Robin McAlpine: What passes for normal in Scotland these days?

“You will know what I fear happens if trust in democracy is eroded. But I believe we must also face the aberrant nature of national political debate which results when democracy is in trouble. We cannot – cannot – allow this to become normal.”

THERE IS a hopeful, optimistic part of my nature and there is a doom-mongering, whiney part. Believe it or not, I do fight hard against the latter. Common Weal has done everything we know how to set a creative, positive route out of this crisis; I wrote three columns a week throughout lockdown offering what I hoped were constructive, upbeat ideas.

But pretending this is the agenda Scottish politics is talking about would be silly. We seem to be in a state of unprecedented absurdity, with things being treated as if they could be normal which are most certainly no such thing.

If you want positivity, I’ve listed some of my lockdown articles at the bottom of this one. If you still want to do something positive then let me encourage you (if you can) to give a donation to my local Broughton Ales brewery, a wonderful local business that needs support right now.

Otherwise, all I can do is look at Scotland and tell you what I see. Mess doesn’t cover it. We’re in denial about what is happening, what is coming down the track.

It’s not normal for government to ‘contradict’ itself without consequence

Ben Wray covered this brilliantly yesterday morning; the health secretary told us in early May that the “presumption should be that all residents being admitted to a care home should have a negative test before admission unless it is in the clinical interests of the person to be moved and then only after a full risk assessment”.

You might therefore have presumed that vulnerable old people were not being decanted into care homes without testing on who currently had Covid. You’d be wrong about that. There are loopholes in that ‘assurance’ offered by the health secretary but as I will touch on below, they were retrospective.

It’s not like there haven’t been chances to correct this position – the first minister has hardly lacked opportunity to clarify what was actually going on. Instead, journalists have to catch them.

But what isn’t normal is that this lasts a day, then disappears. Imagine Boris Johnson said the above and was caught out. We’re still getting a story a week about Dominic Cummings breaking lockdown – how can having Europe’s highest death toll in care homes not make the fact they were sending infected people into those homes willy-nilly more than a one-day story?

It’s not normal for government to ‘burn’ the records

The UK Government is routinely accepted as maverick, but what does that say about us? Every time the UK Government updates guidelines it leaves the preceding guidelines available to cross-reference (as it should).

But every time the Scottish Government updates its guidelines, it destroys the paper trail leading to the old guidelines. We were trying to square off what the Scottish Government was saying now about care home admittance with what the policy was then. We knew all the old guidelines were removed, so we used Wayback Machine (which allows you to ‘roll back’ public websites to prevent this kind of shenanigans).

Would it surprise you to discover that a brand new webpage was created for the revised guidelines so you can’t ‘roll it back’ and find out what the older version was?

Along with things like being the only country in the world to use Covid as a reason to effectively suspend Freedom of Information (which is why we’re only getting documents now), plus the fact that they claim not to have had a single written piece of advice on Covid until well into the crisis (if this is true, it’s negligent), the pattern of obfuscation is now more than worrying.

The first minister’s promises to be accountable are hollow. She wants no such thing. Bring on the inquiry.

It’s not normal to let a political leader have this much air time unchallenged

How many national leaders around the world have put themselves on TV almost every single day since Covid started? I’ll give you a clue; it’s a number slightly less than two.

In other countries, the leader spends their morning battling Covid and the economic crisis, not prepping for and giving press conferences. That’s why government has more than one person in it. It’s what government officials are for.

That these shows are designed in such a way that journalists aren’t allowed follow-up questions is transparently controlling. One of the first things I tell people if I do media training is that you have to be really bad to screw up the first answer; it’s the second follow-up question (your third answer on a subject) that is the really dangerous one – that’s when you’re out of pre-prepared answers.

It’s not normal that everything is retrospective

This week, we found out that outbreaks of Covid in schools was inevitable. As a parent I’ve been paying attention. Why were we not provided with that information before schools went back? Why wasn’t there a discussion then? The schools must go back, but if these outbreaks are so inevitable there should have been much more pressure for a proper testing regime.

Why is the education secretary offering tests on demand for teachers only after they are back at work? Is he protecting them or himself? Why are people behaving like the exam fiasco is the first education fiasco? Can’t people remember that schools were told to change their learning plans radically after they had closed for the year? Or that no-one really knows who actually got an education during lockdown?

Let me be clear what I’m saying here – this and the stuff above is about protecting politicians from scrutiny. It not only doesn’t help anyone else, it actively hinders them.

It’s not normal for the BBC to try and prejudice parliamentary inquiries

Many of you will be familiar with the currently popular TV genre where new evidence is used forensically to examine whether past convictions were sound.

This week, the BBC created a new genre where trials are re-prosecuted almost immediately, not with new evidence but by omitting half of the original trial evidence and getting the rest read out by better actors.

I don’t think any living person thinks the Wark fiasco reached even the basecamp of Mount Balanced. Most people know Kirsty Wark’s feelings regarding Alex Salmond. But it didn’t even make it to the train station for Appropriateville.

That the BBC thought this could be broadcast the night before a crucial parliamentary inquiry into the subject of the ‘show’ as a ‘public service’ is truly remarkable. That they repeated it the next day and put it on iPlayer is utterly contemptuous (though I’ve just heard it has just been removed and Wark has deleted her Tweets),

I’ve defended the BBC in the past. There is no defence for this scandal – unless you put in a caption saying ‘the defence was contacted but declined to show up’.

It is not normal for a political leader to face even accusations of this nature

Someone asked me how bad a scandal it would be if Salmond sticks this conspiracy allegation on Nicola Sturgeon. I asked the person to think of the worst political scandal attached to any leader in Europe over the last 50 years.

“Berlusconi?” was their reply. “Did he try and deprive an opponent of their liberty based on false accusations he manufactured using the power of government at every stage?” was mine.

Set aside whether these allegations are true for a second – that they are seen as credible enough to be stated in court, covered in the media and be asked at a parliamentary inquiry is unprecedented. It’s the other side of normal.

That the lead ‘civil servant’ has made clear that the complaints procedure was entirely created and specified at Sturgeon’s direction (overruling strong objections) is the first horrendous piece of the puzzle.

A couple more (like a senior member of her staff being involved in encouraging complaints before the procedure is even finalised) would bring Scottish democracy into international disrepute. This is serious.

So serious, in fact, that the evidence already in the public domain allows for the possibility the first minister knowingly misled parliament on the matter seems like the least of it. And that is – by normal precedent – a resignation matter in itself.

Plus, it would do you all well to remember that the first minister and her proxies have now had multiple attempts to take control of this story and they have not succeeded. Salmond hasn’t entered the game yet, and while I’m definitely not uncritical of him, I rather doubt he’s quite as ‘diminished’ as his opponents wish he was.

This is kicking around Scottish political conversation like it is a curiosity or an ‘unfortunate personal matter’. I don’t know what is less normal – that this is on our national agenda or that people are behaving like it might be normal that it is on our national agenda.

It’s not normal for a movement to be so hostile to its leader

On the day of writing, there is a letter in The National from a reader proposing that every indy supporter should vote for whomever is best placed to beat an SNP constituency politician. That is a bad idea, but it’s just about par for the course these days.

The number of conversations at the grassroots level which amount to ‘how do we get rid of her?’ is not normal. Hell, my inbox isn’t normal. You should see my correspondence – serious, senior people are past the point of no return on this.

The leader of the SNP can now promise that she’ll pursue a referendum and hardly a soul seems to believe her; meanwhile, it is opponents of independence who most want her to retain her job. That’s unusual.

In Scotland, weird is now normal

And yet despite this, the first minister has giant popularity ratings. Weird has become normal. But I wouldn’t get too comfortable if you think this will sustain.

Someone shared some (hardly scientific but not just anecdotal) information with me this week. An informal poll of a large community network was asked how they were feeling. Roughly one in four are gung ho – thinking the lockdown and the masks are an overreaction. About one in four are some shade of terrified. But over half are basically ‘dazed and confused’.

I think this is having a kind of soporific impact, like a kind of stress-induced valium. My fear just now lies in what happens if everyone suddenly wakes up with a collective ‘what the fuck is going on?’.

If you are a regular reader, you will know my fears about Scotland’s democracy. You will know what I fear happens if trust in democracy is eroded. But I believe we must also face the aberrant nature of national political debate which results when democracy is in trouble. We cannot – cannot – allow this to become normal.

Some positive reading if you missed it

How to beat the virus using community (why a much more localised and decentralised Scotland would have done so much better)

When people say the virus has changed the world, this is what they mean (how globalisation as we know it looks to be on shakey ground – and why that’s not a bad thing)

Why I’m optimistic about post-virus economics (If bad economic systems are in trouble, it means good ones may get a chance)

When this is done, let’s build a resilient society (some of the ways Scotland can springboard from the virus to a stronger and more inclusive society)

After this crisis, our lives and economy can be better – if we have principles (Don’t just try to rebuild the old economy – as what we really want from our economy and let that guide us)

How do we start to rebuild? (If we don’t decide what it is we want to rebuild and set out the principles of the world we want to live in, we will miss our chance to create it)

Recover forward – how to use crisis for good (Far from seeing problems as downside, flip how we think about them – they’re opportunities to start doing things well)

Corrupted Scotland needs a post-virus governance revolution (Scotland can open up and become a participatory, inclusive, genuinely democratic country – but not if we keep running it like we’re running it)

Scotland is in desperate need of good journalism – this is how we can have it (The media is essential but is in crisis, so how could a more effective media be created)

‘Green New Deal’ and ‘Green Deal’ are opposites – Scotland has to choose (If we’re going to really tackle climate change in Scotland we must be really clear what the language actually means)

Progress needs the state, but the state must progress (Government and hasn’t changed since the Victorian era – it’s time it did)

I’m a socialist – but I’m here to save capitalism (Before we start trying to create new economic systems we need to change the one we have)

You want radical? How about producers selling to consumers (Don’t nationalise the means of production – nationalise the means of distribution)

The future is Radio Rental (A radical new approach to ownership would make us all much ‘richer’ while also saving the environment)

Covid is a tragedy – but, in our people, it has also been a triumph (The official handling of the early phases of Covid are anything but good – and yet the people of Scotland give so much reason for hope with how they have responded)