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True lies in the Scottish parliament

And so to Holyrood where that the Presiding Officer, Alex Fergusson, has ordered an inquiry into whether or not politicians tell the truth in parliament. I presume he will follow this with an investigation into the toilet habits of bears in afforested areas and a commission to determine the attitude of the Pope to the Catholic religion. The reason for this investigation of the bleedin’ obvious was what we hacks call a “porkie pie” uttered by the First Minister.

Alex Salmond told MSPs at question time that the issue of future funding for the Inter Faith Council had been “resolved”, when it had not been – though the IFC had been “assured” that its funding was to continue. Not exactly the Schleswig Holstein Question, and not exactly a lie, but a matter of such vital moment to Holyrood that not one but two inquiries have been set up to investigate it. The First Minister himself has set up a parallel inquiry into his own truthfulness, involving the past Presiding Officers, Lord Steel and George Reid, who for some inexplicable reason has not been ennobled yet.

No. Sorry. This is getting silly. A parliament that sets up inquiries into whether or not politicians tell the truth is a parliament that has lost the plot. I’d hoped to return to my day job as a political commentator this week, leaving the latest banking crisis to its own devices – I’m having increasing difficulty finding original ways of saying that we’re doomed. However, it’s impossible to take politics seriously when it’s conducted at this level. Politicians are experts in half truths and manipulation, but they very rarely tell outright lies – except over issues of national interest – because no decent politician ever needs to. Our rich English language, with all its ambiguities and nuances, allows them enough wriggle room to say anything they want, more or less. Alex Salmond mostly solves the veracity problem by simply not answering the question at all.

In the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, the real inquiry should be into why the Scottish political classes are fiddling while the economy burns. It’s hard not to see these farcical inquisitions as a form of denial, a retreat from reality, infantilism. Why aren’t former Presiding Officers being invited to convene a cross party convention on economic recovery to press r for a proper public works programme? Of course, I realise that the devolved Scottish Parliament lacks the formal powers to deal with an economic depression. The Scottish Government can’t mount a banking rescue, or cut interest rates, or engage in quantitative easing. But it needs to make its voice heard in the recovery strategy. Otherwise it looks as if Scotland is utterly dependent on Westminster for its economic salvation.

Look across the Irish Sea, and things are very different. There, politics is deadly serious right now, focussed on matters of economic life and death as the Celtic Tiger drowns in its own debt. The Irish banks, like our own, are bankrupt and have effectively and actually been nationalised by the government. This has placed their huge liabilities on the public accounts, causing a fiscal crisis. To avert a default, the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, has announced a £16 bn austerity programme with swingeing spending cuts and a proposal to cut public sector wages by up to 10%. He is warning the unions that if they don’t accept a reduction in living standards, the International Monetary Fund may be called in to force matters.

The Irish finance minister, Brian Lenihan, has accused the British government of “beggar-thy-neighbour protectionism”, by allowing the pound to fall in value against the euro. Irish exports are now priced out of its biggest market, while cheap UK goods are flooding across the border. House prices are forecast to fall by up to 80% as migrant workers, and many native Irish, prepare to leave the country altogether. Teh crisis hasn’t made the Irish question their membership of the euro zone, or their independent nationhood, but it has been a catastrophic assault on the confidence and morale of a small nation which had become carried away with its own apparent financial success. It is a sober warning to Scotland not to put its faith in house prices and innovative banks.

It’s understandable why politicians in Holyrood would rather leave the recovery to London – then they can blame Westminster when things go wrong. This is a very difficult time for the SNP to make the case for independence and they must be relieved that they are not holding an independence referendum this year. But in hiding from the magnitude of the crisis they are making a mistake. Holyrood as a whole is in danger of delivering a unilateral declaration of irrelevance. There are some very bright people in there, and I know from speaking to them that they are not short of ideas. But the parliament seems to have been struck dumb. The debate on the Scottish budget last week – the most important since the parliament was created – was a non-event.

Holyrood needs to fulfil its mission statement by finding a way of expressing the collective will of the Scottish people as the nation faces its greatest challenge in half a century. The row over the third runway at Heathrow was an opportunity to raise the urgent question of building a fast rail network to Scotland. But it has been left to David Cameron’s Conservatives to make the case for an environmentally-sustainable recovery based on rail investment. Nor has there been any concerted action to ensure that the UK government recognises that developing Scotland’s reserves of renewable energy could be the foundation of a great new industry. As far as I can see, all the Scottish parties now agree that a council house building programme is long overdue, to save the construction industry and address the housing crisis. But that case is not being made with any vigour.

I know it’s not easy getting a fair hearing in a London-dominated media. I know that Alex Salmond is a genuine enthusiast for renewable energy and has been promoting it for all it is worth. I noted that Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour leader, made a sincere attempt to avoid futile oppositionism over the budget last week. But so far, Holyrood has not found a way of leading opinion and and providing a sense of moral leadership for the country. I still cannot understand why the bosses of the delinquent Scottish banks, which did so much to bring the British economy to its knees – the Royal Bank of Scotland and Halifax Bank of Scotland – have not been summoned to parliament to answer for their economic crimes. The bankers have successfully avoided public scrutiny simply by refusing to give media interviews. The Scottish Parliament could have stepped in here and held them accountable. Yet, apart from a futile attempt to rescue the Bank of Scotland from the clutches of Lloyds, our politicians have failed – so far as I can see – to make any significant moral interventions in the crisis.

There are still some in the parliament who believe that Scotland will “escape the worst” – that unemployment will not be so bad here, that house prices will not fall much, and that the public sector will insulate us from harsh economic winds. These are dangerous illusions. Look at Ireland – we are not all that different. Scotland is likely to be hit even harder by this recession than it was in the 1980’s – at least then we had heavy industry. The Scottish economy is held aloft largely by the spin of property developers and the complacency of politicians. And that is the only truth that matters.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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