Lesley Riddoch: I'm looking for proper debate after flag spat

Whatever happened to actual, substantial political criticism? In the last week we've had a daft spat about flags, a pernickety argument about a Police Scotland report, a row over Willie Rennie calling Nicola Sturgeon a liar and another about Creative Scotland grants apparently favouring independence supporting-artists
the saltire/Union flag spat was one of the topics in the news last weekthe saltire/Union flag spat was one of the topics in the news last week
the saltire/Union flag spat was one of the topics in the news last week

I’m not saying these stories are unimportant but they have one thing in common. They are the gossipy tips of more important yet almost totally submerged policy icebergs.

The “Rennie-Sturgeon” row surrounds the First Minister’s apparent promise to avoid closure of a children’s ward in Paisley hospital. Did she actually make a commitment or not – the answer is important for parents in Paisley. Just as important is the process by which ward and hospital closures are decided and the debate about how to shift staff, cash and resources out of hospitals into pro-active, preventative and local health-care. But that all sounds dull compared to a right royal bust-up between normally polite politicians. So newspaper column inches were full of whipped-up outrage over Willie Rennie’s use of “un-parliamentary language” when he called Nicola Sturgeon a liar and the First Minister’s tart response, describing the Scottish Lib Dem leader as a “pathetic attention seeker”.

Really – whatever.

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In a country with some of the worst public health outcomes in Europe, local problems should get national profile because of the important debates they open up – not the personality-based bickering that has now totally obscured the ward closure story.

Likewise, a weekend newspaper contributed a new strand to the row over Police Scotland, publishing emails which showed the head of police watchdog Pirc felt civil servants were trying to prevent publication of her report about complaint handling at the Scottish Police Authority (SPA).

The SNP point out Pirc’s Kate Frame went ahead and published her critical report anyway and that it was a civil servant not the Justice Minister who got in touch. Well, there is an important debate about the impartiality of watchdogs and quangos and the Scottish Government’s doomed desire to control the flow of information and the public news agenda. In that, however, the SNP are no different to Labour beforehand and to a far greater extent the UK government today, which is using Henry VIII powers to keep the Commons out of the Brexit debate.

And even more important than the blow-by-blow account of Complaintsgate are the matters of substance in Pirc’s report which received hardly a column inch when it was published last month. In fact, it was the third report about SPA complaints handling conducted since the authority was formed in 2013.

In its report Pirc said the SPA doesn’t adequately explain how decisions are made, does take an “excessive” amount of time to resolve complaints, make “inappropriate demands” for evidence from public critics and have no policy to protect whistle-blowers. Are these criticisms more important than the timing of civil service letters? I’d suggest they are, and since the SPA is their creation, such a focus doesn’t let the Scottish Government off the hook. Likewise the single police force that has unquestionably concentrated power, destroyed local accountability, produced call centres which leave urgent calls “un-actioned,” and ended the chance for Scottish officers to prove themselves by promotion within the ranks. Does the media not want to hold Nicola Sturgeon to account over that?

The Scottish Government was also responsible for selecting the individuals whose appointments have proved problematic – the sacked SPA Chairman Andrew Flanagan, the suspended Chief Constable of Police Scotland, Phil Gormley and indeed his predecessor Sir Stephen House who stepped down early after rows about arming officers on routine patrols, stopping and searching children and downsizing call-handling to remote operators with no local knowledge.

Sure, the Scottish Government modelled the SPA on Nordic countries. But Norway’s single police force is underpinned by 429 powerful, municipal councils. Scotland’s single force has input from just 32 “local” authorities and is not really accountable any more. In the old days councillors hired and fired local chief constables – not now.

But we don’t discuss this, or the low morale in the police service, partly caused by media and political preoccupation with personality-spats and procedural minutiae. Don’t we care how the police force works? It doesn’t look that way.

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The Saltire/Union Flag non-story is hardly worth talking about, save that it demonstrates the peculiar priorities of many unionist papers so well. A bit like the mock-horror over news Jeremy Corbyn wouldn’t sing the national anthem, this whole story could have examined changes in social and political etiquette - if it had been remotely accurate. But it didn’t even set out to do more than hammer the First Minister.

Similarly, last week Sir James MacMillan, Scotland’s leading classical composer, accused the Scottish Government of using cultural policy to shore up support for independence with a creative vision of “venality, victimhood and mediocrity.”

Without being at the meeting of the artistic great and good that prompted Mr MacMillan’s remarks, it’s hard to judge. But there are changing perceptions of artistic merit in Scotland and different perspectives rarely get the same high press profile as James MacMillan. This weekend, for example, I was part of the heaving 12,000-strong crowd packed into the SSE Arena for Celtic Connections’ Bothy Culture event which featured the 87-strong Grit Orchestra and its combination of classical and “folk” musicians, pipers and sampled music, all blending to recreate one of the final albums written by young Martyn Bennett before he died 13 years ago.

This musical extravaganza was enhanced by Danny Macaskill cycling to the summit of a Cuillin-shaped backdrop, in sync with the film of his world-famous ascent of the actual Skye mountain ridge on big screens. His YouTube film The Ridge has had 56 million views.

This must have been the largest indoor Scots/Gaelic musical event ever held in Scotland – and yet the Scottish Government’s subsidy to the “mother-ship” Celtic Connections is reportedly exceeded by its grant to the Edinburgh Festival fireworks display, which is over in half an hour.

So if James Macmillan wants a debate about the Scottish Government’s cultural priorities, let’s have one. Like the big debates we so urgently need about policing and health spending, it will work best without distraction by minutiae or undue media attention for those with rank, title and prestige.

l 2018: Bothy Culture and Beyond presented by Julie Fowlis is on BBC Two at 9pm on Saturday 3 February