A NEW Nationalist disciplinary code designed to neuter any internal signs of dissent is bad news for democracy, argues Brian Wilson.
Whenever they are asked, a large majority of voters express admiration for independent-minded MPs, prepared to stand their ground on principle rather than be prisoners of the party line.
To any thinking democrat, internal dissent is a crucial part of the political process
MPs who fight for a constituency interest, when it conflicts with party orthodoxy, win respect. When they defy the will of the whips in defence of deeply-held beliefs, their courage is rewarded by electorates who might not even agree with them.
Such behaviour may be irritating to leaders or damaging to party interests. One thinks of the Tory Euro-sceptics during the 1990s who made life a misery for John Major. Or those in Labour’s ranks who lost their ministerial jobs for voting against IMF-imposed austerity measures in the 1970s.
But to any thinking democrat, internal dissent is a crucial part of the political process. There must always be a place for the Tam Dalyells, the Dennis Skinners, the John Biffens or, in the present Parliament, independent-minded MPs such as Dr Sarah Wollaston who puts the NHS before the Tory whip.
To protect them, the system has safety valves. Even if leaderships want rid of awkward sods, local parties can say otherwise. MPs are rarely hounded from their jobs for speaking their true thoughts in Parliament or the media. Dissent matters and, on some issues, it has mattered a great deal.
So how do we reconcile that sentiment – which would win overwhelming public endorsement – with the apparent intention of Scottish voters to support the most rigidly disciplined party in modern political history, the SNP, which is now threatening any MP possessed of a dissenting turn of mind with instant retribution?
According to a disciplinary code due for rubber-stamping, Nationalist MPs will “accept that no Member shall, within or outwith Parliament, publicly criticise a Group decision, policy or another member of the Group”. Is this really the zombie representation Scottish voters want?
The Labour Party has many faults but one of them has never been to silence people who disagreed with official policy. Without such debates, played out in Parliament, the media and any other available forum, the dictatorship of an all- powerful leadership prevails behind closed doors.
By its nature, the SNP is a party of left, right and centre. Over the next five years, there will be issues on which there is bound to be divergence of opinions within it. Yet the pre-ordained condition for being an SNP MP is that the public will never be privy to any clash of ideas; only the “party line” which emerges from the leadership.
For anyone who cares to see them, the warning signs are already flashing. Holyrood is bereft of serious political debate. Scrutiny of legislation is a joke, largely because there is an omerta within the dominant party on whatever their leadership hands down. There are no personalities, no challenging thinkers, no dissenting voices.
Dissent, on the rare occasions it occurred, led the offenders straight into outer darkness. The late Margo MacDonald and Andrew Wilson were relegated on the SNP’s regional lists, to make them unelectable. The two MSPs who could not stomach the shameless U-turn on Nato had the choice of jumping or being pushed. They jumped.
At one level, this is the SNP’s own business. If is difficult to imagine any other party enforcing such conformity of behaviour among its elected representatives and nobody can say that it hasn’t worked for them. But for the wider public interest, is that the only test which matters?
I am not so naïve as to think that many of us go around contemplating the erosion of democracy on a daily basis. It is just something that creeps up on us. Gradually, we are seeing many of the genuine issues which were the meat and drink of Scottish politics being relegated to the sidelines as the constitution becomes the only show in our political village which can command access to the airwaves.
The Nationalists have used their Holyrood majority to effectively neutralise the committee system which, in the dreams of its founders, was one of the Scottish Parliament’s supposed strengths. There are no reports critical of government and no inquiries which might produce inconvenient conclusions. This is very different from Westminster’s system of select committees which regularly calls government and its institutions to account.
Wherever points of potential opposition existed within Scotland, they have been closed down. University principals are threatened with financial retribution if they voice even the mildest concerns about funding. Quangos are in the hands of Scottish Government trusties who dare not utter a syllable of dissent. If they break that rule, they can be absolutely certain that their days on the quango circuit will be at an end.
Very quickly, it is forgotten that it was not always like this. University principals did not fear to speak up for their sector and their institutions. Important public bodies like Scottish Enterprise and HIE were presided over by serious figures who were at least as well-known as some of the ministers who appointed them and felt no inhibition about fighting for their organisations or regions. Indeed, they were expected to do so.
All over Scotland, councils are having to implement budget cuts which are proportionately far in excess of what the Scottish Government itself has faced. But where are the voices of protest? Local authorities, once the sharpest thorn in the side of any government regardless of party allegiance, are now a largely silent and marginalised collective force, with a few honourable exceptions.
Third-sector organisations and the people who depend on them are bearing much of the brunt of these cuts while the organisation which is supposed to speak for them has sold its soul lock, stock and barrel to the prevailing political orthodoxy. And so it goes on. The fewer voices of dissent within Scotland, the less chance there is of them finding outlets through which they get much chance to voice it.
A Scotland in which nobody with a sense of self-preservation will criticise a decision, a policy or a person is not the Scotland I have lived in all my life. But the extent to which the Nationalists are extending their internal disciplinary regime into our society as a whole should concern anyone who values democracy, debate and parliamentarians worthy of the name.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS