. I'm sure supporters of other parties will find material for their own heresies and dissents in the pages of their opponents' platforms. This isn't the end of the world, despite all the grisly point-scoring which inevitably tends to accompany it.

Some folk, of course, are incorrigible puritans, nature's commissars determined to execute any perceived backsliding from their own positions. I salute them. They're welcome to their purity. But government is inevitably an adulterating enterprise.  It is a game of spinning a thousand plates, and trying to minimise the number which fall to the hard earth with a clatter.  Taxation, education, energy, justice, local authorities, farms and forests, the health service and social care, an emerging Scottish approach to disability and carer benefits -- the constitution.

If there's juggling to be done, I trust Nicola to do it.