Maiden Speeches: Introducing Politics
Two maiden speeches in parliament this week offered examples of contrasting approaches to politics.
One of the early tasks for a newly elected parliamentarian is to deliver a maiden speech. They rise for the first time in the Holyrood chamber and are given an uninterrupted opportunity to introduce themself as a political personality.
The speech can be a moment to tell your personal story and weave it into the collective story of the people you represent. This skill of public narrative is one of the hardest for politicians to master. You have to be able to tell one story that simultaneously says this is who I am, this is who we are, and this is what we should do together now.
Perfect from Pam
Pam Duncan-Glancy MSP succeeded brilliantly in doing this in a moving speech this week, She bookended it with this:
“‘She’s a fighter’ is not just the slogan of my campaign; it is the story of my life and, sadly, it is the story of far too many people’s lives…to all the disabled children out there and anyone who has ever felt left out or left behind: I am here for you and as long as I am here, you will be here with me. I will fight for you like our lives depend on it.
A maiden speech can also be an opportunity to make a political argument in a more expansive way than your work as a legislator normally allows.
Newly-elected Labour MP Michael Marra is an old friend, but I make no apology for focussing on his speech here. His opening remarks as an MSP went viral for a good reason. They are an example of how those of us who want to break the suffocating grip of nationalism on our politics can speak with moral purpose, impatience and passion.
Michelle Versus Michael
Immediately before Michael’s speech was the maiden speech of Michelle Thompson. I should say that Thompson’s speech isn’t an especially bad example of an SNP politician’s worldview. In fact, it’s only really worth analysing because it is typical of how little thought goes into nationalism.
She begins by harking back to the period which saw the establishment of her party:
“Reflecting for a moment on history, in the aftermath of world war two, no country sought to return to the past—a new international order had to be built. Many nations sought to reprioritise their domestic agendas and fundamentally change the face of their societies. Empires broke up and many countries entered the world stage as independent states.”
For nationalism, the lesson of 1945 isn’t about marking the establishment of the NHS, our welfare state created in that postwar period, it is about mourning that Scotland missed the boat on leaving Britain.
Honestly, the SNP MSP doesn’t develop her argument much further than this. As you would expect from someone who made her name with the low-corporate tax lobby group Business for Scotland, there is lots about supporting business people. Even that though is based on Scottish exceptionalism:
“A key positive feature of Scotland the brand includes having a reputation for fair dealing, for being trustworthy and for having a strong ethical business environment.”
It is convention not to interrupt a maiden speech with a question, which is just as well as I’m sure someone would have risen to ask her to say more about “fair dealing” in that “ethical business environment”. In any event, all this talk about business was just filler before she closes with her only argument:
“The most successful countries in the world are countries of a similar size to Scotland, whether we measure that in terms of economic development, being the least corrupt countries or having the happiest citizens. Unlike Scotland, they are independent. This is therefore no time to limit our ambitions. I cannot and will not accept a paucity of ambition for Scotland. It is time we too joined the international community of independent nations.”
The poverty of thought here is desperate.
It is obvious to anyone who spends more than a few seconds thinking about it that the least successful, most corrupt and unhappiest countries are also, by definition, independent. As are all the countries in the middle. As policy analysis, it is sophisticated as suggesting banning Nick Cage films to save people from drowning.
In diagnosing what is wrong with Scotland, she sees only the Union with the rest of the UK, so inevitably the policy only prescription she can offer is exiting the UK. Grappling with the messy, exhausting work of effective government is replaced with a single choice. Those who want to evaluate other possibilities are accused of being insufficiently ambitious. There’s no effort to confront the deeper issues in our society, no interest in considering the complexity of social change.
This is political apathy masquerading as national ambition.
The contrast with what followed could not have been more stark.
Michael began by puncturing the balloon of self-congratulation around Coronavirus that surrounds a government who oversaw so many needless deaths. He then set out how we were unprepared for the crisis in more fundamental ways:
“As inequality has grown, our social fabric has weakened. We can now see that anew, not just as a moral affront but as a practical impediment to our shared lives—respiratory disease, obesity, unsafe workplaces without trade unions, poor housing, services that are less accessible to ethnic minorities, grotesque and growing health inequality that is proved by stagnant life expectancy, and the gap between the richest and the poorest growing ever greater. One-quarter of our children, and each day more, are living in grinding poverty.”
If Thomson’s speech was monochromatic, Marra’s is technicolour. He explains complexity and offers hard truths rather than easy falsehoods:
“Our most impoverished communities, such as parts of my city of Dundee, are beset by the worst drugs crisis in the world. That is an extraordinary national shame. Let us not doubt that, if it was any middle-class epidemic, we would have locked down, legislated, incurred unlimited debt, educated widely and reformed indiscriminately. The great inconvenience of those dead Scots is that their passing cannot, by any conscious examination of the facts, be blamed on the demon ‘other’. Drug laws are the same across the United Kingdom, yet the number of drug deaths in Scotland is four times that in England. Those Scots died because they were poor and were somehow believed to be worth less…That is inequality—not how it starts, but certainly how it ends—and no real recovery is possible unless we address the broader inequalities. We must find the ways and the will to deal with those things together.”
He isn’t just introducing himself to politics, he is introducing politics to the debate.
His next section is about as good an explanation an alternative to the divisive values of nationalism as I have heard:
“During the election campaign, the First Minister said—tellingly, I believe—that in the end politics is about picking sides. That is not how I see politics. I believe in all honesty that we have common cause. Politics can be about building movements, starting and winning debates and creating common purpose in a workplace, a street, a town, a city and a country and around the world. That is the ethos that we need in our recovery. Taking every road to what divides us rather than to what we have in common is an easy route, but it will lead, ultimately and inevitably, to despair. This is a time, globally, when fame and often power are forged in division—in loud words rather than considered action.”
We sometimes forget how easy it is to make the case for bringing people together. We should remember to do it more because it is a far more attractive idea than the alternative.
Even on taking on the shame of sectarianism, Michael, as a catholic, counsels against making tackling anti-catholic hatred another front in the ‘culture wars’. It would be easy for him to aim at enemies, exploit the issue and in doing so risk entrenching the prejudice against him, but instead, he calls for an approach based on “dialogue, education, justice and peace.”
Quoting Donald Dewar’s speech at the opening of Holyrood, Michael closes by challenging the parliament to put in the hard yards needed for real, progressive change rather than taking lazily exploiting grievances:
“We can be sure that a politics that elevates sentiment over action will be the end of progress so, in this moment of pandemic crisis, there is a rightful expectation that we will act deliberately and with consideration, but with principled intent, to make better Scotland’s ills. It falls to us to bind the nation’s wounds and care for those who shall have borne the battle. We must, as we shape our recovery, work together for a future built from the first principles of social justice.”
Michael’s words won’t reflect the politics of every reader, I know, but these two speeches are models for two different approaches to politics. At its most insipid, politics is a mixture of the superficial and the simplistic. At its most inspiring, politics brings together rigorous analysis and righteous anger.
More of this moral outrage in response to the shortcomings of nationalism, please!
In Case You Missed It…
It looks like all is not well within SNP HQ. In quick succession since Friday: we heard talk that police are looking into what happened to ring-fenced funds for the long-delayed independence campaign'; then the strategist who was to lead that campaign, appointed at the start of the year, has resigned; and now the SNP MP who is Treasurer of the SNP has resigned saying he wasn’t given enough information to carry out his duties.
The SNP published a document setting out social justice policy ideas for an independent Scotland, including a proposal for us all to get £37,000 a year. Funnily enough one of the report’s authors, Neil Gray MSP says the report hasn’t been costed. To publish a report on how to deliver social justice without saying how you would pay for it isn’t policymaking. It’s more like one of Oprah Winfrey’s vision boards where you do a collage of all the things you’d like and hope that the universe manifests them for you.
In response, Professor James Mitchell argues that the SNP won’t make the hard decisions to tackle inequality, such as raising taxes on better-off Scots, because doing so might make it harder to win a referendum. John Ferry points out that that this SNP report is at odds with the party’s only other set of proposals for a separate state, the Growth Commission, which set out a plan for austerity:
“The irony is that the pursuit of separation at any cost is what presents the real danger to the welfare of Scots. Whatever your dream, the SNP will give you a glimpse of it and promise it is within touching distance if only you believe and don't ask too many difficult questions.”
After data that was previously improperly withheld from journalists was published, we now know that nearly 4,000 people died from Covid-19 in Scottish care homes. Remember that more than 3,000 untested hospital patients in Scotland were discharged to care homes between the beginning of March and the end of May 2020. Worse than this, 110 patients who had tested positive for Covid were sent into care homes without first getting a negative test. In a week when Dominic Cummings’ testimony has meant more accountability for terrible mistakes made by the Conservative government, we have the obscenity of Nicola Sturgeon trying to shift blame for decisions she shared. It’s worth revisiting this set of videos.
Opposition MSPs are increasingly calling out the SNP, who claim to exist for the cause of Scottish democracy, for making announcements to the media rather than to the Scottish Parliament:
And as if more proof was needed that the SNP have only one analysis for every issue, Alyn Smith watched Eurovision and concluded that James Newman scoring nil points required a nationalist response.