19 September 2009

Conversation Conservation?

In my last post, I mentioned an SNP policy which, if I were John Swinney, I'd be looking to draw a line under. Now, it would, I have to say, be categorised as a 'courageous' move, and it would perhaps cost friends. It might even look like I intended to lead a sacred cow to slaughter, but the reality is rather different. One aspect of SNP policy is not working anywhere near as well as it should, and despite being seen as the way forward, is in fact doing nothing to help realise SNP aims.

I am talking, I'm afraid, about the National Conversation.

Now, of course, the Unionist parties want it scrapped because it dares to refer to the 'I' word, and decry the use of taxpayers' money to meet SNP aspirations. To me, this is an odd criticism: I thought it was the idea that governments used the powers they had to put their principles into practice, and that this was the point of, you know, standing for election in the first place. Of course, the SNP finds this somewhat easier than the other mainstream parties as it actually has ideas, aims and beliefs that go beyond winning an election, but there you go. And that's not why I'm suggesting that it be brought to an end.

Rather, I believe that it's not advancing SNP aims at all.

Of course, the official story behind the Conversation is that it's a consultation on the future of Scotland and the constitution, and that other options can be discussed as a part of it. So far, only one alternative has come forward and it's emerged from a different process. The Referendum Bill 2010 is still on course to be tabled after Christmas, the timing of the vote - should the Bill pass - is already known, and we can assume that we know what the question is. No changes or alternatives have emerged from the Conversation, and any other proposals will only get discussed at Stages 2 and/or 3 of the Bill, which that renders any further discussion academic: unless one of the other parties stages the mother of all turnarounds, it'll get killed at Stage 1. So frankly, the Conversation isn't delivering.

So what else is it about?

Getting the meat and drink of independence discussed? Papers are coming out, ideas about what an independent Scotland are coming forward, but they're getting swallowed. The press will occasionally run with a proposal, with a view to taking it to pieces. Seeing as the press is generally anti-independence, this is to be expected and should really cause no surprise or alarm. To get a clear message across, independence supporters require an actual referendum campaign: this pre-referendum approach isn't working, as readers opening their copy of the Scotsman and seeing Mike Russell's proposals for a post-independence foreign policy being derided by the copywriters can surely testify. The quick headlines are getting printed, but the actual mechanics aren't getting through.

Getting a suitable platform for Ministers to put the case across to members of the public? This could be done without the National Conversation brand: it is the policy of the Government to advocate Scottish independence. Therefore, Ministers doing that are carrying out Government policy, whether they have a National Conversation banner behind them or not. Putting the banner there is akin to the McLeish Executive adding the slogan "Making it Work Together". What, precisely, did that achieve?

Persuading people of the merits of independence? On this yardstick, the Conversation can't rank as anything other than a dismal failure. In only one poll (carried out last year) since the Conversation's inauguration has even a plurality of respondents favoured independence, and that was 42%:40% - nowhere near the high watermark of 2006 where there was an actual majority of poll respondents in favour. If the opinion polls are a barometer of the National Conversation's efficacy, then the signs are poor.

Forcing the hand of the other parties, to put forward viable proposals for a stronger Holyrood, which would serve as a suitable milestone on the road to independence? We have, of course, had the Calman Commission, but it's doubtful whether this required the actual framework of the National Conversation for it to be established. Rather, it was simply an attempt to spike the SNP's guns. In terms of viability, it seems to have dropped of Labour's radar altogether, the Tories (unsurprisingly) appear decidedly cool on the proposals and the LibDems in Scotland are banging their head against a brick wall trying to get it moving forward, even though it stops short of their own Constitution policy. Ironically, it's the Scottish Government who is the keenest to get it (or at least, parts of it) implemented right now. And as a measure of the seriousness of the Calman proposals, an SNP offer to include them as an option in the referendum has been spurned by opposition parties. The Calman process presently appears to have been an even bigger waste of time, money and effort than the National Conversation, and it's a process which could just as easily have taken place without the Conversation being there.

So on five different measures of success, the National Conversation falls short on all five. Now, for me, this is frustrating: I want independence and I want the real consultation and conversation that comes with a referendum on the matter (I also want to know why asking the electorate a direct, formal question and then taking the answer on board is showing contempt for public opinion, but I don't see me getting an answer to that one).

In short, the National Conversation's failure to achieve any of those objectives and so move the SNP and the Scottish Government closer to their policy is nothing short of exasperating. We need to draw a line under it right now, and we need to find a better way of getting the idea across.


Malc said...

You and Jeff seem to be on the same page on this. But I don't know if either of you have grasped just how useful the NC has been for the SNP Government.

Listen to the podcasts of the NC events. By my (actual statistical) analysis (for my thesis) only 21% of the questions are about independence or post-independence. 70% are about policy concerns that the public have - wind farms in the borders, Gaelic and population growth in Stornoway, science and research in Dundee.

It isn't about independence - at least, not at the moment. It is about engaging the public with a process, allowing them the opportunity to access Cabinet Ministers and feel like they are being consulted. For the SNP Government, it's an opportunity to engage with the public on their terms - and talk about the issues that they want to.

That, for me, is part of the reason why the SNP have proved popular (opinion poll wise) with the public while support for independence remains static. The real debate hasn't begun yet.

Will said...

Malc, a very valid point, but part of my argument was to suggest that Ministers could makes themselves accessible in that fashion anyway, without the NC theme and brand.

And the central plank of the NC - even if the events don't bear that out - is independence - hence it being launched with the Choosing Scotland's Future paper. It's also why the NC microsite starts with this introduction:

The Scottish Government believes that an independent, sovereign Scotland is the best option for the country's future and that the people should be invited to support that option through a referendum.

The Government also recognises that there are a range of views on Scotland's constitutional future other than independence and that these are represented in the Scottish Parliament.

The National Conversation invites all shades of opinion to contribute to the constitutional debate so that the people of Scotland can make an informed decision on their future.

So if the NC was launched with a discussion of independence, if the NC microsite leads with independence, and the three most recent discussion papers all link to constitution policy in one way or another, then for NC events themselves to move off independence onto, well, anything else, shows that the NC just isn't delivering what was intended. The part you flag up is important, and a massively positive step, but IMO it doesn't need to be under the ambit of the NC.

subrosa said...

Will, I think it's a bit late in the day to propose the halt of the NC. Many people are just realising, regardless of their politican hues, they can attend these discussions, as initially, due to poor press, most thought it was just talk about independence full stop.

Therefore I'm with Malc on this.

Also stopping it now would be playing straight into the hands of the opposition. What the SNP need to do is explain over and over again the NC is about Scotland and for everyone to take part.

Wardog said...

I'd be interested to know whether the cabinet meeting in towns outwisde Edinburgh is counted in the alleged £700,000 figure for the NC.

I agree with Malc, this is an ongoing consultation about what we all want Scotland to be, independent or not.

Inevitably it will ramp up towards election time, why the Liberals haven't at least dipped a toe in the pond is the biggest surpirse and I think they are hurting for it, Tavish's latest 'squeams' of angst about lack of action over Calman is starting to splinter a shaky unionist collation who are now beginning to see that constitutional matters are as politicised as anything else and holding the line with such divergent ideological views of the world will be difficult in the runup to the election, just as it was last time round.

Malc said...


I'm in agreement with you. I know that the NC hasn't delivered what it intended to, and that it the consultation with ministers could take place outwith the structure of the NC. However, I don't think it would - it hasn't really in the past and governments tend to be reluctant to talk to "the people".

BUT - I disagree with you at one point. I think the NC is useful for independence, if you take a long term view. If you look at it that the SNP government may return to office on the back of popularity based on consulting with the people, they can then continue to work for independence post-2011 election, perhaps with more MSPs... you do have to have a long-term strategy in place though - and I think the party do.

Will said...

Subrosa and Wardog, again, I see what you're saying about the NC allowing public access to Ministers but unlike Malc, don't see why that needs to be tied to the Conversation. Rather, it could and should be happening anyway, particularly with SNP Ministers who will surely realise that they have fewer friends in the media than the Labour or Tory frontbenches and, as such, need to take their message direct to the public whenever possible.

And I'm not sure this is a gift to an Opposition either: the publication of the Referendum Bill will bring the NC's independence aspects (and so the NC itself) to a natural conclusion, and other comments that have come into my by other means do suggest that the Government is thinking along those lines, with the NC to be picked up at a later date.

And as Malc says, if the SNP continue to form the Government post-2011, with more MSPs (which looks highly probable at the moment), the NC can be returned to if it's felt that it can make a greater impact.

Plus which, the reality is that the pot of money available to Ministers is shrinking, and and it will look like another tough decision taken if something as symbolic as the NC is cut: it will show the SNP as doing the necessary thing for Scotland and its public services. But in real terms, it will mark not even a hint of a policy shift.

PS Via Twitter, I understand that both George Lyon MEP and Kevin Lang, LibDem PPC in Edinburgh North & Leith - one of the party's target seats at Westminster - have this morning called for a referendum, so the LibDem position appears to be crumbling. Bring the Bill on, see how they react!

Grogipher said...

I must uncharacteristically disagree with you today dear!

Dropping the NC would be a PR DISASTER! Aye, you make some points (although I think Malc's points are better), but could you see the press now?




It doesn't matter how much the Government tried to spin that, it would be nothing but a major disaster.. :o.


subrosa said...

The problem as I see it Will is that the National Conversation is now an accepted part of the SNP government and people are realising they can actually see and speak to a member of the cabinet.

If you'd asked the electorate if they thought that was possible from 1999 to 1997 I'm sure the answer would have been a chortle.

I agree it hasn't been a great success but it's held on it there and very slowly gained some momentum.

The time for banishing it to the basement is past because there has to be some platform for the public to question the government directly and to chance tack, as you suggest, would be destructive to the cause.

So let's keep it going, although not perfect it does the job.

Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know!

PS Another thought - how do you see the public gaining anonymous access to ministers Will if we didn't have this facility?

Will said...

G, such is life - no one agrees on everything! But in this case, I'd query the PR disaster angle by suggesting that with the Referendum Bill on the way, we're fast approaching a point where there's a natural wrapping up point for the NC: the Bill would mark the logical end of the Conversation in its present form, and would come before the end of this financial year. That makes it a line that can be taken out of next year's Budget. Also, a telling message I got on Facebook after I posted this suggests that I might well have stumbled onto the approach being taken - don't be too surprised if we hear the words 'conclusion or 'completion' being mentioned: we'll see how things pan out.

Subrosa - that is a good point, which I do support, but still don't see why it has to be done under the NC ambit. Cabinet meetings outside Edinburgh don't need the NC to happen; Q&A sessions and public meetings don't need the NC to happen; Ministerial discussions don't need the NC to happen. Indeed, the point you raise about anonymity could be addressed if, for example, every Minister had some sort of blog page on the Scottish Government website - that could potentially mean access to the relevant departments quicker than under the NC.

Basically, my argument is that we can don't need the NC to do what has been done as a part of it. It's the NC brand that I don't feel has lived up to expectations and it's the brand that's coming under attack from the opposition. That means it's the brand that needs to change...

Grogipher said...

But the point of the Q&As and Cabinet on tour and such is that they've got a consistent 'branding' and such, it's all joined up and stuff.

I had originally thought that the NC would reach a head with the publication of (and discussion on) the White Paper in November - and that it would come to a close with the introduction of the Bill in the Parliament. But I don't know if I just made that up or if someone told me.. x

Will said...

A decent point, but even so, what's wrong with "Scottish Government" as a brand?

I'm joining dots on this one myself, but I think you've got the timing right, the White Paper will mark the end of matters at least for now. On that basis, I would expect that the line for the NC in the Budget ought not be necessary for 2010-11...

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see the NC augmented by open public debates around the nation where a pro-independence (and not simply pro-SNP ) panel speaks about their personal reasons for desiring independence. The panel could then take questions from the audience a la 'Question Time'.
I think it would be useful to show the public that there are a range of views on the potential benefits of independence and that not everyone comes at it from the same angle.
The core of each panel could be drawn locally but with maybe one or two national luminaries for each debate.
Cost would be, of course, a major obstacle to this happening.
Now where did I put my winning EuroMillions ticket...