Two days ago I attended a public session with the Scottish cabinet as part of their scheduled visit to the more far-flung locations across Scotland – the “Summer Cabinet”. Having lived in Shetland all my life I’m always in awe of events like this, I suppose because I’ve been brought up unused to being involved with anything of national importance. Therefore, it was a really interesting experience. After an unexplained delay of about 15 minutes, First Minister Alex Salmond came onto stage and made a short speech to introduce the event (which you can listen to here, if you’re interested).
I was surprised by how suddenly and heavily he pushed his case for Scottish independence, which I suppose must be a daily activity for him, though I struggled to find much in his words I disagreed with. He spoke about the many unions Scotland shares with the UK – social, political, economic and military, largely – and argued that to achieve political independence need not sacrifice the others. He put particular emphasis on the common-sense defence policy Scotland could adopt, abandoning wasteful endeavours such as Trident and finding a policy which suits our needs. He also criticised the Better Together campaign, describing their work as this ‘Project Fear’. He might have a point but I do think that continued rhetoric like this from both sides of the debate threatens to drown out the real issues. I’m also not sure whether I agree that the islands – or, Shetland at least – should achieve more autonomy under a principle he dubbed ‘The Lerwick Declaration’. Candidates here tend to stand as independents and we currently have a council comprised entirely down non-party lines. The problem I see with this is that the candidates can all promise the same, vague ideals without giving any details of their political positions. This is why we’ve ended up with what appears to be quite a right-wing council, despite the people of Shetland being overwhelmingly Liberal in their outlook.
But that’s digressing. I found the question and answer session very fascinating. Some of it focused around local issues, like youth employment, housing debt and high school closures (a very contentious issue; my own school of four years is under threat), and others were about issues on a more national scale. I was pleased to hear about the Scottish government’s reservations over fracking and their policies towards lowering youth employment sounded encouraging. My favourite response was to a question asking the government to put the Equal Marriage bill to a referendum, apparently because the majority are not in favour of it. Salmond politely dismissed the idea but reiterated that any vote on the bill will be one of conscience for MSPs, and explained his own reasons for supporting it. This was met, I was pleased to see, by wide applause. Equal marriage is clearly more popular than some would like to admit! I was too shy to ask any questions myself but I found it fascinating just to absorb everything being said. I didn’t recognise many of the ministers besides Salmond and Education Secretary Mike Russell, who I’ve met before, though I learned some few new faces.
Afterwards there was this weird period in the lobby which can only be described as ‘mingling’. The cabinet ministers mingled with the public, taking cups of tea, open to questions – and, in some cases, quite fierce debate. Despite the unnecessarily large number of suits on display I was impressed by how informal it seemed. Though they have relative power and influence they really are just plain people who occupy a room in the same way as anyone else. Salmond actually walked right past me as I sat on a couch at one point, where I could have leaped out and asked him anything. I didn’t, of course.
I think it’s very important for the government of any country to make its citizens feel involved and acknowledged by the political process, which I certainly think was achieved with this visit. Granted, their jurisdiction is much vaster, but I can’t imagine the UK cabinet coming up to Shetland anytime soon – or even coming up to Scotland. Perhaps just as well, considering I expect more people here oppose their government than support it.
The event also reinforced my joy to be living in a democracy. Could you imagine leading politicians being so open and available in North Korea, or Sudan, or Saudi Arabia? Long may this tradition continue.