Sketch: The Scottish Parliament enters a parallel universe

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 17 May 2019 in Comment

A debate on the Place Principle gets confused by the fact no one understands the Place Principle

Image credit: Iain Green

The Scottish Parliament’s debate on the Place Principle was open, honest and stimulating. It was vibrant. It was passionate. The only thing that undermined the discussion was the growing sense that no one in the room had any idea what ‘the Place Principle’ actually is.

It’s not always like this. The preceding discussion, for example, was on sheep. And say what you like about sheep – and MSPs regularly do – but at least sheep definitely exist.

This, in contrast, was much woollier. As the Scottish Government describes it, the Place Principle was “developed collaboratively with a range of organisations to provide a shared context for place-based work”. Or, as Aileen Campbell put it, the Place Principle is the idea that “the places where people live and grow up shape their opportunities and make them feel part of a community”.

So the Place Principle is essentially the principle that places exist, and that the existence of places is a good thing. It’s a great principle. Though it’s important not to confuse it with a Principle Place – that would just mean some sort of main location – or a Plaice Principal, which would be a fish which was put in charge of an educational institution.

And where would we be without places, after all? Nowhere, that’s where. And nowhere isn’t even a place. In fact, the Place Principle, or ‘place-aple’, if you will, actually means lots of things, depending on who you ask. Such is its power. As Campbell saw it, for example, the Place Principle can “help spark activity and action across different sectors – transport, health and the private and third sectors – and across types of actors and unusual partners”.

But that’s not all. The Place Principle also “articulates a shared vision for the type of Scotland that we all want to work towards”.

It’s a beautiful principle. One of the best principles there is. As Alex Rowley put it, “what’s not to like about the Place Principle?”

It was hard to disagree, even if that was in large part because no one seemed totally sure what they were talking about.

So fortunately, Tory MSP Michelle Ballantyne arrived on the scene to make a speech about some of the different places that there are. “Places can be streets, villages, cities, regions or even whole countries,” she explained, with the air of someone attempting to address foreign language students.

“For centuries,” she said, “architects claimed that their designs would reshape society through the power of their art, which is a lovely – if unsubstantiated – notion. In the 1400s, Italian Renaissance era architect Leon Battista Alberti claimed that balanced classical forms were so influential that they would compel aggressive invaders to down their arms and become civilians.”

It was bold. It was weird. It was a Michelle Ballantyne speech. “The Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier claimed that the power of his designs for Villa Savoye would actually heal the sick,” she said, before explaining that it was “a claim that was so inaccurate that he avoided court only due to the commencement of world war two.”

Oh dear. The MSPs looked pretty worried at that. By this point, the idea of taking people to court for talking rubbish appeared a dangerous precedent.

So what did it all mean? “Without variety and stimulation, the human mind becomes confused,” she argued, in what could only have been an attempt to suggest her speech was neither varied nor stimulating enough.

But at least Neil Findlay was stimulated. In fact, as someone who loves both principles and places, the debate was ideal for him. But the problem, as he saw it, was that although the Place Principle is a fantastic one, it means little to people living lives of abject poverty. You can’t eat the Place Principle (you actually could eat the Plaice Principal, but you shouldn’t).

“Sometimes in this place I think that I live in a parallel universe,” he said, apparently having become quite worried. “I know that some people might think that I do, too. This is definitely one of those days.”

It is of course quite possible Neil Findlay lives in a parallel universe, though presumably if he does then the rest of us do too. In fact the debate seemed to have sent him into some sort of existentialist crisis, as if Descartes had been born in 20th-century Scotland and ended up on the Lothians list. I rant, therefore I am. But why was Findlay questioning the nature of existence? As he put it, you can’t make nice places “on a wing and a prayer against a backdrop of year-on-year brutal cuts”.

“That is why I say that we live in a parallel universe,” he added, to emphasise the point.

The Neil Findlay Place Principle Uncertainty Principle. It wasn’t particularly snappy, but the parallel universe Neil Findlay idea is at least an interesting one. There could well be a parallel Scottish Parliament out there somewhere, with a far-right Neil Findlay addressing a room where everyone understands what the Place Principle is.

But sadly, that universe was clearly not this one, and there was no time to explore the idea further. It was neither the time, nor the place.

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