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Sunday, 5 June 2011

Holyrood mandates, majorities - and questions, questions, questions …

The panic-stricken hysteria of the unionist media and pundits has risen to a crescendo since the scale of the SNP electoral win became evident - at least, I hope it is a crescendo, but I suspect that there’s worse to come

This has ranged for forecasting doom and disaster if Scotland achieved its independence, through demands for an immediate referendum, or two referendums, (no, I don’t like referenda!) or a referendum involving English voters, and probably Northern Irish voters, but certainly not Welsh voters (!) to thinly disguised challenges to the validity of the SNP’s mandate, under the guise of either the alleged failure of the d’Hondt method of proportional representation (it was meant to keep the SNP out of power, or at least stop them having any real power if they won) or expressions of concern about the turnout on polling day and the so-called democratic deficit.

(The democratic deficit is an expression that refers to the perceived inadequacies of electoral systems in reflecting the true opinions of the voters, especially on proportionality, the validity of mandates claimed by such electoral systems in the light of low voter turnout etc., and the abuse of mandates by governments when in power.)

The protestations of the unionists parties and their media shills after May 5th 2011 are in marked contrast to these parties when in power at UK level, as demonstrated by even a cursory examination of  Thatcher’s destruction of Scotland’s infrastructure and theft of Scottish oil, the Blair/Brown years (illegal wars, the destruction of the economy, etc.) and the ConLib Coalition’s betrayal of LibDem promises, attempts to destroy the NHS, and ill-conceived intervention in Libya, especially when their democratic deficit is examined in relation to voter turnout and party share of the vote. (Scottish Parliamentary elections tend to fall somewhere below UK general elections and somewhere above local government elections in voter turnout.)

So we have agonised squeals of pain in the letters columns from unionist voters who have spent their lives tugging their forelocks respectfully to one kind of Scottish party political dominance or another, so long as it was safely unionist and UK oriented, and who cannot believe that they suddenly are on the wrong side of political power and saluting the wrong flag, and the two non-tabloid Scottish newspapers, the Herald and the Scotsman rather in a state of retroactive confusion and cognitive dissonance, having belatedly backed the winner before the election, are not quite sure just what they have done.

Today’s Scotsman, for instance, carries a piece by Eddie Barnes, entitled Imbalance of power, asking in the sub-header “… have the scales tipped too far in Alex Salmond’s favour …”, which might have been more honestly sub-titled “My God, what have we done"?”.

Without really examining it properly, Eddie Barnes chose to open with the first FMQs of the new Parliament, and Iain Gray’s question to the first Minister on care in Scotland. Although he grudgingly recognised that the FM’s answer was “comprehensive”, he then went on to  criticise both Alex Salmond and the new Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick, who’s election by the Parliament had also been the subject of unionist criticism - the FM for “waxing lyrical” never needing a second invitation “to dominate a room”, and the PO for not slapping him down.

Barnes is simply echoing an endless series of such criticisms of Alex Salmond’s performance in FMQs since 2007, none of which contained any real analysis of what actually went on. Well, I’ve watched them all and still have many of them recorded, and the nature of inter-personal dialogue between individuals especially in joint forums has been central to my working life, both in industry and in my training and consulting business, specialising in negotiation and behavioural skills.

(If organisations, both political and private, would stop spending a Queens’s ransom on so-called motivational speakers, where the learning outcomes are unmeasurable, but everybody leaves with a warm glow, rabbiting on about Ladybird Book of Psychology concepts of left brain and right brain - having had fun of the kind that roughly equates to a bad, but energetic rock concert - and devoted their scarce development and training budgets to relevant behavioural skills that reflect real-life interactions, politics might be more productive, government more effective and industry more innovative and competitive.)


At the most basic level, and  questions fall into two categories - information-seeking questions and rhetorical questions. Since rhetorical questions don’t expect - or invite- an answer, we can disregard them. (Probably the most famous rhetorical question in history was asked by Pontius Pilate - “What is Truth?” in the presence of perhaps the one of the only persons who could have answered it. But Pontius didn’t expect, or wait for an answer - his mind was on making a few bob out of a franchised exercise system that would appeal to ladies with cash to spare. But it took about two millennia to come to market …)

So a question is meant to elicit information. But this can be done in a number of ways, using a variety of question types. I won’t give the full analysis here, but confine myself to a few varieties.

First, we have a question that invites confirmation of denial of two possibilities - the closed YES/NO question, beloved by lawyers attempting to get a response that serves their particular purpose and no other, depending on whether they are prosecuting or defending, or a response - or absence of one - that either makes the respondent look as if they are lying or being evasive. Lawyers operate on the principle that, on such occasions, they never ask a question that they don’t already know the answer to. When this is inadvertently breached, it can produce unpleasant surprises for the questioner!

Closed YES/NO questions envisage only two possibilities than can be confirmed or denied by either a Yes or a No. When neither of these possibilities reflect reality as perceived by the person being questioned - or reflect a reality they don’t want to confirm or deny because it threatens their interests - they must reject the format of the question.

One example of this is the “Have you stopped stealing apples?” question type. If you answer Yes, then you used to steal apples but have given it up: if you answer No, you’re still at it … The person who has never stolen apples can’t answer Yes or No, and the one who did, or still does will either lie or evade the question.

Political interviewers - and politicians - constantly use this formulation, some times legitimately, sometimes mischievously - and sometimes with hidden, occasionally malicious intent. And politicians are equally adept at avoiding answering such questions …

The other main information-seeking question type is the open question. The open question ranges from the wide-open question - “Tell me what you think or know about anything, anywhere, anytime?” to the highly focused open question, but still open question of “Tell me what you know about what happened, what was said and what was minuted in the meeting of the xxth of June, 20xx when the topic of property development in Glasgow East regeneration area and Commonwealth Games site was discussed?

The oath - or affirmation - in the witness box in court is “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. Politicians don’t take such an oath, but observance of the principle is implied in their office, and the penalties for being misleading or lying outright can be severe.


Let’s look more closely at the first question asked in the first FMQs in the new Scottish Parliament on Thursday the 3rd of June 2011, leaving aside the minor diversion of Iain Gray failing to ask the normal preliminary, routine question about the First Minister’s engagements. The topic was an important one, about the standards of care of the elderly and vulnerable in both private and public care homes in Scotland, with attention focused by the twin scandals of the Panorama documentary on abuse in England and the Elsie Inglis scandal in Scotland, both of which occurred in privately-run care facilities. Trisha Marwick was on her first gig as Presiding Officer.


Iain Gray set the scene for his question for almost one minute, referring to the Panorama documentary, then came the question itself, which took all of 8 seconds -

“What assurance can the First Minister give us of the capacity of the new Regulator to ensure standards of care here in Scotland?”

This question is highly pertinent, open but focused, fair and objective, and one to which the Parliament and the Scottish people have a right to know the answer.

The FM good-humouredly filled the gap left by Iain Gray’s omission of the routine question about the FM’s appointments and meetings, and gave related information about apprenticeship uptake, then replied to IG’s question, agreeing with the vital nature of the question, then referring to the new body, Social Care and Social Work Improvement Scotland (SCSWIS)  created by the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010,  which also set up and Healthcare Improvement Scotland (HIS), both  set up on April 1st 2011 and expected to coordinate and deliver efficient and effective scrutiny of health and social care, social work and child protection. Alex Salmond said that the remit of SCSWIS and its investigation would ensure that the Scottish position would be “up to scratch in all respects.”

Iain Gray referred to the Elsie Inglis care home scandal, then got to his real point - the capacity of the Regulator in relation to budget and staffing cuts - “25% budget cut, and 55 staff gone” and more planned. This led to IG’s second question - “Shouldn’t we look at Elsie Inglis and cancel this cut?”.

A couple of points here. Iain Gray has a slow, deliberate mode of speaking. There is nothing wrong with this, indeed his pace of delivery is similar to mine, but it does mean that what he has to say in FMQs takes up more time than that of brisker speakers. However, on the second point, I am more critical. IG was being disingenuous in the way he framed his first question and led to the second. If he was fully in the spirit of speeding up the Q&A of FMQs, then he could have asked one question at the start -

“What assurance can the First Minister give us of the capacity of the new Regulator, in the light of 25% budget cuts and the loss of 55 staff, to ensure standards of care here in Scotland, especially in the light of the Elsie Inglis scandal?”

This was the logical question to ask at the outset, and would have cut the time both of questions and responses. But IG didn’t, because he was playing political games and trying to set a trap. Iain Gray’s traps, rather than being elephant traps, are usually wonky mousetraps wi’ nae cheese in them, especially when dealing with a politician of Alex Salmond’s experience.

But the question, when it came, was nonetheless valid and relevant.

Another observation here. Properly constructed and delivered, Parliamentary questions are brief and pertinent, but of necessity, the person responding, even to a focused closed question like this one, will take longer to answer. Of course, it is always open to the respondent facing a closed question, one that in theory demands a Yes or No answer to do just that - answer yes or no. Had the FM answered No, of course, he would have been accused of trivialising an important question, so Alex Salmond answered fully, and attempted to “reassure Iain Gray on the generality, and the specifics of Elsie Inglis.”

He gave the figure for the total number of care homes for adults (1333 as of 31st May 2011) and during 2011/12,  a minimum of 961 of these would be inspected, carrying out at least 1549 inspections. Some care homes would be inspected more than once because of the risk-based evidence held on the service. He then gave specifics on Elsie Inglis, dating from the first complaint, on 25th of March, about standards. The Regulator had undertaken a full inspection in April and during that period, Edinburgh City Council and Lothian Health Board put their own staff into the care home by the 12th of May. By the 26th of May, all 46 residents had been moved to suitable settings, where their needs are currently being met.

AS said that the relevant authorities had acted effectively and quickly to rectify the situation, with the position and wellbeing of the residents as their primary concern.

This, of course, was not the answer Iain Gray wanted - he wanted to Alex Salmond to answer No, we should not cancel the cuts to budget and staffing, without responding to what really matters, namely, had the Elsie Inglis situation been dealt with and how effective would the future regime of inspection and control be? This was exactly what the FM did.

The context of this question is as follows. The last Labour Government ruined the economy. The present ConLib Coalition has made draconian and unnecessary cuts to the the Scottish budget. The only way to cope with this is for the Scottish Government to find efficiency savings while protecting vital services. This is exactly what any organisation in the public or private sector does when faced with a cut  in revenue that cannot be offset by raising money. It is exactly what is being done in the care sector in Scotland through SCSWIS, and given additional impetus and relevance by the Elsie Inglis scandal and the object lesson of the abuses revealed by Panorama in England.

Iain Gray, however, was not happy with the answer, so he returned to the question of the capacity of the Regulator to handle the demands of the task, referring to the move from regular scheduled inspections to a risk assessment model, which will mean less inspections, and the fact the number of staff had been, and would be cut. He attempted to broaden the base of criticism by Audit Scotland, by claiming that today, it “condemns the Community Health Partnerships, which are supposed to plan and manage social care. Doctors say these partnerships have spectacularly failed, and Southern Cross, who run 98 care homes in Scotland, are on the verge of collapse.”

Iain Gray then attempted to show a care system in a state of collapse, based on the Panorama documentary about English care homes, the Elsie Inglis scandal in one care home, and the budget and staffing cuts to the Inspectorate, claiming that “the social Care system has been declared not fit for purpose” and the biggest provider of residential care in Scotland is on the verge of collapse.

This summary, if accurate, represents a crisis in the Scottish care system, and must be addressed, and Iain Gray cannot be faulted for pursuing answers to what he believes is an unacceptable situation.

But regrettably, he then goes on to shamelessly exploit the situation for unionist party political ends, risking discrediting his entire argument, which is sad, because I do believe that Iain Gray does care about the issue. He does this by trying to make a case on priorities, raising the issues of the UK Supreme Court, where he claims, erroneously, that the FM “held an emergency Cabinet summit on the UK Supreme Court this week” and asks his next question, a closed, YES/NO question based on a faulty premise. “Does he not think a summit on the crisis in care is more urgent than that?” This received table-thumping approbation from the depleted Labour benches.

This is an outrageous conflation of two issues that are related only by happening within the same time frame, and reveals in the process the primitive managerial thinking of the Labour Party, that conceives of Government as a process where ministers make a list in order of priority, then move down the list on each item, to the exclusion of all else, an utterly nonsensical view of government. This is why Scottish business trusted the SNP to lead the Scottish economy instead of the Labour Party, with the egregious exception of the head of the CBI in Scotland, unrepresentative of business opinion across Scotland, but fully representative of UK unionist dogma.

(I spent a large part of my consulting career in major multi-national blue chip companies on cascade programmes on structured objective setting and prioritisation, because the CEOs of these companies wanted to break their directors and managers out of exactly that kind of simplistic thinking.)

The FM opened by saying that he didn’t have “an emergency Cabinet summit” - the matter was discussed in Cabinet as was the issue of Southern Cross. He said that he had given the figures on the care homes and the inspection regime even though the Labour Party “maybe didn’t want to hear them”. They indicated an impressive level of inspection. He added the crucial fact that all care home inspections will now be unannounced.

He had also responded to the Elsie Inglis situation and Iain Gray had seemed to agree that it had been an effective response to a difficult situation.

Southern Cross is a situation that the Cabinet Secretary is dealing with daily, in conjunction with the UK Health Department. 3000 of their residents are in Scotland out of a total of 98,000 across the UK.

All the relevant authorities were ready, if Southern Cross does move into administration, to ensure a continuity of care of the residents concerned. Southern Cross, a private company involved in social care, seemed to some people a model that should be applied across the NHS in England. In the past, the Labour Party had wanted to introduce private companies into mainstream service in the NHS in Scotland. This in fact should sound a cautionary note about private intervention in the NHS or social care.

(This last point has also been the main thrust of the national debate, including on last week’s Question Time on the BBC.)

Iain Gray’s response to this was to refer to the SNP council in Fife being currently engaged in the process of transferring their own care homes into the private sector. This is  not, Iain Gray said, an issue to try and score points about. He emphasised the need to move forward together as a Parliament on the issue. He said that the Parliament needed to hear the voices of the elderly and the disabled. He then went on to devalue this admirable point by again trying to score political points himself, again conflating it with political issues on the independence/union agenda - the constitutional issues, the Supreme Court, corporation tax and the Crown Estates.

Is Iain Gray seriously suggesting that these issues are either irrelevant to Scotland, or that they should all be shelved while the issue of care homes and the inspection regime are under examination? Thank God this man and those he represents were not chosen to govern Scotland, with this simplistic understanding of the business and mechanics of Government.

He then came to his last question - “What are we going to do to improve the situation?”, apparently having heard little and understood less of the clear answers given to his earlier questions.

The FM, in reply, summarised Iain Gray’s three points - references to

community health partnerships

the importance of the Parliament acting together


the importance of not making party political points

The Community Health Partnerships were established in 2004. The Audit Commission, today, as in the independent inspection report of last year, indicated there were some serious problems - not failing across Scotland, but serious problems in some areas of a lack of integration of health and social care. This is exactly why this government has established that integration as a priority. Alex Salmond said that,  if he was to take a non-political look at the establishment of community health partnerships, and something that we’ve learned from experience, but perhaps wasn’t evident when that legislation was introduced, then perhaps it would be that it left the coordination of health and community care as a voluntary aspect in the 36 partnerships across Scotland . Why is that important, the FM asked? The Audit Commission report didn’t indicate today that it was failing across Scotland. On the contrary, one of the key findings of the report was that in 20 of these partnerships, there was a co-sharing of services. The question that’s begged is -why didn’t that happen in the other 16?

The FM suggested that it was a flaw of the legislation of this Parliament, that “we didn’t realise in 2004 that the coordination that was hoped for had to be made a compulsory aspect - had to happen.” Integration had to happen and could not be left to individual health boards and local authorities across Scotland.

That was why this government has made a priority of making that happen. In the spirit of not looking to score party political points about whose legislation was best, and in the spirit of not saying this is a matter which is failing across the country, we should just recognise that, out of the community health partnerships, it is not the case, for example, that delayed discharges have been increasing. There were over a thousand delayed discharges in April 2004. As of two days ago, it was recorded at twelve. 12 is too many, but it would be wrong not to regard that as a significant improvement. We take what was good and proper and has worked of that change, and make sure the health and community care is integrated as a service across Scotland.”


All of the above exchanges took place in just over 13 minutes in the first half of FMQs. Allowing one minute for the FM’s diary engagements and related matter, the total exchange was just over 12 minutes, of which Iain Gray spoke for five minutes and Alex Salmond for seven minute, that is to say, the questioner took 42% of the total time to ask his questions and the respondent 58% of the total time to reply, including providing relevant and vital details and facts and figures.

Through the exchanges, Alex Salmond was patient and courteous, although he could have been forgiven had he displayed some exasperation and impatience.

Just where do the critics of the Presiding Officer think she could have intervened, and with whom? The topic was clearly vital, the detail important. The number, type and content of the questions was in the hands of Iain Gray.

It can be argued that FMQs was not the place for what effectively became a mini-debate on a subject of such importance, and that FMQs should be confined to simple questions of fact. That is a matter for the Parliament.

If there was grandstanding and attempts at political point scoring, they came exclusively from Iain Gray, a man whose heart may be in the right placed but whose head clearly isn’t. Regrettably, it looks as though he is going to continue to give evidence, week after week until his successor is elected, just why the electorate and the business community did not think he was the right man to lead Scotland through the difficult times ahead.

I chose this first question as a benchmark of all that is, and was wrong, about the unionist opposition’s approach to the government of Scotland, the clear evidence of why they lost the election. It took me a day to analyse a 13 minute exchange, but I believe it was worth doing, because I believe that care matters, the NHS matters, the Scottish legal system matters, the Crown Estate matters and corporation tax matters and that they all must be addressed if the people of Scotland are to survive the desperate times bequeathed to them by 13 years of Labour government - a poisoned legacy -and just over a year of chaotic, ill-conceived ConLib Coalition government.

Most of all, I believe that the best hope of the people of Scotland, young and old, fit and unfit, lies in the independence of their country from the United Kingdom. I also believe we now have the best man and the best team in charge to make those hopes a reality.


  1. Again, an excellent piece of analysis.

  2. Thanks, David.

    I don't know if I can sustain these extended blogs - they're just too much bloody work, and they often don't get as many hits as much more superficial, rabble rousing stuff. But I do them as much to get my own ideas straight as I do them for others, so I musn't complain.

    But over 4000 words to analyse 13 minutes of dialogue? A professional writer is lucky to hit 2000 words a day, and some columnists make a healthy living on 1200 words a week ...

    Must cut back and get down to some fiction writing again. But the referendum debate is in full swing. Ah, well.

  3. Just a wee word on the democratic deficit. To me the real democratic deficit refers to the Westminster parliament and is the abyss between what Scotland votes for and what Scotland gets.

    Because of the antediluvian first-past-the-post system, the SNP have NEVER had a percentage of representation by MPs proportionate to their share of the popular vote.

    Even then, as the population of Scotland is approximately 9% of that of England, the voice of any Scottish MPs will be drowned out in the mare magnum of representatives of English constituencies.

    So, in effect, voting on issues at Westminster is conducted along party lines, not according to the wishes, taken collectively, of the voters of either (any?) of the constituent parts of the Union.

    To all intents and purposes, Scotland has been annihilated at UK level.

    This is why devolution (mix, max, lite or heavy) will never be enough to truly represent the Scottish people.

    Only a sovereign parliament in an independent Scotland can do that.

    And THAT is the real democratic deficit.

    P.S. As to the wordiness - keep it up. You're doing a great job!

  4. Thanks,Paco el escocés

    Your observations about the democratic deficit of Scotland vis a vis the UK are spot on, but this is rarely discussed. The contemptuous treatment of Scots MPs in the Parliament, highlighted by YouTube clips was, I believe, one factor in winning the election. Scots don't like to be patronised or insulted, and as P.G. Wodehouse memorably said, you would never mistake a Scotsman with a grievance for a ray of sunshine ...

  5. Thanks for your comments and kind remarks, natha, but I haven't published them for the same reason that I deleted a previous comment. I don't believe in repeating scurrilous rumours, even to repudiate them. If we pay attention to every lunatic posting in the Scotsman's very poorly moderated online comment page we would do little else.

  6. Hi Peter,

    Again a terrific article.

    It looks as though Cameron's response to the demand for further powers for the Scottish Parliament, expressed through M Moore Esq. (well Esq for the time being at any rate) is a de Gaullian NON!

    How to react? Well my reaction is to be even more determined that Independence is our only realistic future and to do my utmost to bring it about. Labours' absolute silence at Westminster at this time is mindful of the feeble fifty's silence during the Thatcher years and confirms their total uselessness to Scotland.

    If you are finding the longer articles too expensive to continue, that is a fair reason to stop them, but please, please do not stop blogging. People like you are sorely needed to present the alternative in an attractive way. Without us many Scots will, as a response to the media onslaught, just shrug their shoulders and go back to their old ways.

    The outcome of the Greenock by-election will be crucial in maintaining the pressure on Cameron. There's nothing I would like more than to see Moore being humiliated by having to backtrack and announce further powers for Holyrood, but then Cameron would probably do that himself. - Even better.


  7. Thanks, Rab.

    Another one today - not too long, I hope ...