Sad case that I am, while on-line yesterday entering canvass results, the TV that shares my desk was tuned—like a junkie who can’t get enough—to Scottish Questions on BBC Parliament. This one was from April 18th, but I had to keep checking the date on the strapline because I kept getting a strong feeling of déja vu, that I had seen all this before.
And then it struck me: I had. Not literally, but here was a cast of characters rehearsing their roles with all the plot predictability of Tom and Jerry. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big Tom & Jerry fan (even tho’ I sometimes feel I’m in one of their plots at the Council). But in one of their cartoons, it’s never in doubt who’s going to win. Last Wednesday, SQT ran with the same predictability, as if it were on rails.
The Mother of All Parliaments, the inner sanctum of our democracy spent the best part of an hour doing a fair impersonation of a bunch of macho rednecks discussing “women’s problems”. For once, it made little odds from which side of the House the questions were coming. Laced with ritual snipes across the chamber about which side was purloining the larger sum from granny’s purse was an almost orchestrated sense of agreement that came straight out of the straight man/funny mad music hall tradition.
At the centre of it all was the Moore and Mundell double-act. While the one can’t help himself in looking over-serious, the other struggles to be taken seriously at all. Yet they were in fine form, knowing—as in all the SQT sessions for months now—that well over 90% of members present were entirely on their side and willing participants in a theatre of gesture politics that ill-suited so historic a chamber. On the topic of funding, they started off sounding reasonable:
- Mr David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital to maintain the Union in the interests of both England and Scotland, but that the funding formula should be fair to both countries?
- David Mundell: I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend’s sentiments, but as he and many other Members are aware, this Government inherited the worst deficit in peacetime history from the Labour Government, and stabilising our nation’s finances must be the focus of their efforts.
- Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that the Scotland Bill will increase the amount of revenue gathered in Scotland to about a third of its spend, and will thus decrease dependency on a block grant?
- David Mundell: I agree that the Scotland Bill represents a radical, historic and significant change to Scotland’s financing. More than a third of spending by the Scottish Parliament will result from funding from taxes that it determines and raises. That is a major step forward in terms of devolution and accountability, and should be welcomed by all Members.
Punting the Scotland Bill then moves up a gear with a fair degree of relish being displayed on each side. At least they retain enough dignity not to indulge in a ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’ but you can tell it’s a struggle:
- Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): The new Scotland Bill will pass significant powers to the Scottish Parliament, including those relating to tax. Among the representations that he has received, has there been a request from the First Minister to work jointly with him to highlight and promote those new powers, to show that we can maximise devolution while maintaining the integrity and strength of the partnership of the United Kingdom?
- Michael Moore: The right hon. Lady will not be surprised to hear that I have not received a representation on that particular subject. I agree with her that the Scotland Bill is a significant piece of legislation; it represents the most significant transfer of financial powers from London to Edinburgh since 1707.
We then segue neatly into indirect condemnation of what the Scottish Government has been clear in organising with the mandate it received mast May:
- Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con): What assessment his Department has made of the responses to its consultation on the proposed referendum on independence for Scotland.
- Michael Moore: The Government published their response on 4 April. The responses to the consultation gave strong endorsement to a referendum involving a single, clear question on independence, overseen by the Electoral Commission, using the same franchise as that used to elect the Members of the Scottish Parliament, and held sooner rather than later.
- Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree with the consensus of established by the responses, which is that people do not want to wait 1,000 days to exercise their votes in a referendum?
- Michael Moore: This is a fundamentally important decision, the most important that we as Scots will make in our lifetimes, and the longer it is delayed, the greater the uncertainty will be. The sooner we can get on with resolving the process and the question, the better.
- Amber Rudd: Do the responses of the consultation reflect my view that there should be a simple “yes or no” question in any referendum if we are to secure a decisive outcome for Scotland?
- Michael Moore: My hon. Friend is entirely right. We must not muddle the issue of independence with a separate debate on the future of devolution. Today we mark another important milestone in the development of the Scotland Bill. What we want after its enactment—assuming that we receive their lordships’ support—is a clear decision on the future of our country, and for it to stay in the United Kingdom.
A clearer example of a stitched-up artificial debate is hard to imagine. Had the arcane rules of the House permitted it, a pantomime to-and-fro-ing between 600 unionists (Oh, no it isn’t!) and 6 SNP MPs (Oh, yes it is!) would have been appropriate. And, lest it seem that the opposition were not complicit in this great game, the above was followed by:
- Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): Some 70% of respondents to the UK consultation felt that 2014 was too long to wait to decide Scotland’s constitutional future. Businesses and financial institutions in my constituency have made it clear that this state of limbo is damaging the economy in Scotland. Has the Secretary of State received similar representations from businesses elsewhere in Scotland?
- Michael Moore: The hon. Lady is entirely right to draw this issue to the attention of the House and to highlight that across Scotland and the UK, businesses, like individuals, want answers. We need to resolve this hugely important issue sooner rather than later, so we do not lose out on investment in jobs and we understand our future within the UK.
The debate finally moved into business as usual, whereby government stags were chased by baying opposition hounds. Michael Connarty, Lindsay Roy, Sandra Osborne and Greg McClymont all went baying after Mundell on the matter of 367,000 pensioners being affected by changes in age-related personal allowances. Nonetheless, the bulk of the SMQ session was an exchange that repetitively echoed so many other SMQ sessions this year.
It’s not that Moore isn’t capable of more complex and enlightening debate, nor that Mundell is quite as green as he is habitually cabbage-looking. But it does appear that, when it comes to presenting the unionist case in as sympathetic an environment as Westminster’s hallowed halls, any old recycled rubbish will do to scupper the Scots.