The old gag about the time-keeping acuity of stopped clocks galloped unstoppably to mind the other day as I read Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie’s pre-election call for charities to get a “license to criticise” the Scottish Government.
Not wishing to be unkind, but I suppose it was the messenger as much as the message that made me pay attention.
It’s certainly a curious thing. Last time I paid attention to a Lib Dem policy was when they wanted to privatise the Royal Mail – and is this the same Lib Dems who acted as austerity-enablers during their time as the Cameron regime’s coalition partners?
The same Tory-Lib Dem coalition that introduced the Lobbying Act, one of the most grievous attempts to silence charities and civil society in modern times, to tramp down criticism of their own policies?
However, let’s not damn the present with the sins of the past. Too much anyway.
Let’s take it at face value: would a ‘licence to criticise’ (it’s unclear how this would actually work at a nuts and bolts level, but go with it) solve the problem it sets out to address?
At a more fundamental level, is there a problem?
Do charities, and other bodies which accept Scottish Government cash, feel they cannot speak out when they need to against that administration?
And here we enter murky waters, with dangers on all sides, above and below. This is an issue which is far too easily weaponised, especially in the Boschesque Garden of Earthly Delights (the right hand panel) which Scottish politics has become.
From a TFN perspective, I’d say – yes, there is a problem here. One very small example: a while back we found ourselves subjected to one of those modern day, digital auto-da-fé’s, the Twitter pile-on, when some leading figures in the sector objected to us asking a question in a poll. We were never going to win (you can’t in these circumstances), so to keep the peace, we took down the content. Thing is, two weeks later the thing that we were asking the question about became Scottish Government policy.
Naively, I thought those same leading figures would be burning with indignation, their smartphones almost too hot to handle in their righteous fury.
Instead, when we went to them for comment there came… nothing. When we asked why, there came… nothing. When we asked if this was because it may mean criticising the Scottish Government… the sort of silence that surges around the galloping of hooves, to mangle an old line.
We have many more examples of this. It can be hard to get a story that involves criticism of the Scottish Government over the line sometimes for this very reason. Why is this? I think the answer is boringly pragmatic, rather than sinister.
All governments, at every level, exercise a sort of soft power when it comes to handing out cash. They may not mean to, but this is the effect in reality.
Then there’s the politics of it. Let’s face it, it’s easier to flay right wing austerity-mongers in a polity which is increasingly removed from our own – it’s maybe less comfortable when it comes to confronting a socially liberal (if hardly economically radical or even redistributivist) administration, which has built up some capital, you may think is heading in the correct direction and which you may even be personally connected to by the strands that thread together public life.
This whole issue is something TFN has been wanting to look at – soberly – for some time. Maybe the conclusion of this horrible election campaign (see coverage on p26 to 30) will allow us the space to do that.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think we need to be granted a licence for anything. Where we see the need, we should speak out. If we feel that we can’t speak out because we are worried about funding, then that is a national scandal, so we speak out louder.
We are our own best advocates, let’s have some belief in ourselves. There is no conspiracy. Politicians (mostly) don’t bite.
And when they do? Let’s bite back.
Graham Martin is editor of TFN.