Peer claims TV is to blame for rot setting in

Lord Steel of Aikwood has paid tribute to his late friend and former colleague Charles Kennedy.

Thursday, 28th November 2019, 11:38 am
Sponsor, Alasdair Ferguson (left) with David Steel and Fraser Copeland of the Lochaber Chamber of Commerce. Past speakers have included Alastair Campbell, Baron Jim Wallace, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Lord John Thurso.

Past speakers at the annual Charles Kennedy Memorial Lecture have included Alastair Campbell, Baron Jim Wallace and Scottish Government first minister Nicola Sturgeon.

The former Borders MP, of Selkirk, spoke fondly of former Lib Dem leader Mr Kennedy in his introduction and how they met.

However, in the main part of his speech, Lord Steel took aim at the current political set-up, the coalition with the Conservatives and the ways in which parties choose their candidates for elections.

He also had a pop at the UK Parliament’s prime minister’s questions, which he claimed has been drastically diminished since the arrival of television cameras.

He said: “It is no longer prime minister’s question time – it has become prime minister’s insult time, with the two protagonists exchanging well-rehearsed soundbites.

“I can recall days when the leader of the opposition did not necessarily ask a question at all – it was a chance for all MPs to query the head of government on public policy.

“The rot set in when the chamber became televised and prime minister’s questions became the subject of weekly electoral entertainment rather than genuine scrutiny of government.

“One serious newspaper even took for a time to awarding points to the PM and opposition leader after each weekly bout as though they were a pair of boxers.”

Lord Steel insisted the same trend is now becoming commonplace at Holyrood as well, despite a promising start.

He said: “Sadly, the same adverse trend in the commons chamber itself has set in at the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, though at the start we decided on a semi-circular chamber rather than one where opposing parties sat two carefully measured swords’ lengths apart, and that seemed to work for the first few years, but no longer – belligerence and stridency are the order of the day.”

Of the candidate selection process, Lord Steel said: “Selection committees no longer ask ‘who would be our best MP?’ but ‘who deserves our party’s nomination as candidate?’

“I applauded David Cameron’s initiative in suggesting open primaries – and these have thrown up a few interesting people out of the standard mould such as Rory Stewart, but they are rare exceptions.”

He also had a pop at the increasing role of party spin doctors, which he said was to be deplored.

The Fife-born 81-year-old added: “They hand out questions for MPs to ask, and they daily bombard party activists by email with lines to take.

“Even I, as a humble member of the upper house, received daily doses of laundry lists of the alleged achievements of the Lib Dems in the coalition government.

“The latest addition to these daily outpourings are suggested tweets to circulate. Fortunately I am not a tweeter, so I swiftly delete all these unread.

“All of this contributes to the diminution of individual expression or even thought in politics.”

His speech in memory of Kennedy, following his death in 2015 at the age of 55, was held in the Ben Nevis Hotel in Fort William as part of Lochaber Ideas Week.