I wasted a couple of hours today at the live broadcast of Brian Taylor’s Big Debate from Portree on the Isle of Skye.
The man himself is a class act – warm, welcoming, and witty – putting both audience and panel at ease.
On the panel were three MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) who represent the Highlands & Islands – Rhoda Grant (Lab); Mike MacKenzie (SNP); Jamie McGrigor (Con) – along with Ian Blackford who used to be national treasurer of the Scottish National Party, and Claire MacDonald who is a well-known cook, author and local businesswoman.
The first twenty minutes or so were spent arguing about the politics of the decision by BAE Systems to lay off 1,775 shipyard workers, closing their yard in Portsmouth, and reducing the workforce (but retaining the capacity to build naval warships) on the Clyde.
The panel clearly had little knowledge of either the commercial or political details behind the decision, and even less power to influence what contracts might be placed at the yard in the future.
All they gave us were opinions of what might or might not happen and agreement that “something must be done” to help the men and women who are to lose their jobs, and “something should be done” to revive shipbuilding on the Clyde and manufacturing in Scotland.
Next up was a question about domestic energy prices, which are causing widespread fuel poverty across the Highlands & Islands.
Rhoda Grant suggested that the big energy companies are effectively operating a cartel and demanded tighter regulation. She failed to explain why previous Labour governments in Edinburgh and London didn’t do anything about this when they had the chance.
Mike MacKenzie (whose SNP party is in government in Edinburgh) told us that the situation is “complicated”, blaming a tangle of different initiatives for the lack of effective action, and the fact that “90%” of energy policy was decided in London.
In summary, the panel agreed that fuel poverty is a terrible thing, and “something should be done about it”.
The next question was about transport priorities: should we spend £70 billion on a new high speed rail link between London and Manchester or should we use the money to make thousands of transport improvements across the whole of the UK?
Nobody gave a straight answer to the question but everyone agreed that the roads in the north of Scotland are a disgrace (as are the rail services) and that scheduled flights to and from Skye would be a good thing.
Again, they all thought that “something should be done” but no-one could tell us what, or when, or how.
The final question came from a Portree High School student who asked if the panel thought that voting in next year’s independence referendum was worthwhile.
Every member of the panel spoke passionately about the struggles and sacrifices of past generations to secure our right to vote, and more or less demanded that everyone must participate in every ballot that comes along.
It was at this point that I felt the anger rising within me.
We had just sat through fifty-five minutes of waffle, listening to politicians (I include Ian Blackford in this, as he is clearly a political animal) tell us what should be done about several important issues without once having the honesty to admit that their parties had collectively failed to do any of it.
And here they were demanding our participation at the ballot box, demanding that we give them the licence to assume positions of import in society, to draw their salaries and expenses, without acknowledging the glaringly obvious fact that they – the political class – have failed to keep their half of the democratic bargain.
They obviously can’t create a vibrant shipbuilding industry on the Clyde or revive Scottish manufacturing. If they could they would have already done so: the need has been there for the last 30 years.
They clearly can’t solve the fuel poverty problem. If they could they would have already done so: we’ve been living with fuel poverty for decades.
Neither are they able to give us decent roads and rail services, or a stable thriving economy, or affordable housing, or eliminate child poverty. If they could they would already have done so.
How dare you, politicians, sit and lecture us about our duty to vote when your duty to get things done is being so egregiously neglected?
I don’t know why you aren’t able to do any of the things that you agree need to be done. From where I sit I can’t tell if it’s the power games of party politics that’s at fault, or the inertia of the civil service, or the incompetence of ministers, or your own lack of ability, or the very structure of the system in which you operate.
But I do know that we have delegated the work to you, we’re paying you handsomely to do it, and you are failing miserably to get it done.
Whatever the problem is you need to get off your collective backsides and fix it, or get out of the way and let someone else do the job.