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5 July 1999

It’s time to stop blaming the referee

New Statesman Scotland - Introduction

By Alistair Moffat

This weekend tanker-loads of ink will be spilt describing, analysing, debunking and re-analysing Scotland’s new parliament. Party leaders will be profiled, policies dissected, graphic artists given a budget, wine bars frequented and reputations undone or made. So far, so familiar. Another bunch of politicians, sigh the weary electorate, who happen to be in Edinburgh, instead of London. Once the novelty has worn off, all we will hear will be the noise of the same axes being ground by the same parties as they snap at each other’s heels and chop each other’s logic in the same old way.

Not good enough. The same worn-out vocabulary, the dusty preconceptions created by the experience of Westminster, the retrodden thinking – none of this will do. Holyrood’s politicians and civil servants, the journalists who report their doings and the voters who put them there all share an entirely new responsibility. Unlike the ancient institutions of Westminster, the Scottish Parliament was created by the current electorate in an express act because they said continually over a long period that they wanted it. What John Smith called our settled will was done last year, and by a very substantial majority we voted “yes” and then, two months ago, returned to the polling places to people the parliament with MSPs. Having put our cross where we wanted to, most of us believe that our civic duty is done and that what happens next is entirely the responsibility of the politicians. Until now that is how the transaction has worked.

But it will not do – not in this case. Because we asked for it and because we then created it, we all share a responsibility to ensure that this parliament does its job well.

For one thing that means reversing the telescope, being less interested in the repetitive minutiae of politicians’ actions, or foibles, and more anxious to understand what impact Holyrood has on Scotland. And by that I do not mean the square mile of central Edinburgh and the usual gangs of journalistic suspects and vested interests. I mean all of Scotland. Because this parliament should be about listening as well as legislating. It should reject the artificial compartments of the old vocabulary, find new words and messages, reach out beyond its committee rooms and corridors to find a new Scotland, another country that has always existed inside the one we read about.

And to do that we should resist the metrocentric pull of Edinburgh just as much as we resented refracting all of our important politics through a London prism before Holyrood was brought into being. The very worst thing we could do is to miniaturise Westminster and stick it at the foot of the Royal Mile.

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But this sort of centralisation is inevitable, say the worldly wise: nothing propinks like propinquity. Power attracts power around it. Maybe, but do we have meekly to accept that and make sure that in New Statesman Scotland we are even further inside Holyrood than the most inside insider? Not good enough; far better and fresher to take a radically different view. In this launch issue and when we start weekly publication at the beginning of September, we will aim to be close to Scotland, to understand something of the collective responsibility we have in order to make our parliament work. Scotland is as much herself in Perth, Duns, Inverness, Stranraer and Falkirk as she is in her capital city. What people understand and desire all over our country is centrally important. That is why we will regularly include journalism from Shetland and Galloway, reviews of cultural and sporting events from places other than Glasgow or Edinburgh and one reason why this editorial is being written in the Scottish Borders. A proper distance can lend unexpected perspectives.

For the sobering truth is that in the Holyrood parliament we face a burden historically abhorrent to many Scots. If, having voted yes and then elected 129 MSPs, it all descends into squabbling and daftness, we will have no one to blame but ourselves. For centuries, it seems, we have enjoyed the luxury of blaming the referee, but now there is nowhere to hide if it all goes bad. As a nation we cannot take the line of my four-year-old daughter when she was accused of trashing her bedroom single-handedly. “The dollies did it” is unlikely to convince our fellow islanders or, even worse, quieten the sound of laughter from the other side of Hadrian’s Wall.

We voted for a different kind of politics in Scotland and for a new union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is a genuine sense of history this weekend, which is for once not misplaced hype. While Scotland can be a bad-tempered little country, we share far more than we don’t; and, though this may sound discordant or even impossibly naive in these cynical times, let us reject the threadbare language of the past and find a new way of communicating and a new habit of talking less and listening better.

Alistair Moffat

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