John Swinney

Broadcasting Should Be The Nationalists’ Holy Grail

BBC Scotland
A recent Scottish social attitudes survey found that 65% of Scots would back independence if they were £500 better off. The slogan “It’s Scotland’s Oil” has been the cornerstone of the nationalists’ case for independence for the past four decades, while the unionist case invariably relies upon Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) reports which show Scotland receives more public expenditure than it raises. I would contend that all of these are entirely erroneous.

No nation’s people have ever voted for independence because they would be a few quid better off.

Scotland has a unique cultural identity. This unique cultural identity is essential to a nation’s independent character, particularly where small countries are concerned. Language, literature, music and theatre played a crucial role in Irish nationalism. However while I would always contest that the very best bits of Scotland’s cultural identity are those parts which are uniquely Scottish it’s hard to argue that Scotland is culturally independent from the rest of the UK. Why else would John Swinney have felt it necessary to reassure Scots that they’d still be able to watch EastEnders in an independent Scotland?

It would seem odd therefore that, despite the fairly broad competence of the Scottish Parliament and Government there has been virtually no shift in Culture policy under the SNP. The work to establish Creative Scotland was begun while Frank McAveety was Culture Minister, with concrete proposals emerging by 2006. The Gaelic Language Act was introduced to Parliament by Peter Peacock in 2004. The only major celebration of Scottish Culture in recent years has been the disastrous “Homecoming Scotland”, which was initially the brainchild of Jack McConnnell. Even then, “Homecoming” appealed more to wealthy American tourists’ sense of Scottishness than our own.

Of course, the zenith of Culture policy is broadcasting – which is presently reserved to Westminster. It is through broadcast media that the vast majority creative output is consumed. In their first term in power the SNP recognised the importance of broadcasting to the nationalist cause. They established the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, who recommended the creation of a dedicated Scottish television network.

Similarly the Scottish Government’s National Conversation considered the question of Broadcasting. Their consultation document proposed as an interim measure that:

  • Responsibility for MG Alba should be devolved to the Scottish Government.
  • The Scottish Government should be granted the competence to establish a “Scottish Digital Network”.
  • The creation of a Scottish division within Ofcom.
  • The creation of a Scotland-wide Channel 3 licence, to be regulated by Ofcom Scotland.
  • Assigning Scotland a share of broadcasting revenues (i.e. from spectrum sales and licence fee), with the ability to vary the licence fee for Scotland.

The SNP dominated Scotland Bill Committee has made similar recommendations relating to the devolution of broadcasting, though such a move has not attracted the political onus that devolution of Corporation Tax has received. However even if the SNP were successful in having broadcasting devolved to Scotland it would take years to implement any substantial shifts in policy.

If the nationalists’ want to be certain of victory in an independence referendum then they need to foster a greater sense of independence within Scotland’s culture. And to do that they need to do more than hold the occasional festival of Scottishness or commemorate 700-year-old battles. Promotion of the gaelic language will play an important role in the development of Scots culture. So too will the promotion of literature, music and the arts. However in order to engage with every section of Scots society broadcast media are required.

The development of Scots broadcasting will be crucial to making Scotland culturally independent. John Swinney sought to reassure Scots they could still watch EastEnders. However in a culturally independent Scotland, nobody would want to.

Is the Scottish Parliament Short With Short Money?

The Scottish Parliament, like its mother in Westminster, operates a system of financial support for opposition parties. “Short Money” is intended to level the playing field between the government, who have the resources of the civil service to aid them in formulating policy, and the opposition. It pays the salaries of researchers and press officers in each party’s support units, office costs, and certain other expenses to assist members in the pursuance of their “Parliamentary duties”.

In Westminster the level of funding is calculated on the basis of a fixed amount-per-member plus a further sum per 200 votes received. Following the Neill Report in 1998 the level of funding per member was, by a resolution of the House of Commons, more than doubled making Short Money in Westminster rather generous. The Short Money levels in the Scottish Parliament were established by s97 of the Scotland Act. As part of the transfer of legislative power to the Scottish Parliament during the first month of its existence the UK Parliament amended the Scotland Act by Order-in-Council to expressly un-reserve the making of payments to “any political party for the purpose of assisting members of the Parliament who are connected with the party to perform their Parliamentary duties.” As the present Short Money funding level in the Scottish Parliament is enshrined in statute primary legislation in the Scottish Parliament would be required to vary it. The consequence of this is that, relative to Westminster, the opposition in the Scottish Parliament is vastly under-resourced.

For the financial year 2011/2012 the level of funding for opposition parties in the House of Commons is £15,039.85 for every seat won at the last election plus £30.04 for  every 200 votes gained by the party, which for the Official Opposition makes a total of £20,050.24 per member. In the same financial year the level of funding of opposition Parties in the Scottish Parliament is a mere £7,094 per member. The votes element of the Westminster formula is designed, in part, to smooth out what can be stark variations in the sizes of oppositions in each parliament. There is no provision for such smoothing in the Scottish Parliament.

The result, therefore is that the main opposition party in the Scottish Parliament has seen its Short Money drop from £309,899.24 to £262,478 in a Parliament where the role of the opposition is more important than ever.

The Neill report in 1998 said of such events:

The Official opposition has a general duty to scrutinise the actions and the legislation of the Government.  We do not think it appropriate that it should receive a significantly smaller amount of Short money simply because it has recently suffered at the polls.  Indeed it can be argued that, if the party in government has an overwhelming majority in [Parliament], it is particularly important that the Official Opposition should be adequately funded and resourced.

When the Scottish Parliament debated the various statutory instruments which, among other things, gave them legislative competence over Short Money on 2nd June 1999 (exactly one month before Primary Legislative power was transferred to Holyrood) the opposition was united in its view that the level of Short Money was inadequate.

Mike Russell, lately Cabinet Secretary for Education, proposed that the Scottish Parliament refer a decision on what the level of opposition funding should be to the Neill Committee, and that the Parliament should agree in advance to accept whatever recommendation the committee made. He also argued that:

There is no doubt that by dramatically reducing the amount of Short money available to parties, which is, in effect, what the Westminster Government’s order does, the Labour party is attempting to ensure that the work of the Opposition parties is undermined.

Then SNP Deputy Leader and current Finance Minster John Swinney decried the government for showing “no hint of benevolence, no sense of fairness.”

Similarly, the then Scottish Conservative Leader David McLetchie argued that:

What is good enough for Westminster is apparently not good enough for the Scottish Parliament, and the apparent altruism of Her Majesty’s Government is only skin deep. In Westminster, Labour can afford to be generous as it is backed-at least for the time being-by a large parliamentary majority. In Scotland, Labour is doing everything it can to suppress opposition to its unprincipled coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

There can be little doubt that the then Scottish Labour leadership, arrogantly presuming that they themselves would never be in opposition, were attempting to choke off funding to the SNP. It wasn’t until the Scottish Labour Party were ejected from Government that the stark the folly of their presumption came to be realised.

A few days after the 2007 Scottish Parliament election Jack McConnell asked his colleagues for a substantial increase in their contribution to the Labour Support Unit from their individual allowances, which its fair to say was met with hostility from the more territorial Labour MSPs. Following her elevation to the Leadership of the Scottish Labour Party Wendy Alexander followed her Shadow Justice Secretary Pauline McNeill in calling for Short Money to be increased. Having only one seat more than Labour in the Scottish Parliament and been forced to live on paltry Parliamentary rations for their 8 years in opposition the SNP were understandingly unsympathetic.

But four years on things have changed radically. The SNP won well against a Scottish Labour Party which, in all honesty, deserved to lose. They have the first overall majority in a Parliament which wasn’t designed for such an eventuality. They’re guaranteed five years in government; Holyrood is to receive a raft of new competences from Westminster; and there will be a referendum on Independence for Scotland. As the newly elevated Cabinet Secretary for Parliamentary Business, Bruce Crawford can show the benevolence and sense of fairness of which Ted Short was so possessed, and which the Labour-led Executive so clearly lacked. And if fairness isn’t justification enough for the Scottish Government, maybe we can even call it “Crawford Money”.