A depressing lack of free spirits who are capable of independent thinking is Scotland’s loss, writes Brian Monteith
Why are so many of our politicians highly partisan, presenting an image that their party and their party alone has a monopoly on wisdom and forever occupies the moral high ground? Why is it that many of our politicians find it difficult to work together in the full glare of publicity, but then manage to become brothers and sisters in arms on committees – or form cross-party groups for the furtherance of a cause they hold dear?
Having served in the Scottish Parliament as both a Conservative & Unionist and then as an independent, I have seen political life on both sides of the tracks. I have worked with red-in-tooth-and-claw socialists for the ending of the US embargo on Cuba (believing free trade works against political oppression) and despite campaigning against devolution I championed with others the case for greater powers for Holyrood (so that it will become more accountable for its actions). Despite the patrician views of my party colleagues I opposed nanny state restrictions and fought against new railway developments they backed when the business case was simply laughable.
Each time I came up against vested party interests that I believed were not conducive to the good of my electors or the wider Scottish people and I either spoke or voted against the party line. Likewise I often worked with elected members from a Kaleidoscope of parties ranging from the Greens to the SNP to Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SSP in common cause – either in committee or behind the scenes. Indeed, I often made better personal friendships with such members than with my own Conservative comrades.
Then later, when we went into the parliamentary chamber for a plenary session, the partisan positioning, the grandstanding and the voting against one’s better instincts or deep personal convictions would become an overwhelming force. Working for the common good would be relegated to working for party advantage – and it was usually not difficult to recognise. I admit I succumbed to it on occasion, for there were times when the only way to hold one’s particular party group together was to vote for something I did not agree with. The party was, after all, the vehicle by which I, as a list member of the Scottish Parliament, had become elected. Nevertheless, had I been elected as a constituency member I would have still felt an overwhelming sense of duty to my party.
When I left my party I was at once liberated and for the next 18 months before I retired I became my own whip; I argued implicitly for what I believed to be in my electors’ interests or my own conscience, rather than feeling any pressure to push a policy or support a law that was to give some possible party advantage or maintain unity.
Unfortunately in British and Scottish politics there are new far too few independents. The dominance of parties appears at its zenith and I believe it is no coincidence that dissatisfaction with the political class amongst the electorate is also very strong. If one takes the trouble to canvas voters for their views it is not unusual to hear the riposte on the doorstep, “You politicians are all the same” or colloquial words in a similar vein.
This is not meant to mean that all politicians share the same views but that “You’re all in it for yourselves” or “Why should I bother? You let never listen to us”. Would these sentiments be so heartfelt and ubiquitous if our politicians displayed less adherence to party discipline and were more willing to rebel on occasion?
In the House of Commons there is, currently, only one true independent, Sylvia Hermon, the member for North Down. Like many independents she was previously a member of a party, in her case the Ulster Unionists, but she decided to resign in 2010 when they linked to the Conservative Party and then stood and was elected as an independent that same year, and again in 2015 and this year.
When Holyrood opened we started with independents such as Denis Canavan and the late Margo MacDonald and it was all the better for it. Like so many others they had initially gained their respective reputations from outspoken party political careers but had then been marginalised to the point where they felt moved to take on their own parties. Both were a constant reminder to Donald Dewar and Alex Salmond that there were other views within their political spectrum.
Where are such independent minds now? Subservience to the party has become everything at Holyrood, with the SNP leading the charge. The party uses its standing orders that state no member shall, within or outwith the parliament, publicly criticise a group decision, policy or another member of the group, to ensure public debate is limited. It is why there is so little policy development within the SNP and why former Justice Minister Kenny McAskill is only able to speak out against the SNP leadership after having retired as an MSP. The same restriction applies to SNP MPs and explains why they too have no independently-minded members.
It is to Scotland’s loss that in both parliaments independent minds, even those like Tam Dalyell that managed to stay in his party, are not heard any more.
There are some politicians, such as former Tory minister Anna Soubry, who are talking openly of establishing a new “centre party” dedicated to stopping “Hard Brexit”, which is code for no Brexit at all. Surely this misses the point, it is not a new party we need but having politicians brave enough to put their own case to the electorate rather than stand on a manifesto that, like Soubry, she has immediately repudiated. Soubry is not arguing for “country before party” as she suggests, for if she truly believed that then she would have stood as a Liberal Democrat in the general election two months ago.
We badly need free spirits and independent minds; we need institutions that don’t reward party discipline, and we require politicians that can tell parties when they are wrong and then put their trust in the people. We need change, but yet another party – especially one that wants to defend the current status quo by going against the will of the people – is not the solution. Instead we need more people like Hermon, MacDonald and Canavan who stand and win as independents.
• Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org