First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her cabinet of the Scottish Government visited Aberdeen last night to take part in a public meeting with citizens to answer some questions from the public as to what the Scottish Government is doing to address their concerns. Questions ranged from local issues, such as the controversial Marischal Square development project, to international issues, such as the current fall in the oil price and the upcoming TTIP legislation. All-in-all it appears that this exercise of democracy was well received by the people in the meeting hall and the Government alike.
Last night was the latest in a series of efforts by the Cabinet to spread themselves across the country to get their message across that what they are doing is trying to improve the lives of people across the country, and dispel the notion that they are simply politicians who live their lives in Edinburgh away from the public. Judging by the wide range of questions and generally favourable responses from the questioners and the audience alike it is an experiment that could pay dividends.
Aberdeen South MSP Maureen Watt introduced the Cabinet at the start of the night, followed by a speech from the First Minister outlining the agenda for the night as well as stating the work that the Scottish Government is doing in the north-east of Scotland to boost the flagging oil industry and to improve the area’s infrastructure.
From then on questions were asked in batches of three by the audience. One of the most discussed topics was that of the proposed Marischal Square development project in Aberdeen: a new shopping centre complex that is backed by Aberdeen City Council that has come under significant public protest for spoiling the views of a historic part of the city. Planning secretary Alex Neil stated that as the project is a local government one that it doesn’t come under his remit but that he would support Aberdeen City Council bowing to “democratic pressure” and listening to the wishes of the people. The First Minister also refused to be drawn, although agreeing with one audience member that the people of Aberdeen could tell the council at the ballot box just what they think of their plans.
Another interesting question posed by an audience member was that of the proposals that are gathering traction to re-introduce alcohol to football grounds. The member of the audience phrased the question by asking about the dangers of a move and criticising Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy for his “proclamation” on the subject. Justice Secretary Michael Matheson said that there serious risks of the proposal needed to be weighed up against the benefits, saying that “this is far too important [an issue] to be turned into a political game”.
The most interesting response from the First Minister was when asked by a man when the next independence referendum would be, when she said:
“If we end up after this General Election with another government we havenae voted for imposing more austerity cuts on our most vulnerable and maybe taking us out of Europe against our will it might be sooner than we thought.”
While the Sturgeon and the SNP have danced around the topic since September’s failed bid for independence, it’s clear that with while they are surfing the wave of public support that they are gauging public desire to go back to the polls to vote on independence. Sturgeon was also clear in her response that another referendum would only take place when the people of Scotland called for it, but with the current state of Scottish politics the possibility of another vote on independence within a Quebec-style timeframe might not be out of the question.
The format of the meeting also allowed for some more unusual questions to be asked as well, such as one gentleman’s request to have equipment returned to him after it being seized by police, but having such an event really made the members of the cabinet accessible – especially when they were available afterwards for a tea and coffee. Seeing the top decision makers in the country up on stage gave them a sense of humanity and showed that they were interested in what people had to say. Another interesting point that I noted was that it allowed the audience to see the connections between the individual minsters themselves, and the thing that surprised me most was the way in which some ministers addressed their answers to the First Minister rather than the audience – something that implies that she takes a firm line with her ministers off stage, while she maintains a calm and friendly image on it.
My abiding image of the event will be as it came to a close and everyone piled out of the Aberdeen Music Hall. People’s eyes were off stage but I turned back for another glimpse. The rest of the Cabinet had gone, but Nicola Sturgeon remained at the front of the stage – talking to members of the audience that had waited there to talk to her. To me this was a great image of a leader who understands greatly the need to have a connection with the people and one that will serve her immensely well as she continues to lead Scotland forward.
If you’re interested in seeing the full broadcast of last night’s public meeting in Aberdeen, check it out below.