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by Louise Wilson
02 October 2023
Jackson Carlaw: Every government I’ve known has ultimately suffered from ‘sense of entitlement’

Photo by David Anderson

Jackson Carlaw: Every government I’ve known has ultimately suffered from ‘sense of entitlement’

“I think it’s fair to say there was a degree of scepticism amongst us,” says Jackson Carlaw of the Public Petitions Committee he convenes as it started to investigate the concept of citizens’ panels. “It’s not as if we don’t feel we’re already over-governed, and was this just going to be another layer of something? So, it was really fascinating to visit other places.”

After fact-finding trips to Ireland, France and Belgium to see participative democracy in action, the five members of the committee agreed it could work in Scotland. Publishing its report last month, the committee called for the establishment of regular citizens’ panels to feed into the work and scrutiny of Holyrood.

While Carlaw says his committee colleagues “have been convinced”, the same is probably not true for the whole parliament. “We’ve got a job to do,” he admits.

However, he’s confident it can be done. He points to the initial response of politicians in the Belgian parliament when ordinary members of the public were brought into the legislative process. “They have committees of 60 – 45 lay people, 15 politicians. Inevitably, they got together and the 15 politicians said, ‘Why should we listen to you? You’re not elected.’ And the 45 said, ‘Well, we know what we’re talking about.’

“Once they got over the hostility, that process is now leading to better informed legislation going through their committee structure. They’ve come to value the role that each can have.”

I found the whole Liz Truss experiment bizarre. To be really honest with you, I thought maybe in my early 60s I was now out of touch

In particular, Carlaw believes it could improve post-legislative scrutiny in Scotland, “which is something this parliament has wrestled with realising since inception and has never really found a proper formula for”.

“We know that there is a case for looking back at whether some legislation has worked. I mean, we’re going to be looking at minimum unit pricing. In that bill, I proposed the amendment which included a sunset clause. The reason parliament’s coming back to look at this is because we tabled that sunset clause, which requires parliament to do it again.

“I still think that is quite a good mechanism on welfare and social legislation, but it’s not really an embedded process in any sense and therefore I think a mature parliament should have a little bit more opportunity and courage to look back at legislation. Did it do what it was supposed to do? And if it didn’t, is there something we could do about that?”

The possibilities go beyond reflecting on past policy, too. The recent U-turns on the deposit return scheme or highly protected marine areas could have been avoided, he says, if the Scottish Government had led proper and focused engagement sessions with those impacted. “It wasn’t that there was hostility to the principle. It turned out that was facilitated in a way in which the politicians independently created a proposal. And I think, yes, you would have been far more likely in that scenario to have had a proposal to which there was informed consent, and no less important in terms of its reach and scale and scope.”

But it’s not just politicians who would need to be convinced – there would need to be public buy-in too. One big factor will be the topic. If the right issue is put to the first citizens panel, Carlaw argues, it will stimulate community-wide engagement. He has a couple of ideas of what Scotland’s first panel could focus on. “I know we’ve got a bill going through parliament just now with Liam MacArthur’s Assisted Dying Bill, but it strikes me that in different circumstances that’s the sort of issue that our national citizens panel could look at – where it’s difficult for politicians to act, not really having a feel for where the public sits. That really was the issue with abortion in Ireland. No politician wanted to put their head above the parapet and lead, they wanted any action they took to be underpinned by a wider element of informed public support.

“Also, I might say the whole future of the health service or some aspect of the health service – what is the future for primary care, for example – because we also know that every one of the obvious solutions for health in Scotland is politically unacceptable. No party wants to say anything terribly controversial, because all the other parties would jump on it and it becomes an absolute nightmare.

“But were the public properly involved in understanding what the real difficulties and issues are with health care, and come forward with where they thought the priorities are and what they would be prepared to accept, that might help politicians come together and agree. I certainly have come to the view, over the years I’ve been in here, that unless all the parties can agree then it is a bit of a stalemate.”

Another element of making a success of citizens’ panels will be how recommendations are dealt with. Carlaw says that providing people with proper feedback on their input is vital, even if it is just to explain why their suggestion is not being taken forward.

He has come to similar conclusions with his work on the eponymously named Carlaw Commission, which is looking at improving participation and engagement within the Conservative Party. He’s set to finish his report shortly and will deliver it to the National Conservative Convention in November. “It’s not going to change the world, but it is reflective of what a modern political party should move towards. In that environment, just as in the public environment, people want to have an opportunity to contribute to the development of ideas and policies, and I think parties used to be very good at that, but really have become less good at it in a slightly more cynical age.”

And as we continue talking about that common failure of political parties to engage with not only their members but the wider public, our conversation takes an unexpected turn: he praises former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

“Political parties used to have hundreds of thousands, if not over a million, members and therefore their manifesto was much more rooted in community engagement and feedback and support. In the modern era, I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. Manifestos have become  much more closed down, internal documents… It means that there’s a lack of boldness.

“I mean, all credit to Jeremy Corbyn – I may not agree with a thing he said, and because of his views on antisemitism and everything I may have been wholly opposed to him – but first of all, the Labour Party did become quite a large party and it did come forward with ideas which were born out of discussion within his own party. It so happens that they weren’t very publicly appealing in the final analysis – but he was saying something.”

By contrast the problem with short-lived prime minister Liz Truss, he says, was that she did almost the exact opposite, forgetting to engage the public with her ideas. “I found the whole Liz Truss experiment bizarre. To be really honest with you, I thought maybe in my early 60s I was now out of touch with where things were and I just wasn’t getting it, and everybody else had got it. As it turned out, no, I had got it perfectly well. It was other people, who I normally thought were fairly sensible, who seemed to have for whatever reason got completely captured by the most ridiculously bizarre and damaging prospectus.

“We very quickly resolved the issue but the legacy of it has been very difficult for us, because people still, I think, wonder ‘what on earth was all that about?’ And it was completely self-inflicted and completely unnecessary.

“That’s not to say that there wasn’t an argument somewhere in what Liz Truss was saying about the country, about needing to embrace a strategy for growth that was much more obvious, directional and likely to deliver. Governments have been saying that for a long time, we have been slow to actually achieve it. But the way in which they went about it, in the immediate post-Covid environment where we had had to borrow so much to ensure that the country got through that pandemic, it just looked so fiscally and completely irresponsible. It clearly was deeply damaging.”

He wonders whether part of the problem is simply that this is what happens when politicians have been in power for extended periods, and he draws parallels between his own party and the SNP.

“I find the whole period that I’ve been an MSP under the SNP government fascinating. They came in with something quite unique in 2007: no track record. The Labour Party and the Conservative Party, whenever they come to office, have got a previous track record that people can call up and criticise. The SNP came in with no track record at all, they had nothing that they had to defend that they’d done previously, and therefore it was a completely blank sheet of paper.

Every government I’ve known has found newer members come in who have a sense of entitlement about being in government, and their agenda then is more about staying in government

“It really wasn’t until the last part of last session and more this session that the consequences of policies they previously adopted came back. And they have fallen into the same trap that Conservative and Labour governments have fallen to, which is you cannot admit you made a mistake about anything. And therefore, you have to defend everything. That then leads to a lot less candour and open expression and discussion of new ideas, because if you can’t admit there was a mistake, you can’t have an open discussion about what may come next.

“And sometimes it’s not even that it was a mistake. It was right for the time, but 10 years on it corrected a problem but created another problem, and that other problem now needs to be addressed.

“Every government comes in with politicians who’ve been part of the long march from opposition and understand that government is when you can do things. But as they retire, every government I’ve known has found newer members come in who have a sense of entitlement about being in government, and their agenda then is more about staying in government.

“I do think that leads to a narrowing of the base of people around the leadership, a reluctance by the whips to allow any kind of open discussion or to admit that mistakes have been made or that policies may now have past their prime. And it leads into a sort of atrophy.

“I think that has applied to the SNP just as much as it has any other party. Interestingly enough, I saw Nicola Sturgeon sitting down in the garden lobby today. Now that’s a sight in itself. When she first was elected to government, her special adviser was Noel Dolan. Noel Dolan and Nicola used to sit in the garden lobby, and politicians of her own party and others would go up and talk. The longer she was an office, the more we saw that fade into distant memory, and she became a more isolated figure, even from her own party.

“I don’t say that uniquely of her. I think that was true of nearly every UK party leader I’ve known when they become prime minister too. And it’s a terrible disease, actually, on creativity and leadership.

“I think Humza [Yousaf] stepped right into it. I don’t see him about the place or engaging. I thought he might do more of that and I thought he might have drawn a line under and been prepared to say, ‘I’m a new administration with a new vision’. I think he’s put himself in a bit of a straitjacket by almost immediately looking as if he wants to defend everything that’s happened over the last 16, 17 years, when I think a more honest approach would be to say, ‘well, we did things that were right at the time, but actually, the times have changed and what we need to do now is different’.”

Carlaw says the issues relating to length of time in government has been compounded by the impact of Covid. This meant newer politicians were less exposed to public opinion (“most of the election was quite removed,” he says) and then “educated within their own tribal hut” upon entering Holyrood. “I think this place is slightly less cohesive or collaborative than the previous parliaments I’ve known. That’s growing a little bit now, as time has gone on, but it is quite late [in the session] and I think the previous parliaments were much better at people understanding how to work together and therefore how to embrace alternative views.”

I suggest one person within that SNP who might be in agreement with him is Fergus Ewing, to which Carlaw laughs. He goes on to label the SNP leadership’s approach to Ewing’s rebellion as “ridiculous”, particularly because what he is rebelling against is “policy that isn’t underpinned with any real public support, because it was in the Green manifesto”. He adds: “I think it’s quite difficult, if you were elected and feel it’s your duty and obligation to stand by the manifesto you were elected on, to find that there are now things being promulgated, that you are being whipped into supporting, which are part of an agreement that was never endorsed by the electorate, and which includes things that you were never voted into the parliament to support. That is a difficult judgement, and I can see why he has difficulty with it.”

All I hear from Labour is that the country needs change and we are the change, but I'm still struggling at times to identify what that change is actually going to be

Speaking of open dissent, I raise comments made by Tory MSP Maurice Golden at Holyrood’s Garden Party last month in which he had a dig at party leader Douglas Ross. “He was very direct, wasn’t he?” Carlaw muses. “We’re all still trying to work out what whether it was very bold humour or whether it was rooted at something more profound. I dare say Douglas would have listened.”

But having been leader of the party himself, and deputy leader alongside Ruth Davidson for many years before that, I ask how you balance party unity with allowing MSPs to dissent when they feel strongly about certain issues. Carlaw argues the trick is to be as “inclusive as possible” and being “open to everything they are saying” before taking decisions.

He also says it is important for the leader of the Scottish Conservatives to be able to occasionally stand against the wider UK party, recognising the different political environment north of the border. He recalls a conservation with Boris Johnson, who was prime minister when he was leader, in which he made this clear – and it was something Johnson, to his credit, was comfortable with. “He understood that central point. And I do think it’s incredibly important that as a Conservative or Labour leader in Scotland that your party understands that your job is, yes, to be informed by that collective consensus, but to understand that the dynamic in Scotland means at times you’ll have to take a different position.”

And being a Tory in Scotland has an additional dimension, too. “You have a unique situation in Scotland if you’re a Tory leader, because you have to actually be likeable so that people can get over the fact that you’re a Tory. Annabel Goldie, Ruth Davidson, I hope myself, were likeable, so that people can say, ‘Oh, well, I could vote for them’. It’s very important you invest in that.”

Does that mean he thinks Douglas Ross struggles with that likeability factor?

“Everybody has to come to that in their own time and in their own way,” he replies. “I’ve watched Douglas recently, he’s been much, much more out in the community, going off to visit and meet people and to meet members of the public.

“I suppose he did take over in the immediate Covid environment and we went straight into an election. We’ve had some pretty difficult, controversial legislation that we’ve wrestled with in here. But I think as we move into an electoral cycle again, with a UK general election and a Scottish election ahead, I know that he will start to be much more available and involved in outreach and engagement with people. I think that is what colleagues and the wider party wants to see. I know he’s perfectly capable of doing it. So I would commend his team to make sure that he does.”

But Carlaw is full of praise for Ross beginning to spell out what a Scottish Conservative government would look like, something he admits he and Davidson never quite got right. He’s hopeful that by the time the general election rolls around – which he doesn’t expect until late 2024 – the public will be ready to look beyond the catastrophic Truss premiership.

And he thinks that will be possible because he has not yet seen anything concrete from Keir Starmer’s Labour. “All I hear from Labour is that the country needs change and we are the change, but I’m still struggling at times to identify what that change is actually going to be. And very often it seems that some major plank of what I thought it was going to be has suddenly been dropped without it being clear what the alternative is going to be. So I still remain of the view that there is a political discussion and debate to be had before the next general election.”

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