One of the correspondents in the current debate about the future of the Shetland Charitable Trust said people who stood for election were “politicians” and therefore somehow unsuited to run a trust.
This strange and disturbing remark has puzzled me throughout the festive season, when I ought to have been thinking of other things.
One of the main tasks of politicians, be they MPs, MSPs or councillors, is surely to decide how to spend public money. That is why the public elect us, after all, and if we make a mess of it they can chuck us out.
Controlling how public money is spent is also the main task of the trustees of the Shetland Charitable Trust. They have to decide, for example, how much of the trust’s income to give to elderly people so they can afford to use a care centre near their home; how much to spend on holidays for disadvantaged children; what annual subsidies to award to the Shetland Recreation Trust, the Shetland Amenity Trust and Shetland Arts.
In doing so they must examine the arguments and make judgments based on facts and logic. Mostly, over the last three decades, the trustees have got it right. Sometimes they have made mistakes.
Everyone agrees that the only acceptable way to choose our parliamentarians and councillors is to elect them. There are absurd anachronisms, to be sure, such as the House of Lords and the three religious representatives on our local education committee. But since about 1928 the idea of universal suffrage has been accepted, well, universally.
So why, exactly, is it okay to elect councillors to oversee spending of more than £100 million a year but not okay to elect trustees to spend £11 million? Could the nine trustees who voted to end democratic control please explain, before 2012 is much older?