Ewan Crawford: Keeping an open mind with lips firmly sealed
Politicians face a conflict between party policy and individual beliefs,writes Ewan Crawford so there’s little room for candid views
ACROSS many walks of life the cry often goes up that there aren’t many characters left any more.
In sport increased professionalism is often blamed for what is sometimes seen as a certain dullness among today’s superstars compared with their predecessors.
Even among those who describe the action, there seems to have been a change since the era of the great idiosyncratic and brilliant commentators – men such as rugby’s Bill McLaren, darts’ Sid Waddell and motor-racing’s Murray Walker.
For those who earn their living on the field of play media training and the fear of saying something out of turn has surely also played a part.
It is difficult to blame such reticence when an ill-judged thought on the social networking site, Twitter, can lead to embarrassment and worse.
For politics, as in sport, journalists and other have been known to bemoan the on-message generation of politicians who need to check the “line-to-take” before answering a question.
This message discipline seemed to have reached its peak during a recent interview with the Australian government minister, Bill Shorten, who when asked for his views about a domestic controversy replied to an incredulous interviewer: “I haven’t seen what the Prime Minister has said but I support what it is that she’s said.”
When pressed on whether he had a view of his own he dutifully replied: “My view is what the Prime Minister’s view is.”
It is easy to mock politicians like Mr Shorten (and his interview did indeed attract well-deserved world-wide internet mockery) but presumably he was keen to avoid anything that might have been written up as a disagreement with his boss.
For politicians seeking advancement, being seen to publicly disagree with your party leader is probably not the best career move.
It is all the more sad then to have read about the death of the former Liberal MP and MSP, Donald Gorrie, who was clearly happy to speak his mind.
In a warm tribute, his party leader, Willie Rennie, said: “Donald was never afraid to be a lone voice” and the First Minister praised his independent mind and spirit.
All mainstream political parties are to some extent broad churches and therefore most politicians will have had to consider from time to time a potential conflict between party loyalty and personal beliefs.
Although I didn’t know him, the obvious affection with which these tributes were made from both within and outside his party clearly reveals huge respect for the way Mr Gorrie wrestled with that dilemma and for the way he conducted himself in public life.
It is a reminder for those, like me, who, having worked for a party rather than being elected, struggle with the idea that a party position should be challenged at all.
When I was at the SNP I was all for public free-thinkers as long as they were on the other side (unfortunately they all seemed to be on ours at the time).
On occasion it seemed as if rows had been timed to cause maximum difficulty, for example just before First Minister’s Questions.
In truth, the impact of the difficulties the SNP encountered then means I am probably less sympathetic to those who challenge the leadership line than I might be.
This, in large part, is because of the political and media culture we live in. For journalists, here and in other countries, disagreement is obviously a more interesting subject than agreement.
Politicians engaging in a political discussion can often wake up to find out that they have in fact “gone to war” or are leading a rebellion. The reality of that external environment cannot be ignored or wished away.
More seriously parties believe voters will not reward them if they are divided. The Conservative back-bencher and former minister, John Redwood, who has been known to cause his leaders the odd difficulty, challenges this view, saying both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair secured large majorities while leading divided parties with very visible splits.
The electorate, says Mr Redwood, is more interested in the state of the economy and the overall direction of policy, and parties which do not engage in lively debate could be seen as dead or sleeping.
Reading the diaries of Mr Blair’s former press secretary, Alastair Campbell, it is clear, however, that the Labour leader was rather less relaxed about such debate as he frequently railed against colleagues who he said were not serious as his party charted its return to power.
At Westminster the select committee system has opened up a potential alternative career path (other than ministerial promotion) for independent-minded MPs which could encourage more to speak out.
Andrew Tyrie, the Conservative chair of the Treasury committee, was clear, for example, that he did not want party considerations involved in the inquiry into the Libor fixing scandal.
The benefits of the select committee system in this regard should not, however, be exaggerated.
The Culture Media and Sport Committee report into phone hacking was split along party lines and the Scottish Affairs Committee has turned itself into nothing more than a clumsy adjunct to the No campaign for the independence referendum.
In fact, even those who sit on the Scottish committee should be reflecting on whether they are content for the system to be abused in such a way.
Ultimately, and despite John Redwood’s views, my guess is most senior politicians believe voters want what can appear to be two contradictory things: united parties which allow open debate.
The responsibility for a better, more vibrant democracy therefore rests with all of us – not just the parties.
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