As a politician of 13 years experience in both parliaments and having demonstrated in that time that she is no numpty, the current Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland Margaret Curran MP should be able to hold her own. That she can mix it with the best of them was demonstrated in the feisty campaign she ran in the Glasgow East by-election in 2008—losing narrowly to John Mason before digging in and achieving a thumping turnaround in the subsequent 2010 general election.
A disappointment, then, when interviewed in London today along with Stewart Hosie MP on the matter of the now-double-dip recession that, instead of finding common cause with the SNP to declaim Osbo’s flawed economics that have led us into a £1 trillion deficit and no recovery in sight, Ms Curran chose tangential-attack-dog mode instead. Far from finding common cause, she fixated on an irrelevant question whether MSPs can insist on the First Minister being specially carpeted prior to FMQs due tomorrow (Thursday) to explain any discussions with Rupert Murdoch.
It was an unwitting re-enactment of the hilarious Monty Python snippet: “and here is a recording of Alastair Cooke being attacked by a duck—(cue nasal Ivy League accent) ‘I can never visit Philadelphia without’...” the rest of the monologue is drowned out in quacks. Poor Stewart; despite a sincere attempt to support Labour’s thesis that the present ConDem fiscal strategy is bankrupt, he was dragged into pained silence by Curran’s puerile repetition of exactly the same question.
To some extent, repeating the question and not being stonewalled by non-answers is a legitimate political tactic. Paxo has used it to devastating effect in his time and any question of substance does deserve an answer. But in a proper context.
To be legitimate and effective requires that the question pass two key tests: 1) the question must have direct bearing on the discussion; 2) the one questioned must be competent to answer it. On the first, the FM’s relationship with Murdoch is irrelevant to our recovery from recession and, on the second, querying an MP for procedure in the Scottish Parliament (where he has never served) reeks of seizing any opportunity to justify a pre-judged position.
It wasn’t a pretty sight. Ms Curran did her credibility no good in quacking as raucously as she did. This is especially so when her own and her party’s performance is considered when the questioning boot is on the other foot.
Just as Labour’s recent pious demands for education budgets to be preserved, whatever Westminster cuts may come (conveniently ignoring an 8%-and-rising drain on that budget funding 30 fat years of profit for PFI companies set up by Ms Curran & her former MSP colleagues), so this pious insistence on utter, instant openness sits awkwardly with Labour’s own FOI record.
In the period 1999 to 2007, the three Labour-led Administrations declined to answer 547 questions put to it, mostly under the FOI Act requests. Of these 18 were questions made directly to FM Jack McConnell, which included:
- discussions with the Catholic Church (Refused: deemed exempt under Section 12—excessive cost of compliance)
- the Section 28/2A furore of 2000 (Refused: deemed exempt under section 29—Formulation of Scottish Administration policy)
- the Beattie Media furore of 2001 (Refused: deemed exempt under s12—excessive cost of compliance and s33(1)(b)—Commercial interests and the economy)
Some of the reasons given are pretty odious, as when “Request for copies of the advice given from Dundas & Wilson, Ernst & Young, Scottish Airports Ltd., Thomas & Adamson, SO, HM Treasury and its PFI Unit on the PFI project.”is met with: “Refusal: exempt under sections 29 (Formulation of Scottish Administration policy), 30 (Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs), 36 (Confidentiality)”
Baron McConnell of Glenscorrodale needed no lessons in evading questions he preferred not to answer; Ms Curran had a front bench role throughout his tenure and learned well from the master, steeped, as she was, in his ritual obfuscation for at least the last decade. It may not be her fault that her facial expression falls naturally into a body language that radiates distrust and displeasure. But it seems a fair expression of what’s going on inside.
Nonetheless, it’s a shame she focusses her energy into trying to trip up opponents so deeply that she’s convinced others deploy the same obfuscation. Because there is a dwindling pool of people who can pull Scottish Labour back from the brink of oblivion into which it seems hell-bent on driving itself. The combination of thrawn sullenness at not being in charge and addiction to decrying the works of others as flawed by definition will be its downfall unless someone of the stature of Curran or Darling calls ‘enough’.
Credibility is a precious commodity in politics; parties or people play with it at their peril. If people believe you’re as two-faced as Camlachie clock (and that’s got four), it might be time for someone with ambition for office to consider whether incessant quacking has any place in a strategy towards such a future.