A rejoinder to Gerry Hassan

Michelle Thomson’s business dealings have been THE source of public comment and debate this week. Unionist newspapers, commentators and politicians have denied themselves nothing in their statements on the issue of her guilt. But there have also been wider issues of what the business dealings of a single politician can tell us about an entire political party, even the largest political party in Scotland. Is Thomson the first indication of a big fall?

It would be naïve not to expect such as Euan McColm, Tom Gordon or Magnus Gardham to take advantage just now. It’s what they do. However, on Sunday I was shocked and dismayed to find an article in the Sunday Mail (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/gerry-hassan-maybe-just-maybe-6567646), as well as on his own website (http://www.gerryhassan.com/blog/nationalism-alone-is-not-enough-as-the-snp-finally-shows-it-is-mortal/#more-3766) written by Gerry Hassan, someone whose work I have admired, who I have had the pleasure of meeting once, and has now not only joined my old trade as an academic but at my former institution, the University of the West of Scotland, as a Research Fellow (http://www.uws.ac.uk/staff-profiles/cci/gerry-hassan/). Given the last of these, I would have expected Dr Hassan to have understood the importance of having evidence to underpin your argument, rather than just making assertions or casting innuendo. Even if the purpose is character assassination, a weapon is still required. In the respects that follow, to my considerable regret (if you are reading this Gerry, more in sorrow than anything else), he fails this fairly basic test for an academic.

  1. First of all, Hassan repeats the charge that Culture Secretary Fiona Hsylop, not only gave £150,000 to the company running ‘T in the Park’, but to a company which, shock horror, made £4.5 million of profit in recent years. Can Dr Hassan tell us what the problem is here? He might want to begin by telling us how much money is paid by government to private companies who are making a loss? Would he personally recommend spending government money on a company which might well close? Frankly I don’t know how much money is spent like that (though I hope it’s not much), but one estimate of what is paid annually in the UK, by government at all levels, to private enterprises – sometimes known as “corporate welfare” – is that it’s worth no less than £93 billion per year (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jul/07/corporate-welfare-a-93bn-handshake). As the Guardian points out, that is £3500 per household in the UK per year.

    There is, of course, a whole wider debate about corporate welfare that we need to have – probably on a global level – but the payment to ‘T in the Park’ is a small drop in a very large ocean (a “storm in a teacup” perhaps?). Yet Hassan can condemn the Scottish Government with “The money was given despite the promoters, DF Concerts, consistently making more than £4.5million in pre-tax profits in recent years“, when the fact is that they did nothing that government in the UK does not do most hours of most days. It’s what happens, it is what is normal, Gerry! You might want to argue that it should not. I have some sympathy with that view. But why, I wonder, pick on that particular payment?

    Let’s be clear too that for ‘T in the Park’, moving their usual site of many years at Balado was not voluntary. It was caused by health and safety fears about an oil pipeline running underneath the site. The switch to Strathallan meant an environmental impact study, aa well as a full planning application to Perth & Kinross Council (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-tayside-central-29155918) – these obligations becoming necessary only after tickets for the following year’s festival had gone on sale, and each would create a substantial cost not caused by any decision of the company.

    I won’t pretend to know what Gerry Hassan’s reaction might have been had the company responsible decided to say “sod it” and taken a very successful event and major contributor to Scottish tourism, off to say, somewhere in the north of England. I can though quite easily imagine the humbug expressed by such as Kezia Dugdale and Jackie Baillie, that such a thing had been allowed to happen, and for what? A “mere” £150,000? Barely even one peanut in relation to government corporate welfare spending as a whole. Cue “SNP bad”.

    Hassan further suggests in relation to this matter that “Many nationalists show a blind side to these allegations. They are only allegations of wrongdoing, they say, and it is all part of a unionist and media conspiracy“. But that really misses the point. What wrongdoing has there been? Payments by government to private enterprise – even profitable ones – is not wrongdoing, but, as above the norm. The allegations about payment are baseless, and indeed simply reflect normal practice.

    However here, Gerry seems to assume that we know all about Jennifer Dempsie – the former SNP SPAD – who was claimed to have facilitated the payment of the £150,000. But as Derek Bateman points out in his blog (http://derekbateman.co.uk/2015/10/01/holy-jackies-prayer/)

    yet here too the Holy Willie prosecution continues through sly implication. First it is cronyism which allows a former adviser ‘special access’ to ministers – no evidence. Then it’s the arrangement of a meeting – which she didn’t attend. Next she secures a grant – negotiated by the company boss in her absence. Lastly, the award was unjustified as the company made a profit – a new criterion for the award of public funds. The Reality – a dirty wee game to smear people by implication

    That last point, of course takes us right back to the claims made by Hassan in his Sunday Mail article, and it is saddening to see him involving himself in “a dirty wee game to smear people by implication”. An argument which, as Bateman shows, has little or no supporting evidence beyond some “wink, wink, know what I mean” contentions concerning Dempsie’s connections, having worked as a SPAD. But evidence that anyone had contravened even a Ministerial Code of Practice (for there would have been a referral to the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards if there had been – we can be totally sure of that), far less criminal law, was there none. We might have hoped for better from Gerry Hassan

  2. Next Dr Hassan tells us “Now the SNP are the rising force in the land. Their dominance isn’t quite yet at the proportions of Labour’s inter-generational, incestuous politics, but it isn’t looking great after eight years in office.” You bet it lacks the proportions of “Labour’s inter-generational, incestuous politics”. Try having a look at Iain Dale’s list of the “Top 50 Labour Sleaze Scandals” (http://iaindale.blogspot.co.uk/2006/04/top-50-or-so-labour-sleaze-scandals.html) for between 1997 and April 2006 (when Blair demitted office) – some 30 of these involve either the Labour Party in Scotland directly, or Scottish politicians at Westminster at the time. “Whataboutery” isn’t an attractive counter-argument, but to draw the comparison that Hassan does in that quote – and the purpose I suspect is served by the “isn’t quite yet” beggars belief – is rather like comparing a pimple to a body covered in puss-filled boils. It would be utterly unacceptable for the SNP to get anywhere even remotely close to the levels of cronyism practiced in the Labour Party, but the implication of what Hassan writes is that it is certainly possible, and indeed they are on the slippery slope. On the basis of what? A relatively small grant for which there is no evidence of wrongdoing, and the business affairs, prior to being elected, of a single MP, for which there is no evidence of criminality at the time of writing (not that it has held back the school of thought which Gerry Hassan seems to have joined)?

    Hassan suggests that “Some of us don’t want to pass seamlessly from one version of one-party dominance to another“. I would respectfully disagree with that contention. I would say the vast majority of us don’t want to pass seamlessly … etc. But some hard evidence that this is happening is surely a prerequisite for that claim, and much more is needed beyond the involvement of a former SPAD in £150k to a music festival and unproven assertions about the business dealings of an MP before she was elected, or indeed even nominated.

  3. Then Hassan enjoins the SNP to realise “that there is a need for proper opposition and scrutiny.” Once again, I can only agree, but how much is it the fault of the SNP that they don’t face a “proper opposition”? Kezia Dugdale at First Minister Questions last week chose to focus on the issue of Michelle Thomson, who is of course a Westminster MP having nothing to do with business at Holyrood. Too often First Minister Questions are dominated by criticism which is wholly negative – “you’re not doing this well enough”, “you are not achieving this target you set yourself”, but reference to alternative courses of action, a critical perspective that would make things work better – of that, too often there is nothing at all. As Stewart Campbell presciently observed at Wings Over Scotland, referring to the argument of Katie Grant that “Scotland is a One Party State” (http://wingsoverscotland.com/counting-to-one/),

    Grant’s real complaint appears to be that the opposition in Holyrood is broken, inept and ineffectual, which is a true enough observation but one difficult to blame on the SNP. And it’s also, of course, equally true of Westminster, where other than the SNP David Cameron is faced by parties either stricken by catastrophic internal turmoil or reduced to a pitiful, embarrassing, irrelevant rump fit only for mockery

    Much the same could be said of Hassan’s argument. Indeed we would all welcome a “proper opposition” and “proper ….scrutiny” very much indeed. Maybe even the SNP themselves, for positive scrutiny aimed at enhancing policy and performance, will help them to function at a higher level? It would though have been helpful if Gerry could have advised us when this “proper opposition” can be expected? Is it a Scottish Labour Party which can’t bring itself to mention the word S******d for fear of encouraging “separatism”? Whose new leader in Scotland expressed her misgivings about the new UK leader when his odds on winning were 16/1, even though she recanted when he was 1/16? Who is an unreconstructed Blairite in a party that, in its leader at least, has moved to the left? Will the Tories demonstrate that there is life after electoral death? Will any more be heard from Willie Rennie? Yes, Gerry, we do need a proper opposition, but it’s hardly the SNP who are to blame?

  4. Next we are presented with the truly amazing proposition that “When the former [the SNP] takes a hit it affects the prospect of the latter [independence]”. There is, I would readily accept, merit in this argument, but what hit is it that Hassan refers to? Is it the £150k to T in the Park, and/or Michelle Thomson’s business dealings? The former lacks evidence and in the case of the latter, Thomson has to date been charged with nothing. All that we had left in respect of the former is an insistence by opposition MPs on the Culture Committee that they need “satisfactory and detailed responses to the questions that remain outstanding” (http://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/top-stories/titp-letter-demands-fiona-hyslop-go-before-committee-1-3906408#ixzz3nd4KE8mR), despite the Culture Secretary having answered every question put to her till the Committee members had no more questions to ask. Rather like the referendum campaign, the tactic seems to be to go away and think of more questions after questions have already been answered. Though on this occasion the strategy was frustrated in that the Committee Chairman refused to order Ms Hyslp to appear again.
  5. What follows is some insight into Gerry’s view of independence, as we are told that all of this “doesn’t paint a very attractive, democratic picture of an independent Scotland – one with a dominant party doing what it likes to keep itself in power and reward its supporters“. It’s interesting that despite all the uncertainties about an independent Scotland that Gerry Hassan seems to have the politics of an independent Scotland so well sussed. Impressive, except for several things. First I have lost count of the number of members of the SNP – starting with an MSP and several Councillors as well as “foot soldiers” – who have expressed the view that in an independent Scotland the SNP, as we know it, would have broken up. A moment’s consideration of the fact that both Fergus Ewing and Jim Sillars are both current members of the SNP should suggest this. Secondly, did the Conservative Party not miss a trick, electing Ruth Davidson rather than Murdo Fraser who at least had the right idea of closing down the existing party and starting again as a genuinely Scottish right of centre party? Is it not blindingly obvious that the connection to London, even in a unitary state, is toxic for the Labour Party in Scotland as well? To suggest that politics in an independent Scotland won’t be different from the politics we have now simply ignores the fact that there will be a wholly different context against which these politics will be played out. But of course, Katy Grant-like, it’s easier to impugn independence by suggesting that the SNP will continue to be a dominant force, and by extension that our democracy will be fundamentally flawed for that. Moreover, as above, it’s hardly the fault of the SNP if they have no decent opposition, but to suggest that this will continue in the wholly new context of independence is both lacking in any evidence, and ignores the fundamentally changed context.
  6. Lastly, how will the Holyrood election play out? Gerry’s view is that having achieved an opinion poll support of 62% “there is only one way from such stratospheric ratings – down”. Well that’s not quite true, is it? I expect some people were saying that after the May election, when their poll support was “only” 50%. Or it might stick at 62% which would be still more of a tsunami than last May was. But I suppose you have to nail your colours to the mast, don’t you? What though is not acceptable is what follows, that “Eventually the difference between that 62 per cent and 35 per cent satisfaction at their government record will become a live issue

    The problem is where does the 35% approval rating that Gerry refers to come from? A TNS poll in August suggests a different view:

    It is clear that the those saying the performance of the Scottish Government has been good is a minority, but easily the largest number perceive them to be neither good nor bad, “suggesting a sober and critical analysis by voters” as Stewart Campbell suggests (http://wingsoverscotland.com/running-away-with-it/)

    Moreover, Campbell, having removed all those who say the performance of the Scottish Government has been good (most of whom, fairly obviously intend voting SNP), shows that among those remaining (the “neither good nor poor”s, as well as “the poor”s) the majority still intend to vote SNP, which rather flies in the face of Gerry’s view that voting intention will catch up with the views of voters of the Government’s performance. Even where the view is not fully positive (ie neither good nor poor) the dominant voting intention is SNP. In other words, Gerry there is evidence that people will still vote SNP even if they don’t think they are doing a “good” job. Often neither “good nor poor” will do. That is what the facts say.

    If we turn to “What Scotland Thinks” – John Curtice’s website – there are several questions on perceptions of the performance of the Scottish Government –

  7. “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister?” – 71% are satisfied, 23% dissatisfied (ipsos mori, August 2015). For comparison – also taken from “What Scotland Thinks”, the last Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell, had ratings of 30% and 49% respectively (in 2007 as he demitted office by yougov).
  8. “Do you think that Nicola Sturgeon is doing well or badly as First Minister” – Very well, 33%; fairly well 34%; fairly badly 14%’ very badly 14% (yougov, September 2015)
  9. “How satisfied are you with the Scottish Government’s handling of education?” – Very satisfied, 12%; Somewhat satisfied 34%; Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied 25%; Somewhat dissatisfied 12%; Very dissatisfied 9%. (September 2015, Panelbase)
  10. “How satisfied are you with the Scottish Government’s handling of health” – Very satisfied, 14%; Somewhat satisfied 37%; Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied 23%; Somewhat dissatisfied 13%; Very dissatisfied 9% (as above)
  11. How satisfied are you with the Scottish Government’s handling of policing?” – Very satisfied, 9%; Somewhat satisfied 23%; Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied 36%; Somewhat dissatisfied 21%; Very dissatisfied 16% (as above).

    In short, these polls – taken in the last two months (with the exception of views about McConnell) – suggest a perception of the Scottish Government which might best be described as “critical approval”, which is consistent with findings of a vote next year possibly even higher than that achieved in May, 50%. Certainly, Hassan’s reference to a 35% approval rating is not consistent with any of the above evidence.

    Gerry Hassan, as I wrote at the outset, is someone whose work I have admired. His latest book, “Caledonian Dreaming” has been described by Elaine C Smith (so his website tells me) as “‘an intelligent, brave and much needed contribution to the debate“. Sadly, the article we have just considered is none of these things.

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