Friday, 29 April 2011

The Leading Edge

He's the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, at the forefront of opposition to the SNP government for the past three years, yet remarkably few people seem to know who he is. Famous mostly for running away from elderly hecklers and hiding in a sandwich shop, Iain Gray has struggled more than most leaders to make the right impression – or, indeed, any impression at all. It's unfair, say the party faithful. Gray is an honest man who deserves better than to be sidelined in an age of spin. His personality is neither here nor there, and the forthcoming election should be decided on the issues.

They're quite wrong, of course.

The problem with approaching party promotion this way is that they're missing the fact that personality is one of the issues. Consider the perennial problem of parties that have been out of power for a while. We should be wary of them, their opponents always say, because they have very few people with top level political experience. What this really means, more often than not, is that we the voters have little experience of them. We're not familiar with their skillsets and can't be sure they're up to the job of government.

In order to establish themselves in this situation, parties have to demonstrate that they have capable individuals with specific areas of expertise – Nicola Sturgeon on health, for instance; or, at Westminster, Vince Cable on economics. The presence of a competent individual makes voters more confident that the party will be able to handle that area of government without disasters.

Then there is the job of leader.

Like it or not, a leader is not just there to coordinate activities (with the possible exception of the Green Party, who have a convener rather than a leader per se, but they have no prospect of forming a majority). A leader is there to lead. A leader may become a First Minister, at which point they will have to speak on behalf of the country and carry an air of authority; they will need to be able to stand up to the leaders of other nations, to do business with them on equal terms, and to inspire confidence in the Scottish people. We need to know, when we cast our votes, that we are electing a party whose leader can represent us all.

It is hardly inspiring if we struggle to remember who that leader is.

Iain Gray may very well be an honest, decent man, but he carries himself like an unpopular schoolteacher, hectoring when he should be persuading, forever on edge. At times he bears an unfortunate resemblance to The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Man With No Neck. It is difficult to imagine him commanding respect on the international stage. This is unfortunate for Scotland whichever way you look at it. Labour members are already whispering that he's cost them the election, and even those who support the SNP should appreciate that governments function at their best when they have a strong opposition.

What seems to have occurred is an oversight within Labour ranks, a failure to appreciate what politics is really about. It's all very well to be idealistic but policies alone are not enough. That's like trying to promote a band with great lyrics and a charisma-free singer, or serving a nutritious meal with no discernible flavour. There is more to government than white papers and number management. Charisma matters. Leadership matters, because this is a context in which style is part of the substance.

Whose Flag is it Anyway?

It may seem odd to see a post from me about Britishness. Like many people in Scotland, I rarely think of myself in those terms; less so on a day like today when the British media is presenting an image of the country which I can scarcely recognise. But that's why this is important.

There are many reasons to feel uncomfortable about the royal celebrations. For many of us, the royal family is an embarrassing anachronism, a feudal relic by nature racist, sexist and bigoted. I have nothing against the two young people who tied the knot in Westminster Abbey, but I dread to think what sort of life they've got to look forward to or, indeed, what one of them has suffered already. Strangers' obsession with the intimate details of their lives (and, let's face it, the whole pornographic fixation on the fate of the bride, a kiss standing in for the now less acceptable hoisting of a bloodstained bedsheet) has creepy stalker overtones that would surely see them sectioned were their attentions focused on anyone else. Pandering to it seems, at best, deeply unhealthy.

These are not, however, at the crux of the matter.

What appalls me more than anything else is that this tawdry show, dubbed by one supporter as 'the greatest reality TV show on Earth', and the very antithesis of class - is being touted as the epitomé of Britishness, of what being British is about.

Britishness, today, involved the pre-emptive arrests of dozens of people, most of them entirely non-aggressive, on the presumption that they might breach the peace. They included a middle aged professor who had hoped to perform a piece of street theatre; a student who intended to shout sarcastic comments; and a man who sang 'We all live in a fascist regime' to the tune of Yellow Submarine. A group of people who had assembled peacefully in a park to protest the fact that gay people do not enjoy the liberty to marry in this great nation were told to move on before, essentially, too many people saw them.

Britishness, today, includes an arrangement with several major broadcasters to the effect that no jokes will be made about the monarchy. Last night it included replacing Question Time with an insipid, hastily-produced biopic every critic has savaged. Perhaps that shouldn't be such a big deal, but the thing is, we have an election coming up in Scotland. There's also the impending AV referendum. How cheering it is to see democracy demoted in favour of fawning allegiance to inherited rulers.

I once sat down with a sociology class and tried to think of things that are British (not just English, the two often being confused). All we could agree on was tea (thanks, China and India). Yesterday a friend suggested red telephone boxes, which probably also fit. But today has prompted me to think of a few other things.

What is Britishness about? Do we really have shared values? I think that somewhere, beneath all the artificial ones, we do. I think that most of us believe in democracy, in freedom of speech, in freedom of association, in respect that is due to every citizen no matter the circumstances in which they were born. I think that we believe accused people are innocent until proven guilty; I don't think we believe in precrime.

I have a couple of friends who have gone giddy with delight over the royal wedding, and I don't want to bring them down. They're not doing the stalker thing and I appreciate that, for them, it's just a bit of harmless fun, not so different from the Oscars or the Eurovision Song Contest. But that freedom to express oneself should belong to everybody, including those who don't accept the royal line, those who resent having to pay for an extravaganza which they see as nothing to do with them.

In a fascist regime, people have been eagerly pointing out, one would not be free to discuss these things (this isn't strictly true, as a quick perusal of the blogosphere will show you, but never mind). But they're missing the point. Being able to talk about it doesn't make the loss of our liberal freedoms okay, any more that being able to complain afterwards makes a punch in the face okay.

What has happened today is about as far removed from Britishness as I can imagine, though it has plenty in common with the British dystopias of early twentieth century fiction. It's not patriotic to wave a flag at the royal carriage and politely ignore the fate of the protestors. That's a betrayal of the very values that give this nation cohesion. Britain deserves better. Britain can be better, but we'll have to acknowledge the rot before we can cut it out.

Now, I'm off to have a cup of tea.