Editorial: Holyrood elections 2011 – The next ten words

Published in The Student, May 3 2011
With Julia Symmes Cobb

In the age of Twitter and the 24 hour news cycle, the promises of political parties are often reduced to succinct sound bites and populist catchphrases; easily digestible snippets of policy that are tailored to the impressionable everyman who party managers think is representative of the population.

Political strategists and television producers seem to assume that all modern voters, especially the young, are too stupid to understand more than 10 seconds of election chat at a time, and so our national discourse has been reduced to a predictable formula: egalitarian proclamation on x area of policy + indignant fist pound on available surface + snide comment concerning y party’s blunders on z issue = votes.

You would hope that Scottish party leaders would be above this formulaic rhetoric, but alas, The Student is bound to report that, with the shining exception of Scottish Greens co-convener  Patrick Harvie (see page 21 for an exclusive cut-out-and-keep face mask), they most definitely are not.

At least once during our interviews with Annabel Goldie, Iain Gray, Tavish Scott and Alex Salmond, the leaders each dodged the hard questions; responding with indeterminate and vague anecdotes, and mutterings of “quango cost-cutting” and “top public sector pay cuts”. They either don’t know the facts or they don’t think the public can process them. Either way, it’s fundamenally disrespectful towards the people they are supposed to be serving.

Of particular concern to students is the leaders’  inability to answer the question of how to fill the predicted funding gap in the higher education budget. To begin with, no one seems to be able to figure out how big the funding gap is going to be. The Scottish Government says one thing, and Universities Scotland another. You would think with all the resources both of these bodies have at their disposal – academics, research facilities, civil servants and bureaucrats – that they would be able to agree on a number.

To her credit, Goldie answered unequivocally that her party would charge a graduate contribution of between £3,600 and £4,000 per graduate. However, no students will pay her graduate tax until at least 2016 and she has made no attempt to explain how she would fund higher education in the meantime.

Gray, Scott and Salmond paled in comparison even to Goldie. All three give answers to the funding gap question, but unfortunately their definition of an answer amounts to a few grandiose phrases about preserving the future of higher education and absolutely no actual facts. Salmond slams the pay of top public sector workers, especially the salaries given to university principals, but fails to explain exactly how the funding gap could be filled – even if you halved the salary of every university principal in Scotland, the savings from those salaries would still be dwarfed by the size of the gap.

Scott turns on the proverbial whipping boy of election season, the Quango. Quangos gobble up funds and are ineffective he says, and they should be cut – but he has no specifics on which quangos or of how much to cut.  These leaders either don’t know the numbers, or those numbers don’t exist. The Student is inclined to think the latter is true.

As the Scottish party leaders demonstrate in our interview feature, rhetoric, however searing, doesn’t often stand up to a questioning, especially not a questioning concerning specific policy.  We were suprised that two students were able to trip up four very experienced politicians, who have spent their working lives in public policy. We didn’t ask trick questions nor expect them to have obscure points of policy detail learnt off by heart, but having been through their manifestos and drafted some intelligent, searching, but not impossible questions, we managed to leave more than one of them looking to their assistants for help and reaching for ever close-to-hand policy documents.

We expected that a man with 17 years experience as a party leader and four years as First Minister would be conversant in his own policies, but  he spent half the time reading from a prepared list and  when pressed for details about his manifesto commitment to a graduate apprenticeship, he didn’t even seem to know that it existed.

Someone elected to serve the public as a Member of the Scottish Parliament should win because the public trusts them and their judgment, not because their speechwriter has come up with the best catchphrases, however devoid of content they might be (if the number of re-tweets of your snarky comeback is a reason to be elected as a leader, then Charlie Sheen should be the supreme ruler of the world).

To highlight the shortcomings of our real-life politicians, we turn to that great but fictional statesman, The West Wing‘s President Jed Bartlett.  In the fourth season he is running for re-election against Bush-like Robert Ritchie, a Republican governor with a tiny IQ but bags of folksy charm.  Bartlett’s staff get increasingly nervous about Ritchie’s uncanny ability to sum up complex national issues in catchy ten-word soundbites and encourage the Nobel Prize-winning former economics professor to do the same, to boil down all his knowledge into bite-sized chunks.  During the presidential debate, Bartlett finally snaps and after listening to yet a another trite catchphrase, he challenges Ritchie to give him “the next ten words, and the next ten words, and the next – what do you do after that?”.  As Bartlett reminds us; “there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words.”

The candidates in this election should be honest with voters and trust us with the real facts. The electorate is smart enough to understand the numbers, to cast our votes on real, warts-and-all policy and not on the dumbed-down, tarted-up version spoon-fed to us.

Devolution–now entering its fourth term–started life in a time of prosperity and plenty and as a result the idea that all services should be free has been engrained into Scottish politics. But this has meant that politicians have become too afraid of suggesting that some things might have to change and so they have promised more and more without being clear about how it can be paid for.
The whole point of election campaigns is for parties to debate the merits of their policy stances so the public can decide, but if parties treat us like children, too immature to make an informed judgement, then democracy becomes fundamentally cheapened. So, Gray, Salmond, Goldie and Scott: there are three days left. What are the next ten words?


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