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  1. Politics
10 April 2000

Scotland’s Victor Meldrew

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

The ghost of Victor Meldrew is stalking the corridors of the Scottish Executive. His trademark, strangulated whine, “I don’t beLIEVE it”, echoes around the committee rooms of Holyrood. For Victor has found a worthy reincarnation in Frank Harvey. He is a 68-year-old retired postman and he is not a happy man. From his flat in Partick in Glasgow, Harvey has fired off 29 petitions to the Scottish Parliament, a fifth of all those submitted since sittings began last summer. His targets range from the United States Navy and its plans to make use of the live bombardment site off Cape Wrath in Sutherland, to Glasgow City Council whose closure of the disabled lavatories in Peel Street he deplored. Taking his subjects from the sort of thorough perusal of Scotland’s newspapers, radio and television only possible for the retired, curious and irritable, Harvey regularly highlights iniquities and unaddressed concerns. However, his general motivation arises out of some popular political instincts. “When we got the parliament, everybody thought it would make a difference, but it hasn’t,” he says. “I want to make sure that these MSPs are earning their money. Most of them are a complete shower.”

The signs are that Harvey is winning a war of attrition. The Scottish Executive is now petitioning him. He has received a letter from the public petitions committee telling him that his 29 submissions are consuming scarce resources, and asking him to be more selective in his future concerns.

While it is cheering to see a 68-year-old retired postman with a talent for persistence discomfit the government, its difficulties are real enough. The new petitions are not like the traditional letters to individual MPs or to ministers or the old Scottish Office. Public petitions are submitted directly, by anyone, to the Scottish Parliament and are dealt with by a powerful committee of MSPs chaired by an experienced politician in the shape of John McAllion. The idea is to allow and encourage a direct route into the heart of government for ordinary citizens in Scotland. The reason why distraught civil servants are appealing to Harvey to slacken off his barrage is because each petition is taken genuinely seriously, and because all concerned want the system to work properly. On each submission, background work is required to brief MSPs, and a sensible consideration of what the public have to say is deemed to be essential, particularly at this early stage. If a petition is approved, then there is a chance that its contents could find their way into legislation. More than 150 have been received so far and several are thought likely to be taken further.

As a method of making a new system of government in Scotland more accessible, public petitions are pleasingly individual in their workings. Not designed to measure anything, such as a general public mood or popular voting intentions, they exist primarily as a means of expression for the individual. As such, they are a rare thing in our political arrangements. Harvey has grasped the opportunity with both hands: “Too many people are happy to sit like sheep and not say a word. I blame new Labour and the way they just do as they are told. That’s not my way.”

And that is certainly not the way of a bad-tempered little country whose reputation for awkwardness and stubborn individuality has, by turns, delighted and exasperated. Those who created the system for petitions should have remembered G K Chesterton muttering that it was never difficult to tell the difference between a ray of sunshine and a Scotsman with a grievance. It was bound to act as a magnet for moaning. And instead of moaning about Harvey moaning too much, the Scottish Executive should continue to encourage more people to become involved. Out of the ruck of material received, some gems are bound to shine.

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The real difficulty with Harvey’s 29 petitions is that the majority of them are negative; he calls for bans on things such as boxing, door-to-door salesmen, and children visiting farms. If the public were made sufficiently aware that their involvement can make a difference, and that the chances of a petition’s success would be enhanced if it contained something positive, then the negative tone might alter. And as to the sheer volume of material that can come from one person, there is an obvious answer to that. So that the public petitions committee can dispose of its resources fairly, there should be a limit on individual submissions. Nobody can genuinely believe in 29 causes simultaneously.

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In the coming weeks, McAllion and his committee will be holding a series of meetings around Scotland to explain their work and encourage participation. That is a genuine example of taking government out to people who can take part in it in a positive way. And it may begin an incremental process of turning around a negative popular perception of the Scottish Parliament. But none of the members of the public petitions committee should be dismayed or surprised at the sustained ability of Scots to be miserable and grudging. Even though Richard Wilson and Annette Crosbie play Mr and Mrs Meldrew as English suburbanites, that both are Scots supplies sufficient inherited bile to make all that moaning very convincing.

Alistair Moffat