Hugh Reilly: Career MSPs don’t live in real world

MPs and MSPs who have never had a job in another discipline won’t provide better representation, writes Hugh Reilly

Labour got a good kicking when it tried to toss Dennis Canavan to the wolves. Picture: Ian Rutherford

DEMOCRACY was invented by the Ancient Greeks but the concept of “people power” has still to take root in the US and UK. A recent analysis by university eggheads produced the shocking revelation that the US is ruled by an oligarchy. Naturally, the Bush dynasty vehemently disagreed, as did the Clinton franchise of the presidential empire. In Britain, a private school elite dominates the coalition government. Welfare cuts devised on the playing fields of Eton are helping to maintain the nation’s seventh position (with a bullet) in the league table of countries with the worst income inequality.

In 1999, when the Scottish parliament was reconvened after a three-century break for tiffin ordered by a parcel o’ rogues, more than half of the MSPs came from the traditional route to political representation, that is, the professions (teaching, medicine, the law) and skilled workers. Today, that figure has collapsed to just 33 per cent. Political heavyweights have largely been replaced by a bantamweight new breed of political careerists whose express trip to Holyrood has seen little need for stop-off points in non-political positions of employment.

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According to the latest research, one in six MSPs has no experience of working outside the bubble of politics and its ancillary tentacles: lobbying, public relations and research gigs. Notable bubble-dwellers include Labour’s Kezia Dugdale. Tipped by many to be a future bright light in a progressive Labour Party – an assessment that drips with irony and sarcasm in equal measure – Ms Dugdale’s employment history hitherto revolved around student politics (working for Edinburgh University Students Association and the National Union of Students). Having witnessed at first-hand the buffoonery of student debates, Dugdale was doubtless the ideal candidate to be an assistant to the much-not-missed George Foulkes. The Baron of Cumnock’s interruptions at FMQs were legendary. On a school visit to parliament, my Higher modern studies class gaped agog as Foulkes sang a ditty while the First Minister answered a question. At the debriefing session in a committee room, the students’ MSP, Margaret Curran, brushed off suggestions that the behaviour of Lord Foulkes embarrassed the Labour Party. “It’s just political theatre,” she smiled, clearly at ease with the trala-dee-di-dee nonsense.

When I wrote a piece in The Scotsman regarding the dreadful comportment of our political representatives, Margo MacDonald telephoned me at my school to apologise for the pantomime performances of her fellow politicians. Her death is yet one more blow to the integrity of Holyrood.

To be fair, Labour doesn’t operate a monopoly in having a predictable selection process. Humza Yousaf, SNP, left university in 2007 with a degree in politics and enjoyed a stroke of good fortune when taken on as an aide to Bashir Ahmad, MSP. Two years after Ahmad died in 2009, Yousaf topped the SNP Glasgow list and was duly appointed, a CV that boasted being a flunky to MSP Anne McLaughlin and, latterly, First Minister Alex Salmond, proving not to be a barrier to career progression.

I am not surprised at the morphing of parliament’s debating chamber into an open-plan office for politico wannabes. In the late 1990s, Clare Short, MP and minister for international development, visited my school. Her cream trouser-suit was in stark contrast to the top-end tailored look favoured by her aides. With their FBI sharp creases, sunglasses and serious expressions, I thought one of them would throw themselves in front of her should any rapscallion fire a peashooter in her direction. I’d guess that some of the clean-shaven young men (and women) are now MPs and jockeying with other nonentities for posts in Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet.

Apologists for overly ambitious political careerists would point out that the traditional white, middle-aged male MSPs haven’t always exactly covered themselves in glory.

For example, surely only a GP with a somewhat warped interpretation of the Hippocratic Oath would oppose a government’s decision to distribute free medicine? I’m sure that Labour’s Dr Richard Simpson, MSP, had good reason to demand that the sick continue to cough up for their prescriptions. At least no-one could accuse the doc of being inconsistent in his war against welfarism – he is also against free school meals for all children.

Similarly, the SNP cupboard housing skeletons is also rather tight for space after Bill Walker’s reputation as a bruiser was found to extend to his matrimonial home.

If the professionalising of politics led to a higher standard of political discourse, few would complain. However, incredible as it may seem, I believe the standard of our MSPs has worsened. Johann Lamont appears to be incapable of thinking on her feet, forever resorting to reading aloud from her prepared text. I watched in despair as the First-Minster-In-Waiting devoted her entire slot at FMQs berating Salmond over his expenses in the US, her broken record over “Hotel Caledonia” forcing me to dash for the antidepressants. I feverishly scanned the front bench looking for someone with leadership potential: I cannot be alone in being frightened that her understudy, Jackie Baillie, is only a heartbeat away from replacing Lamont.

Blame for this appalling state of affairs lies foursquare with political parties who favour slavish loyalty to party policies over any notion of independent thinking. Patronage in the form of placing political careerists at the top of regional lists or parachuting them into safe seats keeps political professionals “onside”.

The great sadness is that it doesn’t have to be this way. In 1999, when the Blairite Labour Party tossed Dennis Canavan to the wolves, voters in Falkirk gave the party an almighty kick up the bahookie by returning Canavan with the largest majority of any MSP. Unfortunately, the so-called people’s party failed to learn its lesson: in 2003, MSP Brian Fitzpatrick was unseated by an independent, Doctor Turner.

It’s idealistic to think that any parliament could be a reflection of its citizens; in every legislature, the articulate and opulent greatly outnumber those from a deprived background. The fact that fewer of our representatives know what it’s like to sign on, live in a run-down housing estate or be a victim of anti-social behaviour means that these issues will never reach the apex of the political agenda. Quo vadis, democracy?