Wednesday, 7 January 2015

How can you have an Independent Group?

Throughout Scottish Borders local government history a small band of fiercely independent elected mavericks made life hell for successive council administrations by asking difficult questions and refusing to be whipped into line.

Some of you may be old enough to recall the days of the county councils when the likes of Haig Douglas and Rory Hamilton were always truly independent inside the council chamber despite their personal political allegiances. They were never afraid to challenge so-called senior colleagues or to demand additional information from officials before deciding which way to vote on each particular issue.

Councillors Douglas and Hamilton invariably grabbed the headlines at a time when it was often difficult to penetrate the secrecy of the local government system which allowed every committee bar education and the full council to debate behind closed doors.

Those two men were, at the same time, both cussed and popular, ever ready to put aside the differences they had with the local establishment over tea and biscuits once the meeting was over. In those days you were far more likely to see an independent thinking councillor break ranks and vote against recommendations from service directors if the member was not convinced by the officer's argument.

Sadly, the chances of mavericks making names for themselves in local politics nowadays appear to be non-existent thanks to party enforces and the ever present three line whips.

Local democracy and proper debate have suffered from the strengthening of political groupings, formed to take control of multi-million pound council budgets, and to snuff out any hint of dissent in the ranks. Anyone bold enough to challenge recommendations from the ruling groups these days can kiss goodbye to furthering his or her municipal career while also giving up any hopes of becoming a portfolio holder.

One of the most bizarre and unfathomable trends over the last few decades has been the formation and emergence of groups of Independent councillors. Surely the tag Independent should mean just that, guaranteeing such a candidate will act and vote according to their own conscience without bowing to influence from other elected members.

The present Scottish Borders Council regime had - until earlier this week - a 10-strong grouping of Independents as part of a multi-coloured administration which also features at least two "real" political parties.

So it may have been heartening news for a fair number of long-suffering Borders council taxpayers to learn of the defection from the Indy group of two members who admit they are tired of being whipped into line and will now decide how to vote on the merits of individual issues. They will not be crossing the floor to join the Opposition grouping of Conservatives, allowing them even more room to manoeuvre.

"Bravo", I hear you cry. It will be interesting to see whether others might follow suit. But whatever happens at least we have the prospect of two budding mavericks, perhaps with the ability to make life as difficult for the council leadership as Haig and Hamilton did in those halcyon days over 40 years ago.