Useless Politicians: Frustrated And Angry At Brian Taylor’s Big Debate

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.

15 thoughts on “Useless Politicians: Frustrated And Angry At Brian Taylor’s Big Debate

    • I agree with Jane. If you want something done, get on with it. And I think you mistake the nature of politics in a democracy. All the politicians can do depends on the will of the electorate, they cannot rule by diktat. “We’re paying you handsomely to do that” you say, but all the wish list above cost money and money is short. The difficult decisions about who gets government money and who does not are unpopular, but they need to be made.

      You don’t have to make it as a politician to change the world, you just need to persuade the electorate as many pressure groups do.

      (And is there a reason my last post didn’t make it? My email address is topher@dawsonullapool if you want to say privately)

      • Topher, if the politicians on the panel had responded to the questions by saying that “something should be done but we can’t do anything very much because of lack of money” (or lack of power, or whatever) then I’d be a lot less frustrated with them. At events like this they say what they think their audience wants to hear rather than tell the truth.

        If they truly want these things to happen (as they claim) and they require licence from the electorate (as you suggest) then why don’t they lobby the electorate for that licence?

        They’re on the inside and know how the system works and what the impediments to change are.
        If they want energy efficient houses and decent roads in the Highlands they have to tell us why we’re not getting them and what we need to do in order to get them.
        If they can’t at least do that then what use are they?

        • Occasionally politicians come up with refreshing candour but increasingly this is seen as “off message”. Electors don’t like being told that money is tight, so bland mood music is what they get to hear. Or they get bribed with their own tax money.

          Elected representatives have two loyalties, which electors sometimes don’t understand. One is to the electors who elected them, so my councillor has to represent me in Ullapool. The other is that collectively they act for the bigger group, so my councillor has also to agree with other councillors about what is best for the Highlands as a whole, and to do so effectively may well be a part of a party grouping, and it may be that the best Highland solution will not bring any advantage to Ullapool.

          He or she has to deal with Highland wide problems about which I have no knowledge and little interest. So it is unrealistic to say that an elected representative should only work for their electorate.

          But you Malcolm have the intelligence and the persistence to change the system, and becoming a representative would be one legitimate way to achieve this. Complaining from the sidelines will not.

          • Complaining from the sidelines is an essential part of the political process.
            We can’t all be politicians but we can (and must) participate by shouting at them when they’re playing badly and cheering them when they’re doing well.

            My complaint is that they’re failing to be honest about what they can and can’t do.
            My suggestion is that they explain to us why they can’t do the stuff that they agree should be done, and what we (the electorate) should be doing to help them to get these things done.

            If we take fuel poverty, everyone agrees that it’s a disgrace but there’s next to nothing being done to eliminate it. Why? What’s the problem? What are the options for solving it? What do we have to give up in exchange for making sure no-one has to make the choice between heating and eating? Make recommendations and lobby us for support. Don’t just sit there and agree that it’s a disgrace.

            I haven’t got what it takes to get elected but I will support those who have and are trying to do worthwhile things.

  1. Voting legitimises them: they agree that something should be done….but lack the will or the power to do what is needed. I’d vote if local representatives were accountable to their voters…and not to their party bosses whose agendas seem to be, to say the least, opaque.

    • Helen, there’s something deeply flawed about the party system and its role in getting and holding power. Individuals politicians, no matter how well-intentioned, are forced to serve two masters, constituents and party. I agree that they should be accountable solely to their constituents.

      • How can a country or a region have any consistent policy if their elected assemblies are a squabbling babble of individuals each serving their own constituents? As a body the assembly has a leadership and executive role; it is unrealistic and immature to imagine they can always think of their constituents first.

        Democracy is a compromise between the interests of individuals and society, and political parties are a way of appealing to, and serving the interests of, individuals who identify with the party. Representatives who act together get more done and if they have thought out their policy well, they act more consistently too. Independent representatives who choose to stay outside the party system can act to keep the parties honest, but an entirely independent assembly is easily manipulated by the presiding figure.

        • I agree that representatives who act together get more done but I see little evidence that the best way to collaborate is via party politics.

          Party politics absorbs huge amounts of energy in the getting and holding of power. Those at the top of the ruling party structure are constantly fighting to maintain their personal positions in the face of overt attacks from opposing parties and covert attacks from their own ranks.

          In a system where representatives are accountable solely to their constituents that perpetual struggle for power is largely removed, leaving people to put their energy into getting things done.

          Parties might have had some use in previous centuries when the electorate had little information and education, and representatives could only communicate with their constituents by letter and public meeting but we live in a completely different world.

          Nowadays an MSP can easily communicate directly with the bulk of their constituents on whatever issue they want, get a feel for consensus, and then collaborate with other MSPs (who are getting a similar message from their constituents) to develop appropriate policies and authorise the executive to make them happen.

          Doesn’t that sound more productive than setting one gang up on a pedestal for a five year period on the strength of a vague, unenforceable manifesto, while the other gangs try to knock them off by throwing stones at them?

          • If I wanted to stand for parliament, which I don’t, it would be as a Green so people would know where I stood to begin with, and I would have a body of knowledge to access, and a set of reasonably consistent policies in areas i personally have little expertise in. The Scottish Parliament was always intended to be run by a coalition as most continental assemblies are, and the Greens would make a good minority partner in such a coalition.

            Coalitions have the potential to be more responsive than the UK elective dictatorship system which punishes small parties (although unusually currently a coalition). The Scottish electoral system should make it easier for smaller parties to get heard, although there are outfits like UKIP and other potentially extreme right wingers who might strain our enthusiasm for democracy. The landslide the SNP won last time is probably a one-off, but if we get a Yes vote who knows…..

            • Your constituents might like the Green’s energy policy at the time of the election but hate their defence policy. Where does that leave you and them? Far better for both of you that they vote for the man rather than the party. Someone who they trust to gather opinion, analyse information, make wise decisions, and work effectively to get things done.

              If a coalition of small parties is attractive then why not a coalition of independents?

              Let the parties – Green, UKIP, whatever – be campaigning movements that develop and articulate ideas, making their arguments to the electorate.

              Let the electorate communicate their support for ideas, as they become relevant/prominent, to their representatives.

              Let the representatives collaborate to turn ideas that have broad support into policies that work.

              Above all, let the process be continuous instead of the periodic farce of general elections where we’re all supposed to ‘be engaged’ and believe in fairy tale manifestos, followed by five long years of disengagement and disillusion.

  2. I agree with you about chronic underachievement by politicians, but it does not follow that their plea for people to stay engaged with the democratic process is hypocritical. That is the mechanism (other than early termination for intolerable acts) by which we push them out and give somebody else the chance. I am sure that most people enter politics with every intention of making a difference, but the system swallows them and their dreams. Things that seem simple from the outside become “highly complex” when it comes to actually doing something about them. A disproportionate level of veto by those with vested interests is used to artificially complicate and frustrate simple solutions to simple problems. Ineffective politicians are only half the issue – it is the well-resourced, well-informed, unelected and often unseen lobby groups that stage-manage paralysis in the political system, leaving the politicians to wring their hands and take the flak from the pubic.

    • I know, Nick. Had I been on the panel I’d have been saying the same thing to the high school pupil – we should all vote, at the very least. I’m actually arguing that politicians need more power. They need to engage more with us, explain why there’s paralysis in the system and tell us what they need from us in order to get good things done. They need us to empower them against the lobbyists.

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