The general election campaign has finally kicked off and already we have had decidedly arrogant negotiating demands from the SNP that are now being followed by all sorts of unaffordable policy offerings from the two main contenders.
The SNP needs reminding that for the moment it is nothing other than a bit part player in all of this. If either David Cameron or Ed Miliband were to begin to pull away from the other, the SNP would rightfully become the irrelevance that has been its place at Westminster since the Seventies - when it was able to choose between Jim Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher. It chose Thatcher.
The SNP is not alone in its convenient memory loss or smug self-satisfaction. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband will need reminding too; reminding that there is a deficit – now in its 12th consecutive year – and a record national debt that they have both had a hand in creating over that time.
Sadly it is fanciful to hope that because either the Conservatives or Labour will have to deliver on their pledges they might be more realistic, more prudent in their claims. As the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats turn up the volume of the feel-good mood music coming from their economic recovery, and Labour seeks to reinvent itself as the paragon of equitably-shared prosperity without boom or bust, all three will seek to charm us by saying what they think we wish to hear.
We therefore need to be on our guard and we should expect only the highest of standards from those press and broadcast journalists that have privilege to be able to ask them questions. There should be no time for patsy soft-balls that can be hit for six. If it meant only ever having Jeremy Paxman, Andrew Neil or, in Scotland Bernard Ponsonby, asking the questions for six weeks then I would settle for that – at least we might expect a little more sincerity and a few more revealing clangers when the politicians are caught off guard.
Likewise, in the rush to discuss what might happen after the election there are far too many media commentators – especially in broadcasting where the news agenda is often set – forgetting that the electorate has still to vote. The public wants to hear the truth from its politicians about issues, see their resolve in a crisis and find they are real humans with a soul so that we might know what to expect in the challenges that the country faces.
This requires a media that focuses on the election now, not the possible negotiations that may yet never materialise in the future. It requires a media that asks what the various parties are offering to do because they believe it to be right, rather than what they will demand of their opponents without regard to the fact they might technically be the losers. It requires a media that recognises what the real issues are that concern the electorate, not by looking at opinion polls or asking trite leading questions, but by getting out on the streets themselves and under the skin of the voters.
In Scotland it surely must mean a recognition by the media that much of what we will hear in the national radio and television channels will be an irrelevance – given that for the past 16 years health, education, policing, transport, housing – and much else – has been decided in Edinburgh not, repeat not, in London. Moreover, for half of that time, the past eight years, it has been decided by an SNP government that has had more money at its disposal than any of the Thatcher, Major or Dewar administrations running the Scottish Office. Blaming Westminster is not a serious option, or at least not an option for any self-respecting honest politician.
So what does this general election mean in a devolved Scotland?
As I have demonstrated in this column many times before, the Scottish Government’s own record is pitiful and worthy of challenge but they are not being held accountable on this occasion, instead we are to debate issues such as the English NHS and housing in London that are of no consequence to us. This is not because of our national broadcasters forgetting that devolution is the new political landscape, but because the SNP wants to discuss English issues too. It has made it plain that SNP MPs will break with past practice and vote on English affairs, even though no English MP can vote on Scottish affairs.
Meanwhile, matters that are reserved to Westminster, such as defence, foreign affairs and the European Union are unlikely to feature in the debate in general and even less so here in Scotland. This means these issues are unlikely to be key when Scots decide if they are for or against the present coalition government. Even if they were to, opinion polling and social attitude surveys tell us repeatedly that Scots are as “British” in outlook as anyone and unlikely to deviate from the consensus.
There is really only one national issue that does matter and that is the economy – and yet here the coalition government has had some significant success bringing benefits, including many thousands of new jobs and lower personal taxes, while providing for increased spending on the sacred NHS. So why, when no party has a monopoly on wisdom or virtue, do the SNP and Labour continue to define the debate in Scotland as being for or against the Tories?
At its conference an SNP candidate felt able to say, “I’m the nurse who is going to kick the last Tory out of Scotland” – without any sense of how chilling the same phrase would be if the word Tory was replaced with “Jew”, “black”, “Muslim” “gay” or “communist”. Why is it acceptable to peddle hate towards fellow Scots for what they believe in an open democracy when it is so wrong to peddle hate because of someone’s race, religion or colour? There are more than 400,000 Tory voters in Scotland – should they not have a voice, should all their representatives be “kicked out”?
If Labour and SNP politicians cannot move beyond myths about Tories being bogeymen simply because they are Tories, even when many of their policies have been good enough for Labour and the SNP to adopt, then there really is no hope for our country – whatever constitutional arrangements we enjoy.
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