Friday, 24 December 2010

Ross Martin: Curtain up on Political Panto

Published in the Scotsman, 24/12/10

"As Scotland continues to feel the effects of an increasingly harsh winter, with economic growth in the deep freeze, we might be reassured if we saw signals that our politicians are stoking the furnace of recovery; that they are burning with democratic desire in preparation for the forthcoming Scottish election; that they stockpiled fresh policy fuel to energise our economic engines. So what positive smoke signals can we discern amidst the freezing fog?

Given the public's propensity towards reality TV, with I'm a Celebrity and Strictly part of a real resurgence of viewing figures, it might be argued that politicians who indulge, and are indulged in return, are simply representing the electorate by seeking their 15 seconds of fame, or alternatively just skating on thin electoral ice. Did the chalk-on-board screech of Lembit Opik's performance grate with you? How did Ann Widdecombe's manoeuvres go down, demonstrating all the grace of a nuclear sub grounded in a Scottish loch? And what of the season's longest-running reality "show"? How has the Sheridan court battle been for you? Enlightening? Entertaining? Enhancing?

As an increasing number of our politicians (current, former and possibly future) finally succumb to the cult of celebrity, we might imagine those responsible for domestic social policy strutting their stuff under the stage lights. If so, how would they fare? Can we picture our MSPs performing on the stage, waltzing around the dance floor or even munching through a bush tucker challenge in the jungle?

However, as there is a fine tradition of pantomime here in Scotland, a strong case for MSPs treading the stage boards can indeed be made. Let's face it, pantomime is essentially an opportunity for the audience to suspend reality, something well-practised in the Holyrood chamber, and for the actors, an opportunity to pretend that life's not that hard. So, in the festive spirit, let us imagine which of our Scottish politicians might tread the boards and what panto character they might play.

First up, it's got to be Cinderella, played by Auntie Annabel Goldie herself.

Still sweeping up the ash from when the Thatcherite flame was snuffed out by the bleak political winter of '97, will she ever get to the ball and find a true partner, or will her ugly sisters, played by Tory MSPs Murdo Fraser and Jackson Carlaw, win the day? Her cousin, dashing Dave Cameron, has already found his true love in the UK coalition, but the plot, such as it is, will focus on whether our Annabel will find her political prince this May.

Perhaps a pair of red shoes would do the trick, as used to great effect by our very own Dorothy, Margo MacDonald. Margo simply needs to click her heels and she is right back home in the corridors of power, using all the magic that the parliament's electoral arithmetic Wizard has granted her, to strike a Capital City Supplement deal.

In the wonderful world of Holyrood, during the production known as the Scottish Budget, other MSPs should learn this very basic lesson in parliamentary arithmetic of working together for the greater good of the areas they represent. Will MSPs find enlightenment on the electoral yellow brick road? We must hope they find a strong heart to lead for their local community, demonstrate the brains to secure a better deal for their patch and display the courage to set aside their party whips and work together for the greater good of their town, city or region.

If the land of Oz is an unusual panto, we must not forget Jack and the Beanstalk. Tavish Scott, the Liberal Democrat Scottish leader, was certainly responsible for germinating some of the beans that grew into the UK Coalition tree, having been an integral part of previous partnerships in Scotland that paved the way for Westminster. In this production the question is can Tavish/Jack now reap the electoral reward for planting those maturing cross-fertilising political seeds, or will he get chopped down by an angry Scottish electorate? Who knows?

Now, Christmas wouldn't be the same without Snow White, and there would be fierce competition for this glamorous role at Holyrood. It would perhaps be inappropriate for me to nominate any MSP for this role, so I'll let you choose your own favourite. As for seven political dwarves, well, perhaps I can leave you the terrifyingly difficult ordeal of identifying this lot. No mean task at Holyrood.

But what's that noise? Look, he's behind you: There's Iain "Aladdin" Gray, Labour's Holyrood leader, rubbing his policy lamp for all it's worth, looking to unleash the magic that he insists saw his party successfully defend its ground in this year's election, when all his dreams came true. The problem is, however, that he may not have any wishes left to use in next year's manifesto.

And he must fear that the electorate is going to put the anti-Tory Genie that boosted his support back into his bottle, given that they have no chance of winning next year.

And to finish our merry-go-round of Christmas favourites, let us imagine First Minister Alex Salmond as the Widow Twankey, Aladdin's pantomime dame of a mum. Like Twankey tea is "oor Eck" - who some might see as a pantomime villain and hiss whenever he appears - is past his best, it has been said. But he may yet play the part of telling the election story through audience interaction and brew up another stunning election victory. So, the lead role could be Eck's again, or will the electoral gods conspire to effect a result that ushers in a new political cast of players? If so who might these new panto talents be?

Finance minister John Swinney is an obvious Peter Pan, youthful, charming and yet wielding a mean little dagger. Just ask Glasgow Council's Labour leader. But, he's not the one to watch this time around. That role goes to his real-life political partner Nicola Sturgeon playing the part of Wendy. Look, there she goes, sprinkling pixie dust over those pirates in the press gang. Supportive, yet forceful, Nicola has had another good year, soaring above criticism, but will her dream of the top prize really come true?

And who would play cunning old Captain Hook? Enter stage left, none other than that seasoned veteran of the political play, Labour MP Brian Donohoe, scourge of the Scottish Parliament and all things nationalist. There he is, brandishing his amendment to the Scotland Bill, seeking to destabilise the good ship Holyrood by removing its balance, or to you dear voter, the parliament's proportionality.

So, the performance of our MSPs in the panto knockabout that is Holyrood does shed light on the coming election. We did start this winter season with a shock ministerial resignation, when transport minister Stewart Stevenson - after a week of Oh, yes he will, Oh, no he won't - fell on his sword, in a clash of his principle and others' political pragmatism. True grit he had in spades, but even he couldn't plough a clear road through the political storm that hit that week.

This could be seen as a sign that the parliament is growing up, but others may believe our MSPs have still to prove that they are worthy of applause rather than the hissing and booing traditional of pantomime audiences. They will hope that, despite the jokes and slapstick along the way, they are seen as serious people, helping the voters face up to the reality of the economic crisis, and leading us to the happy ending and curtain calls when Scotland becomes a land of stability and sustainable growth?

But hold on, what's that noise? Tick-tock, tick-tock. The electoral croc approaches, as a reminder to our parliamentarians that they are on borrowed time.

If the student fees fiasco, or the disgrace that was the alcohol debate is anything to go by, then alarm bells should indeed be ringing. Just like their pantomime alter egos, our MSPs, whichever groups form the next Scottish Government, will have to front up on opening night and face their audience. Now, that really will be a pantomime worth watching".

Ross is the Centre's Policy Director

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