How to make democracy a dunce

Astrid Ritchie

ON SEPTEMBER 1 in this newspaper, an optimistic reporter opined that "the exam crisis had now been virtually resolved as the Scottish Qualifications Authority catches up with the backlog from missing or incomplete results".

This concept of "virtually resolved" needs revisiting in light of the recent evidence of angry and anguished young people and their parents to the investigating committees of the Parliament. The perception grows that the legacy of Dalkeith will be felt for some time after the year 2000 has been laid to rest.

The effect on this year's exam cohort is likely to linger on in longer-term anxieties, as parents everywhere become aware of the continuing uncertainties faced by pupils and schools facing up to next year's diet. Bill Morton, the acting chief executive of the SQA, has said that he can give "no guarantee of smooth operation next year".

The oncost continues to ripple outwards in other ways. There is certainly no doubt that these effects will include, fairly or unfairly, political outfall of a damaging variety to the incumbent coalition. That is par for the course: we live in a shame-and-blame culture, a society where shades of grey are not fashionable and where fingers are routinely pointed.

Actually, if Scotland were the United States, litigious parents by now would be queuing up to swamp the courts with compensation claims amid talk of terminal damage to life-chances.

The see-saw election prospects of any political grouping are of passing moment compared to the much greater potential damage to the institution of the fledgling Parliament itself. It is just 15 months since hundreds of proud and excited young Scots from the length and breadth of the land poured off the buses to help to celebrate the great day.

A body blow has been inflicted by the Lib-DemLabour coalition uite gratuitously on its own reputation and standing. Pride in Scots democracy is likely to be the victim. Consider the mystery of the disappearing evidence. John Elvidge, head of the Executive's education department, has refused to tell MSPs what advice was given to ministers. Though he added as an afterthought that since he could not think of alternative actions which would have made any appreciable difference, the committee could infer the advice. So much for open government, transparency of decision-making and respect for elected members in the shiny new era.

Next, a byzantine compromise deal was struck on making the civil servants' advice to ministers publicly available. Only the two convenors of the investigating committees are to see the full text (having signed the Official Secrets Act). In the most remarkable affront to democracy, other MSPs are presumed unfit to be trusted with the full evidence, and permitted only sight of a summary of relevant minutes.

The sting is in the tail. Another party has been invited to view in full the mystery evidence. Deloitte amp; Touche, independent consultants involved in yet another inquiry into the catastrophe, are obviously considered to possess the probity, integrity or just plain intelligence to be allowed to see the enigmatic documents, unlike the bulk of Scottish parliamentarians.

Already the configuration of events which led to the SQA's disgrace is becoming clearer, and suggestions for reform and the way forward are freely coming forward. At the end of the day the content of those minutes will probably be unimportant to the overall shape of the conclusions.

But teenage Scots are central to all of this. It would be a pity if youthful cynicism and disaffection with the parliamentary process were to be added to the legacy left by these events.

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