I’ve recently grown fond of BBC Radio 4’s Sunday morning offering between 8 and 9 am. If I tune in a little early, I catch the BBC Radio 4 appeal, a weather forecast, tweet of the day (birdsong, not social media trolls) and a quick and usually ribald plug from Paddy O’Connell for Broadcasting House at 9, prior to the news and review of the papers. This week’s appeal was for a charity called Feedback, which finances the harvesting of fruit and veg which one well-known supermarket chain describes as “wonky”. Cream cauliflower (as opposed to pristine white cauliflower) for example, is left to rot in the fields because the farmers can’t sell it to the supermarkets. When I lived in New Zealand I had a friend who grew kiwi fruit. He could only forward the most unblemished specimens for export. The Kiwis themselves were happy to eat the wonky stuff, or make kiwi fruit wine, God bless them. Apparently in the UK we waste millions of tons of crop because it doesn’t look right. Disgraceful.
After the news comes morning service, yesterday from Glasgow, and on the first Sunday of Lent, a very thoughtful discourse on temptation, and Jesus’s three encounters with it during his forty days in the wilderness. Temptation is very subtle. It only asks you to make a small compromise. By a strange coincidence, the name of the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer came up, coincidental, because I’m currently reading Ray Monk’s Inside the Centre, the Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Jonathan Cape, 2012). Oppie (Opje, as the Dutch called him) directed the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, the construction of the atomic bomb, at Los Alamos in New Mexico during the war. He was lured by the sweetness of an enormous scientific challenge, theoretical and practical. After Trinity, the first successful detonation, he famously quoted the Bhagavad Gita. Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.
Politicians are very vulnerable to temptation. The party is tempted by the lure of power, and the individual is tempted by the lure of personal advancement. It can be a dirty business.
There’s a tremendous stooshie going on in Scottish politics just now. Actually there are several overlapping stooshies: did the SNP High Command conspire against Alex Salmond? Is Nicola Sturgeon’s daily Covid briefing a party political broadcast? Can you select your gender as an act of will, irrespective of your chromosomal endowment? Is it a crime to express hatred of a minority group in the privacy of your own home?
People say the SNP is tearing itself apart. On the other hand, when the SNP were once renowned for self-discipline and unity of purpose, they were accused of turning Scotland into a “one party state”. I’m suspicious of parties that do not tolerate internal dissent. It seems to me that the most absurd element of party politics is “the whip”. I could never have been a politician. If the chief whip had ordered me to vote against my conscience and produced his lash I would have told him what he could do with it, then cheerfully resigned and given up the Ministerial Mondeo. I was never a committee man.
Of course I say that, but what if I had mouths to feed at home? Lady Campbell would say, “We have to keep the children at private school to give them the best possible start in life. This precious principle of yours only affects 0.01% of the population. For God’s sake, take the whip.”
The logical outcome of abjuring the idea of the whip is to abjure the idea of the party. That might be a dangerously naïve stance to take. It’s what totalitarian governments do; they hasten through an Enabling Act – necessary for the national crisis in which we find ourselves – and outlaw every other party save their own. The trade unions get banned at the same time. So no. We mustn’t ban parties. If you want to get anything done, you need to organise.
But sometimes I grow weary of the political Big Beast who emerges from Parliament to do a piece to camera in which he espouses some dogmatic party line which he clearly knows is humbug. And he does it with a straight face. Radio and television programmes like Any Questions and Question Time are unutterably tedious because faceless party apparatchiks score points off one another and rarely say anything surprising or original. No wonder the populace loses faith in the political class. The whole charade casts doubt on the integrity of embarking upon a political career. Maybe it would be better if we encouraged “ordinary” people like refuse collectors and doctors, shop assistants and teachers, posties and scientists, to take a sabbatical and stand for election. Just for a single parliament. Every vote would be a conscience vote, cast without any ambition for a second term.
Pie in the sky? Maybe. Maybe it’s too much to ask that every MP, or MSP, be an independent, but at least we should ask that each one of them be a man or woman (am I being binary?) of independent mind. We should retain a healthy distrust of factionalism. It is not merely that we as individuals needs to reach across the aisle; we need to abolish the aisle, and commingle. When you compromise your principles for the greater good of the party, you lose something of your own unique individuality. What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?