Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Ivory towers meets partisan politics

Irrespective of the procedural niceties, I'm surprised at the reaction of the two academics in relation to what's described as their "ambush" by "impolite and discourteous" MSPs at Holyrood.

Here was a committee meeting set up to discuss the proposed legislation to devolve more financial powers to the Scottish Parliament. The academics were asked to attend on that basis, but have cried foul because they were questioned about fiscal autonomy.

And not just scrutinised about any old aspect of fiscal autonomy, but a paper the academics themselves authored relatively recently. Given their reaction you would think they'd been asked about particle physics or restorative justice, or whatever.

Suppose the SNP Government set up a committee to examine a Bill on local income tax. A professor has authored a paper advocating a property tax. He's asked to attend, and throws his toys out of the pram when asked about his property tax paper. Er, hello?

Indeed, imagine if the good professors had turned up to the Scotland Bill committee and been asked a few supportive questions: would they have considered fiscal autonomy off-limits? Of course not. If they were confident of their case then presumably they could have turned last week's events to their advantage on the basis of substantive argument. On the other hand, given the likes of Ireland's sovereign debt problems since they wrote their paper then perhaps their confidence has taken something of a dent, irrespective of the minutiae of the paper per se.

Moreover, it's surely a bit rich of them to get involved in a facet of economics so politically charged, court publicity in the process, accept the plaudits from one side of the debate when it suits, but react so vehemently when the dirty world of partisan politics blows up in their faces.

The public generally don't trust politicians because they're viewed as detached from reality and consider themselves above criticism. In that regard this latest episode surely does academia few favours.

But if their partisan supporters think a bit of procedural nitpicking and a handful of supposedly discourteous politicians warrants accusations of "intimidation" and a call for a parliamentary inquiry, then they must lead sheltered lives indeed. A letter in today's Scotsman compares Wendy Alexander's "hectoring approach" to scrutiny to her stance on school bullying. For crying out loud. Perhaps Alex "kicking puppies" Salmond should be sectioned.

Indeed, to those who think this all damages the reputation of the Scottish Parliament then perhaps they should consider that the dominant public image is probably one of politicians shouting soundbites at each other, with a baying mob screaming encouragement. If this episode has damaged Holyrood's reputation then it's presumably only vis-à-vis an extremely rarefied part of the political-academic milieu. In actual fact, for 'rarefied' read 'partisan'.

If academics can't stand the heat of the political kitchen then perhaps they should stay safely ensconced in their ivory towers.


Indy said...

There has been some discussion of this on Alan Trench;s blog - he is another academic who has withdrawn from giving evidence. On his blog Drew Scott says this:

"....Save to say that the basis of our complaint is not bruised egos, or even the impoliteness of conduct by some members of the Committee. It is that our 2009 fiscal autonomy paper – which does not mention the Scotland Bill (obviously) – was put on the Committee’s papers (and web site) without our knowledge or permission, and therefore implicitly masqueraded as the evidence we submitted to that Committee on which we might be expected to be questioned. And it was clear for anyone to see that we were subject to highly detailed questioning about various conclusions and calculations presented in that paper. Categorically we did not submit that paper as evidence, nor were we at any time informed that it would be the basis on which the Committee would ask us questions. Clearly the 2009 paper was deliberately placed by officials or clerks to the Committee, and clearly it was assumed by the Committee to be the evidence on which we should be questioned – or rather interrogated.

For the record we did not have our fiscal autonomy paper with us at the Committee. Instead we *did* have copies of the 15 pages of dedicated evidence we had prepared for the Committee specifically addressing the questions we were invited to address and had expected to be questioned about. Nor, unsurprisingly, did we have with us a copy of one of the 30+ papers we cited in the 2009 paper, our failure to give the precise page number in which a footnote used in our work was to be located became the grounds for the Convenor (and others) claiming we had failed to substantiate the evidence we had submitted to the Committee.

All the while, of course, the 15 pages of evidence we *had* submitted was not directly mentioned or referenced by the Committee, and as far as I can detect still is not available on the Committees web pages.

It is for others to judge whether the circumstances in which we found ourselves on Tuesday last week were fair or reasonable. To my mind there is no doubt that we were victims of a pre-meditated and carefully orchestrated “ambush”, to use Alan’s term. And it is that which has formed the substance of the letter which on Friday we submitted to the Presiding Officer. In the light of these events, my judgement is that Alan (also a critic of the Scotland Bill though no devotee of fiscal autonomy) was both very wise and highly principled to withdraw from the evidence session next week to which he’d been invited."

Anonymous said...

Bang on as usual, and nice that there is realism in blogsville.
I really want the SNP to win in May. Don't trust Labour, but they might win. These two academics are just making that possible with their attitude.

Stuart Winton said...

Thanks, Anonymous.

Indeed, perhaps the academics just weren't savvy enough to weather the storm, even assuming they couldn't have turned the situation to their advantage.

By crying wolf they perhaps dug a hole for themselves, and perhaps they'd have been better keeping quiet even if they did feel hard done by.

As for voting in May, I might just have to abstain. Again ;0)

Indy said...

The academics did not cry foul because they were questioned about fiscal autonomy. They cried foul because they were told that they were to be questioned about the Scotland Bill - and submitted evidence on that topic which was completely ignored - but were instead questioned without notice on a paper which they had written a year ago and which they did not have with them, far less having the supporting documents which they had cited in their paper and were interrogated about.

Why would anyone volunteer to put themselves in a position like that in future? Committees have no power to compel witnesses to give evidence. They can just say no thanks, as Alan Trench has done.

Stuart Winton said...

But they wrote the paper and should have had a fair idea about the contents of any third party papers they cited therein, surely?

Even if it was over a year ago they should still have had been able to answer questions about it, surely?

And if not, they should have just said to Alexander that they would revert to the committee at a later date when they were able to address the questions asked.

Instead they seemed a tad petulant in their reaction, rather than perhaps employing a more politic way of handling akward politicians, which surely they should have expected.

Given that fiscal autonomy is the other main proposition on the table as compared to Calman I just can't fathom why they think they were 'ambushed' by being asked about it, particularly when it was their own paper they were questioned about, and irrespective of the formal agenda.

As for Mr Trench, perhaps he's being a tad naive? I mean, he thinks the committee's conclusions are pre-determined?

Of course they are, it's in the political DNA, just like yourself Indy!

I see a letter in today's Scotsman comparing the situation to David Kelly, for crying out loud!

One of the proffs has said the whole thing has damaged his professional reputation, but that wouldn't have happened if he'd kept the heid.

If it has damaged his reputation it's either because the substantive arguments have been found to be lacking - and there's evidence floating around to suggest that's the case - or because of the prima donna-esque reaction.

As for the dodgy SNP portrayal of the paper, let's not go there ;0)

To me it's just workaday politics, Indy, and if the good profs think they've been done an injustice then they should think themselves greatful that that's all they've got to worry about rather than demanding inquiries and suchlike.

Indy said...

They wrote the paper a year ago but were asked to refer, in detail, to documents which were cited in the footnotes to that paper.

They did not have the paper itself in front of them and neither did they have copies of the documents which were referred to in the footnotes so they struggled a bit to answer the questions - as anybody would in those circumstances!

It would be a bit like going in to take an exam in one subject and finding that the exam was actually on another subject that you had not revised, then being told "well, you're a student, you should be able to take any exam at any time".

I think they stayed on in the hope that the committee would eventually get around to asking some questions about the Scotland Bill - which is what they were there to give evidence about.

Stuart Winton said...

Well I don't think your exam analogy really stands up - it's their pet subject and it was their paper they were asked about, albeit one from a few months ago.

The meeting was about devolving more financial powers to Scotland, so surely they should have realised they might be asked questions about fiscal autonomy?

And even if they couldn't answer the questions then they shouldn't have overreacted to the extent they did?

They should have just politely but robustly offered to get back to the committee on the subject rather than making a huge song and dance about it all.

Even assuming Wendy Alexander was trying to trip them up, they surely to an extent played into her hands rather than turning things round to their advantage or at least limiting the damage?

Indy said...

Albeit a one from a year ago (not a few months ago) and they were not asked about what they had written - they were asked about figures they had referred to contained in a paper written by a chap called Lars Feld.

Are you seriously suggesting it is reasonable to expect academics to commit to memory every figure they have ever used in any paper by another writer, just on the off-chance that they would be asked about it while giving evidence on quite another matter? I hope not because that would be ridiculous.

The reason they made a song and dance about it is that they had spent 2 weeks putting together a paper which addressed in detail the questions put by the committee in their call for evidence. You can read the questions on the committee webpage.

Yet the two men were not asked about that. Instead they were grilled about a bloody footnote to a paper they had written a year previously on a subject which does not form part of the bill that the committee is scrutinising and which was not part of the call for evidence to which they were responding.

Quite honestly everybody else knows what happened. The clerks did not "forget" to place the paper the 2 academics had supplied before the committee or on the committee webpage (it's on there now though) neither did they "forget" to advise the 2 academics that they were to be questioned instead on the fiscal autonomy paper. There's only one person's fingerprints on this and they belong to the committee convener - the very person to whom the Presiding Officer has passed their complaint. You really couldn't make it up.

Stuart Winton said...

Indy, the transcript suggests that initially the professors were quite willing to answer questions on their paper, but when Wendy Alexander suggested that the evidence they cited might not be wholly in accordance with how they presented it then they got a bit uppity.

Immediately prior to that they didn't seem over-impressed with how the Scottish Government had been presenting their work, so it seems to me that following this Alexander's underlining of the contradictions between their paper and the third party work cited by them made them a bit, er, defensive.

And your statement that "everybody knows what happened" is revealing, because self-evidently "everybody" seems to refer to yourself and your partisan colleagues rather than, er, everybody. Ideas of Civilisation doesn't seem to consider the questioning unfair, for example, and he's usually pretty balanced and non-partisan in his approach.