Shetland Life: Editorial March 2010

Bankrupt politics

It would be nice if there were something else to write about this month – some positive, inspiring story, from which we could all take comfort. But unfortunately it seems impossible to avoid the rather uninspiring tale of David Clark and his expensive exit from the top office of the council.

I can understand people’s anger at what has happened. From start to finish, councillors have handled this incredibly badly. Mr Clark’s critics have at times acted vindictively and with shameless disregard for the rules, and those councillors willing to ignore his initial blunders have appeared foolish and ineffectual. No one comes out of this well, and no one is happy. Even Mr Clark, with his obscenely large, tax-free payoff, will hardly be laughing his way to the bank. He was not a good chief executive; he did not, it seems, have the necessary skills and experience to do his job well. But he is a human being, and he has been subject to a public and private campaign of accusations and innuendo that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. His professional misdemeanours made his departure from the job desirable and probably inevitable, but because many people seemed to find his private life entertaining Mr Clark found himself a victim of the gutter press, given much the same treatment as if he had been a paedophile.

The appearance of a letter in last week’s Shetland Times by David Clark’s father Ian, considered by many Shetlanders to be something of a hero, was illuminating; not because he offered convincing reasons why his son ought to have been given another chance (he didn’t), but because he reminded us – and we seem to need reminding – that malicious gossip and abuse are not productive forms of political engagement. He also offered some of the wisest words I have heard on this affair so far:

“Constructive criticism requires broadness of mind and largeness of heart” he wrote; “negative criticism warps the mind and sours the spirit of the critic.” This is good advice, and it seemed all the more potent when read beside Jonathan Wills’ letter in the same edition – a letter which, I’m sure, appalled many readers.

So where are we now? What can we learn, and how can we move forward from this rather sorry situation in which we now find ourselves?

Some are calling for a mass resignation: a new election and a clean start. This is not a likely outcome. It would also be a highly expensive option, and I fear it would not offer the kind of change we are all hoping for. There are lessons that need to be learned first. Because this is about more than just David Clark; it is about a whole catalogue of problems and failures that have plagued our council, going back a good many years.

I suspect that quite a few of our councillors, privately, and perhaps only to themselves, would admit that they have done a bad job – that they have made too many mistakes. But I don’t think we need to demand any kind of public repentance; I don’t believe that would achieve anything right now. Forgiveness is ours to offer, not theirs to bargain for.

Being a councillor is a difficult job, or at least it should be a difficult job, if it is being done properly. It is also a job that cannot be adequately worked up to or prepared for. There is no training sufficient. Most of our councillors seem out of their depth, and that is hardly surprising. For we have a tendency in Shetland to elect people on account of their amiability rather than their ability. And that is something that needs to change.

If we are to make a break from the bankrupt politics we have experienced in the last decade or so, we need, first of all, a greater degree of constructive political engagement in the isles – something that is sorely lacking at the moment. We need at least the beginnings of a serious and inclusive debate about this community’s future. And we need also some good candidates to come forward before the next election in 2012: people with ideas and ability, people who truly have something to offer – something more than just their time. So, if you know anyone like that, now is the time to start pestering.

Malachy Tallack


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