The new locomotives

Open Scotland? Journalists, spin doctors and lobbyists

Philip Schlesinger, David Miller and Willia

No aspect of politics in Tony Blair's first term has attracted quite so much attention as the issue of communication. Although many politicians and some commentators argue that the role of spin-doctors, lobbyists and "crony" networks has been overstated, an unbroken wave of drama, scandal and patchy reform suggests otherwise.

Most analysis of this phenomenon, however, has missed the most interesting question: namely, is this high-velocity communication an inevitable feature of a wider cultural phenomenon, or is it merely the chance application of a set of techniques learnt by new Labour from Bill Clinton's new Democrats, and so, perhaps, a political fashion already past its prime?

It may be that in all modern polities, our non-stop, ubiquitous, revelatory, judgemental media have become the wiring that connects the main agencies of power - the government, business and the non-profit sector. Because this wiring is indispensable, exposed and connected through numerous pathways to citizens at home, at work and in the street, it is simply impossible to expect directly elected bodies, mere parliaments, rooted in time and place, to compete.

If this is true, what we need to concentrate on is the transparency and accountability of these new locomotives of our polity, perhaps by steering parliaments towards, among other things, the uncomfortable secondary role of watchdog over the old media watchdogs that used to watch over them.

Scotland is an exceptionally good site for the study of these questions. The spinners of the Blair government gave Scotland a parliament whose rules and political culture have been shaped by a much wider range of political forces than those of new Labour. These include old Labour, Blairites and Brownites, Labour's Lib Dem coalition partners, a strong Scottish National Party, an emaciated but still significant Conservative Party and a lively civil society. Not to mention the unique human factor of Donald Dewar, a First Minister who, until the day of his untimely death, preferred chatting to voters in shopping malls to the No 10 communications grid.

On the face of it, Scotland could not have been more free to choose its own, distinctive way, goaded and bullied by the "unreconstructed wankers" who work for the country's still growing newspaper industry. These journalists, more than any others in Britain, pride themselves on seeing through the gossamer charms of the British Prime Minister.

Yet what the authors of this excellent book, from Stirling University's media research institute, conclude is that, in building a new set of political institutions and cultures, Scotland meekly followed where Blair and Whitehall led.

The spin-doctors, special advisers, lobbyists and PR people multiplied; the civil service stuck its feet in the mud and parliament lacked the will to get tough - for example, by requiring a register of lobbying activity. The authors' forlorn final word is to note that "whether the imagination, courage and resources to depart from Westminster orthodoxy exist at Holyrood remains to be seen".

It is not a conclusion superficially reached. This is one of those rare books that have a firm intellectual framework, but where the authors have also done hard journalistic work, digging up papers, interviewing important people and generating scoops.

The accounts here of such matters as the battles over BBC News in Scotland or the rules governing lobbyists will inform even the best-informed.

The authors do not doubt that Scotland could have chosen a different, non-new Labour way. If only Scotland's press were less incestuous and less disregarding of broader civil society; if political figures had been more prepared to stand up to Downing Street; if those planning Scottish devolution had paid as much attention to the secretive workings of the civil service as to the rules governing television coverage of the debating chamber. If, if.

Where the book doesn't quite convince is on the deeper explanation for such failures. These are, paradoxically, laid at the door of both the "marketisation" of politics - its domination by business - and the smugness of public officialdom.

The authors' conventional conclusion is that the answer to both problems lies in the reassertion of the power of the elected representative. But what they do not sufficiently consider is that their book reveals a polity so infested with communication that an institution based around debates and votes needs to ask more searching questions about itself than those posed here.

Ian Hargreaves is director of the centre for journalism studies at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, There are years of fun to come