SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Of national and local politics



BY BILL KIRKMAN

In spite of the disillusionment over the practice of politics, small achievements are still possible.

NOW that Sir Menzies Campbell (Ming, to use the short form in the Scottish pronunciation) has been elected leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, all three of the major United Kingdom political parties are led by men with strong Scottish connections. Ming Campbell is a Scot, who sits for a Scottish constituency. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, is Scottish. Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, was at school in Scotland. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer - and putative successor to Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party - is also a Scot.

The West Lothian question

This has raised once again what is known as the West Lothian question: that is to say, is it right that Scottish Members of Parliament may vote on matters which exclusively affect England, whereas English MPs cannot vote on matters which are, under devolution, the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament? It is particularly an issue in cases where the policies in the two parts of the United Kingdom are different - such as, for example, on the question of student fees in universities.The matter has become a talking point again not only because of the Liberal Democrat election, but because the Lord Chancellor, who is Minister for Constitutional Affairs, has made it clear that the government has no intention of offering devolved status for England. The reasons are clear enough: England is by far the largest of the four countries making up the U.K. (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland); England has never thought itself to be the poor relation. It is fairly certainly true that there is no great pressure for English devolution, as there certainly was in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales. There is, on the other hand, a great deal of disillusionment about the practice of politics, and its practitioners, the politicians. That disillusionment could quite easily be transformed into real hostility in England to the idea that all political power is in the hands of Scots. Gordon Brown beware: you may discover that you come to be seen as an unpopular colonial ruler!

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We were reminded this week by the death at the age of 91 of John Profumo, of dramatic political controversy. Profumo, as War Minister, was discovered in 1963 to have shared a mistress, Christine Keeler, with the then Soviet military attaché, and to have lied about it to the House of Commons. He had to resign in a scandal that nearly brought down the government.

Unlike politicians in more recent years who have been involved in scandals of one kind or another, Profumo spent the rest of his life away from politics, and away from the glittering society to which he had been accustomed, working to help deprived people in the east end of London through the charity Toynbee Hall. This was done well away from the limelight. He did not seek publicity. It was a genuine, and long lasting, commitment to public service.

When the scandal broke in 1963, the press and public had a field day in an era when there was far more deference, and far higher standards were expected than now of politicians (expected, but not, it must be said, always delivered). Over 40 years later, the obituary writers were united in their tributes to a man who was seen to have atoned for what he did, and richly earned rehabilitation.

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Parish pump politics, I know, cannot compete with the national or international variety. I cannot expect readers to remember what I wrote on October 3, 2004 about the parish pump in my village. I described how the parish council had been advised for safety reasons to put iron railings round the pump, which stands on a brick block, in case anyone fell off. All of us knew, from long experience, that children, including ours, had climbed the pump, and slid down the steps, for about a century, with no known case of anyone being hurt. We were, in short, victims of a culture in which risk assessment has become an irrational attribute of an increasingly paranoid society.

A small victory

I take pleasure now in reporting a small victory for common sense. My fellow councillors and I made our own rational assessment and concluded that the pump would be safer without railings than with them. We rejected the advice of the 'expert' risk assessor - and our insurers accepted our decision.

This is not on a par with party leadership, or political scandal. It is, however, a reminder that political determination can occasionally achieve something.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. Email him at: bill.kirkman@gmail.com