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A nation apart from the people in charge

If you look at the Members of the Scottish Cabinet, it's striking that in their backgrounds, and the constituencies they represent, there is an impressive pan-Scotland mix.

As for the First Minister himself, I've always thought that an important development in his political career came when he was elected to represent Banff and Buchan in the late 1980s. That gave him a new perspective, a strong awareness of the needs and character of a different part of Scotland. Up till then almost all his life and career had been spent within a fairly small triangle: Linlithgow, St Andrews and Edinburgh.

It is a justified criticism of the present Prime Minister that in background and career he knows too little of England (let along Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales) beyond London, nearby Eton and parts of posh Oxfordshire. He does holiday on Jura sometimes, but he won't encounter too many folk there. Indeed, he is an exceedingly, almost laughably, metropolitan figure.

Nobody could deny the importance of London in modern Britain. Indeed, the problem is it has become too important, a huge international megacity grievously disconnected from the rest of the UK.

Many people in the Westminster bubble are ignorant of the rest of the UK. Margaret Thatcher's first major biographer, a respected Guardian journalist, wrote that her home town of Grantham was "in the north". Heaven help us.

David Cameron's only real job outside politics was as a public relations consultant for a London TV company. The word "real" is probably inappropriate.

How are our legislators to keep in touch with quotidian realities, the needs and sometimes desperate concerns of ordinary people? One way used to be through their constituency surgeries. I was once told by a senior Tory Cabinet minister, conscious of his own privileged background, that the weekly or fortnightly constituency surgery was all-important, because it kept politicians, no matter how high and powerful, aware of the worries and problems of ordinary folk, often those at the bottom of the heap.

Sadly, constituency surgeries are now often left to others, political aides and the like.

Nobody could deny that holding a constituency surgery at the end of a busy political week could be difficult for weary MPs. The late and much-loved Frank McElhone, Labour MP for Queen's Park, Glasgow, in the 1960s and 1970s, used to find his surgeries in the Gorbals very demanding, especially after he became a Scottish Office minister. One Friday night a wild-looking man carrying an axe appeared in the constituency rooms as the surgery was about to begin. The waiting constituents all got up and rushed away. A fortnight later, the man reappeared, this time without his axe.

"For God's sake man, where's your axe?" asked Frank.

It is not point-scoring to suggest that most members of the Scottish Cabinet are more in touch with their own constituents, and have more awareness of the whole country they are governing, than is the case with many contemporary Westminster Cabinet members, who are often out of touch and ignorant of vast swathes of the UK.

The Scottish Cabinet has been peripatetic. Perhaps there is an element of public relations in this, but it is useful in all sorts of ways for meetings to be held well away from Edinburgh. Medieval monarchs were given to roaming the country, partly for show, partly to maintain their authority, but also, crucially, to find out what was going on. If medieval monarchs could do this, why cannot UK Cabinet members, when travel is so much easier?

All this is obviously written in the light of the UK Cabinet's somewhat opportunistic decision to convene in Aberdeen. Scotland has been ignored for so long, is it any wonder that some of us are just a tad cynical that they should suddenly be pitching up in north-east Scotland?

The gesture is just that: a gesture. Will it be followed up by Cabinet meetings in say Liverpool, Hull, Glasgow, Leicester, Belfast, Cardiff or other such cities, and indeed in rural communities also? If not, why not?

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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