General Election 2017: My questions and the answers the candidates gave

Updated Edition (6th June)

What are the questions that you would ask a candidate for parliament in 2017?

Here are the 15 questions I asked, and the answers from three candidates.  (I also include my reasons for asking these questions, though I did not share these with the candidates.)

I have shown the answers from Olivia Bell (the Labour candidate) in red, the answers from Struan Mackie (the Conservative candidate) in blue, and the answers from Paul Monaghan (the Scottish Nationalist candidate) in Green.  (I have not yet had a response from the Liberal Democrat candidate, but will add his answers when / if I receive them.)

I initially posted this without giving any of my opinions about what they said. I have now updated this post with my own comments (indented).

The Questions

1. Do you believe that reducing the national debt should be a priority for the government? If so, do you believe that should be done primarily by increasing taxes or cutting spending?

(The economy is always a major issue, so it is appropriate to ask a question. I chose to ask this one because debt is a serious matter – but one that is usually forgotten.

I would add that I think it is significant that Jesus used debt as a picture for sin, both in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:12) and in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 23:18-25). The reason he did so was surely that it was understood that debt was something that one could not run away from for ever; it had to be repaid.)

A strong, growing economy is the foundation we need to make sure working people across Scotland are doing well. That’s why Labour will create a Scottish Investment Bank with £20 billion of investment power to help businesses grow and stimulate the Scottish economy. And we’ll invest in our crumbling infrastructure to connect our country together through a £250 billion National Transformation Fund to drive investment across the UK.

The last few years have shown that wealth doesn’t trickle down. 467,000 people in Scotland earn less than the living wage. Two thirds of them are women. And 57,000 workers are on zero hour-contracts.

So we need action to put more money into the pockets of working people and to make work more secure.

Labour will do that by introducing a real Living Wage of £10 an hour. Labour introduced the minimum wage in 1998, despite the predictions of the Tories and others that it would wreck our economy. Some are saying the same now, but the truth is our businesses can afford to pay a little more so that workers aren’t paid a poverty wage. We can drive up living standards for working people across Scotland.

Yes- I believe that reducing the national debt has to be at the forefront of decision making for the next parliament to ensure that we have sustainable public sector and that the next generation aren’t saddled with sovereign debt that has become unmanageable. I think there are still areas within government spending where the total allocation is unsustainable and we must look to address that.

Just like a household or a private business does I believe that we should aim to a balance budget. It is something that is done regularly in Continental Europe and other nations around the world. I believe that is ‘best practice’.

Yes. I believe we require a radical overhaul of both spending and taxation. I believe taxation should increase in certain areas and spending should decrease. We should be focussed on ethical investment and developing the economy.

[My comment: While Olivia Bell didn’t technically answer the question, but instead chose to quote from the Scottish Labour manifesto, I would take her answer as a “no”. Struan Mackie gave a clear “yes” to the first part, and strongly implied that he believed the main way to reduce public sector debt was by cuts in spending. Paul Monaghan spoke about reducing the debt by both increasing taxation and reducing expenditure.]

2. Do you think there should be another referendum on EU membership within the next 5 years?

(This election was basically called because of the result of the referendum on EU membership, and hence has been referred to as the Brexit election. So Brexit is clearly a major issue.

Whether it is an important one or not is debatable, but I do think that MPs have a responsibility to accept the results of referenda unless there is a very good reason for not doing so.)

No the country has voted.

I believe that we will have left the European Union in around 3-4 years time. At that juncture anything brought in front of the electorate should be by General Election can be used as a mandate in the House of Commons. I personally don’t believe their is an appetite for another referendum on EU membership however that could change in the preceding years and a mandate could be brought in front of the Commons by a pro-EU government being returned to Westminster.

If there is appetite for the United Kingdom to rejoin the EU, the above would be the route map to achieving it.

I think there should be a referendum when the outcome and ramifications of the negotiations to leave the EU are clear.

[Olivia Bell and Paul Monaghan gave clear answers. Struan Mackie was a little more nuanced, but strongly implied that his answer was ‘no’.]

3. Do you think there should be another referendum on Scottish independence within the next 5 years?

(This is one of the main issues in Scotland. Again, one can debate whether this really matters, but I do find it strange that some politicians called for another independence referendum after the Brexit vote when they had given no hint before the Brexit vote that they might do so.)

Definitely not! Voted No and campaigned for Better Together last time round – devisive and taking away from investing in health, education and public services

No, I believe the referendum was a ‘once in a lifetime’ , ‘once in a generation event’. I do not believe that either of those criteria meet the 5 year marker and I do not believe there is overwhelming demand for a second referendum. Certainly not from my constituents in Thurso and Northwest Caithness nor the doors I have knocked in the rest of the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross constituency.

I think the people of Scotland should have another referendum on independence when they choose to have one.

[Clear answers from Olivia Bell and Struan Mackie. Paul Monaghan‘s answer puzzled me. How do we know when the people of Scotland have chosen to have another referendum. Will there be a referendum on whether to have a referendum?]

4. Broadly speaking, do you think that immigration is good for our country and its economy?

(As with the economy, Brexit, and Scottish independence, this is one of the main issues of the day, so it seems appropriate to ask. For what it’s worth,this short video gives some idea of my views on the matter.)

Yes we need immigration in Scotland to keep our economy strong

Broadly speaking I believe immigration is good for the economy and it can be an asset to the country. Open door immigration however has driven down wages in our major cities and it has put major strains on public services. A managed immigration system, accessible by all, should be the way forward.

Yes. I think immigration is essential in certain areas.

[Fairly clear answers from all three candidates, though Struan Mackie seems to have slightly more reservations about the economic benefits of immigration than the other two. None mentioned the social effects of immigration, which is interesting.]

5. Are you concerned that laws to combat ‘extremism’ could suppress the right to free speech?

(I think that free speech is always an important issue. For Christians, it is of great practical relevance, because the good news of Jesus Christ is something that is communicated, and the communication of it requires an element of freedom of speech. Governments and politicians in many countries find the Christian message, or aspects of it, unpalatable, and would have no qualms about passing laws to muzzle Christians who say things they find unacceptable.

In addition, I think that the whole concept of “extremism” is so ill-defined as to make it unhelpful. We already have laws forbidding incitement to commit a criminal offence.)

balance needs to be struck between freedom and inciting hatred

I am concerned about privacy and free speech, however finding a balance between liberties and safeguarding our country and its citizens is absolutely paramount. The internet has been a breeding ground for extremist who are sheltered from the security services. That cannot be the case going forward.

Yes. We must be careful that restrictions of liberty and speech are not used as excuses for combating extremist activity.

[A clear answer from Paul Monaghan. Both Olivia Bell and Struan Mackie seem to be less committed to freedom of speech – though the former’s concerns are about inciting hatred, and the latter’s are extremism and the security situation (which was what my question was about). The fact that Olivia Bell mentioned “incitement to hatred” does raise the question of whether restrictions on free speech aimed at combating extremism could include restrictions on speech that was seen as inciting hatred.]

6. Do you think public office holders should be forced to swear a ‘British values’ oath?

(Such legislation would basically amount to the state demanding that citizens should be barred from public life unless they hold to the values of the current political leadership of the country.

Sajid Javid’s proposal for a British values oath mentioned three particular values: democracy, equality and freedom of speech. While I am delighted that freedom of speech is in there, I don’t see any reason why people in public life have to believe in democracy. In the last couple of centuries, democracy has come to be seen as the best form of government – but before the 18th century, the best form of government was a matter of debate and discussion.  It is not a British value; it is simply the current orthodoxy.)

need to know more about this before giving an answer

I would not be opposed to office holders swearing an oath to uphold a series of British values that promotes fairness, tolerance and to preserve the British way of life. 

No.

[Paul Monaghan‘s answer is clear. Olivia Bell and Struan Mackie are more cautious, but Struan Mackie does appear a bit more sympathetic to a new oath being introduced – something that, as far as I can see, is an unnecessary and an unhelpful demand by the state that citizens should conform to an ideological orthodoxy determined by those in power.]

7. Do you think public office holders should be forced to swear an oath to uphold equality?

(This is essentially the same as the last question. Like ‘British values’ and ‘extremism’, equality is a rather ill-defined concept – and, even more than democracy, something that for much of Britain’s history would not have been regarded as a basic British value.)

there are laws to ensure those in public office uphold equality

As above.

Yes.

[As Struan Mackie‘s response (‘As above’) indicates, this question is very similar the previous question. The questions come from the Christian Institute, who appear to use the phrases “equality oath” and “British values oath” interchangeably – even though they are not quite the same thing.

The background is that in a report into integration issued in December 2016, civil servant Dame Louise Casey recommended that there should be a ‘British values’ oath for public office holders, including civil servants, school governors, councillors etc. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid supported the idea, suggesting requiring a commitment to ‘equality’.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Lord Brian Paddick said: “Forcing public servants to swear an oath to British values would be both superficial and divisive. We should be talking about the universal values that unite us, not using nationalistic terms that exclude people. ” Nicola Sturgeon’s comment was “we respect the work that has been carried out by Dame Louise Casey, which deserves to be given proper consideration. I suggest that the UK Government do the same, and commit to giving it proper consideration rather than taking the premature step of announcing that all public servants should be compelled to swear an oath. Such an oath potentially risks exclusion of people who do not define their values as being uniquely British.”

All that said, Paul Monaghan has given a clear answer which differs from his answer to question 6. I take this as meaning that he has a problem with using the concept of ‘British values’, but no problem with requiring an oath per se. Struan Mackie also seems to have no problem with an oath, per se, but seems to be less enthusiastic about putting the concept of equality in it. Olivia Bell‘s response suggests that she doesn’t think a promise to hold to the concept of equality is necessary for public servants because the law already guarantees equality. That seems to me to be a fair position, but as she didn’t actually use the word “no”, one suspects that it is possible that in practice, her position would be the same as Paul Monaghan‘s. But it might not be.]

8. Do you support the campaign by Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) for LGBT education to be a statutory requirement in schools?

(Last year, the Public Petitions Committee at Holyrood decided to reject a call from Time for Inclusive Education (TIE)  for LGBT education to be a statutory requirement in schools. The Convener of the Committee said: “I don’t think we can ask the government to do what the petitioner asked, which was to set something in the curriculum, and force local authorities to teach it in the way they were asking.”

The basic issue is the extent to which the curriculum in schools is set by the government. However, this also raises the question of the extent to which the state uses the education system as a tool for indoctrination. I think that the Committee were clearly correct, but apparently TIE has not given up.)

A Labour government will reform the Gender Recognition Act and the Equality Act 2010 to ensure they protect Trans people by changing the protected characteristic of ‘gender assignment’ to ‘gender identity’ and remove other outdated language such as ‘transsexual’.

Labour will bring the law on LGBT hate crimes into line with hate crimes based on race and faith, by making them aggravated offences.

To tackle bullying of LGBT young people, Labour will ensure that all teachers receive initial and ongoing training on the issues students face and how to address them. And we will ensure that the new guidance for relationships and sex education is LGBT inclusive.

I am not aware of this particular campaign. I am sorry.

Not sure. I support equality and diversity in education but I will have to learn more about this specific initiative before commenting.

[To be honest, I am not much the wiser about where the candidates stand on the TIE proposals. At least two of them admit they don’t know much about this issue, despite the fact that it was dealt with by the Public Petitions Committee at Holyrood. Olivia Bell raises the separate issue of “hate crimes”, which I consider to be an unhelpful concept. But that was a question I didn’t ask.]

9. Do you believe that action on climate change is urgent and vitally important?

(This is one of the big issues of the day, so an obvious thing to ask. Most politicians would give a simple “yes” to this question, but I thought I would ask just to see if any of the candidates disagreed with the current consensus.)

Yes

We must balance efforts to protect future generations from the results of changes in our climate. This however cannot be done instantaneously and we must be progressive with change and move wherever possible towards a low carbon future. I think an energy mix is critical to achieving a sustainable energy economy and in my opinion that must include, wind, tital, solar, limited oil and gas in addition to nuclear power.

Yes.

[Clear answers from Olivia Bell and Paul Monaghan. Struan Mackie is more cautious and non-committal. It is difficult to know how much he actually differs from the other two in his views.]

10. Do you think the ‘Named Person’ scheme should be dropped entirely?

(In my opinion, the “Named Person” scheme is an unacceptable intrusion by the state into family life, and a major blot on the record of the current administration in Holyrood. While this is an election for the Westminster Parliament, the principles are important, so I asked the question.)

The process has been a mess, bringing anxiety for parents. Labour has supported the principle of this scheme. A Labour Goverment would pause this process and ask the Children’s Commissioner to carry out a review.

Yes.

No.

[Clear answers from Struan Mackie and Paul Monaghan. Olivia Bell seems to be somewhere in the middle, but it seems to me that technically, that’s a “No, not in its entirety.”]

11. Do you believe that parents should be criminalised for smacking their children?

(Currently a subject of a lot of debate. Reasonable physical punishment does not constitute assault, and parents can already be prosecuted for assaulting their children. Again, it seems to me that this is an unacceptable intrusion by the state into family life.)

The world has moved on since my childhood when smacking was routine. I would have to see the detail of any Bill but in general terms it would bring home the message that there are other sanctions for children rather than smacking.

I think times have changes since I was a child, it is clearl incredibly fine line. But current political attitudes would probably be in favour of criminalisation… I personally wouldn’t go that far.

In general no. However “smacking” is a very loose term. It can range from a tap on the hand to a child being thrashed. We must be careful to be definitive in such situations. Clearly different ends of the spectrum warrant completely different approaches.

[Olivia Bell seems to lean yes, Struan Mackie and Paul Monaghan seem to lean no.]

12. Do you believe the law on abortion is too lax, too restrictive or about right?

(No basic change takes place in a child the moment it is born.  If it is entitled to protection after birth and it is a criminal offense to kill it, I cannot see why this is not also the case before birth.)

support current abortion laws

There was a movement several years ago which indicated the law might have been restricted in Scotland. This has not gained ground in the preceding years. It is a very controversial topic, I am pro-life, however in the cases of sexual assault, or fatal fetal abnormality I can understand that the law must take these cases into account. 

In Scotland, my personal view is that the law is about right but I also believe that women are the best placed to make decisions about their bodies.

[Olivia Bell and Paul Monaghan are clearly one one side of this question. Struan Mackie appears to be on the other. Personally, I am not sure that this should be a major issue for deciding how to vote at a general election as it seems extremely unlikely that the matter will come before Parliament any time soon. But it does give an indication of where a candidate might stand on related issues which might come up.]

13. Do you think Donald Trump was right to attack a Syrian air base on 7th April this year?

(I think that this is a very serious matter. Philip Giraldi has argued, quite convincingly in my opinion, that Trump’s action was a violation of American and International law – and yet many British politicians have supported it.)

This issue has caused differing opinions in the Labour Party – I think Trump got away with it this time but in my opinion it could have sparked a Third World War and surely no Party would want that?

Yes, I am not Trump’s greatest fan but I believe attacking the base was the first real sign that atrocities such as the gassing of communities in Syria would simply not be tolerated by the international community.

No.

[Clear answers from Struan Mackie and Paul Monaghan. Struan Mackie seems to assume that the Syrian armed forces did indeed launch the gas attack referred to. That is far from certain – and I personally am very sceptical. I am fascinated that Olivia Bell refers to the differing opinions in the Labour Party about this question. I’m not quite sure why – but she seems to lean toward Paul Monaghan‘s (and my) position.]

14. Do you believe that the UK armed services should be part of the American- led International Coalition in Syria?

(The Coalition is responsible for bombing raids that have killed hundreds of civilians, as well as an attack on Syrian government forces that were engaged in a battle with ISIS.  Why are our armed forces there?)

Need to know more about this one before answering

Again, this is a hard one. I believe it was right to intervene. And going forward it is imperative that we must be part of the solution and it isn’t dictated to by Russia and their allies… as such on balance I think we should be part of the American led coalition.

No.

[Olivia Bell‘s answer is extraordinary. She appears to think that this is a proposal, whereas the UK has been an active part of the American led coalition for some time. Struan Mackie and Paul Monaghan are quite clear.]

15. Do you think that the UK should be selling arms to Saudi Arabia?

(Saudi Arabia’s record is appalling both in its domestic and in its foreign policy. See my post on the subject last year.

Furthermore, we now know (thanks to Wikileaks) that the American government knew back in 2014 that Saudi Arabia was providing support to ISIS and other Jihadist groups seeking to overthrow the Syrian government. Part of an email between Hilary Clinton and John Podesta that year reads “we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

And, according to  the Guardian: “An investigation into the foreign funding and support of jihadi groups that was authorised by David Cameron may never be published, the Home Office has admitted.  The inquiry into revenue streams for extremist groups operating in the UK was commissioned by the former prime minister and is thought to focus on Saudi Arabia, which has repeatedly been highlighted by European leaders as a funding source for Islamist jihadis.”

And of course there is the case of the war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen two years ago, and have repeatedly bombed civilian targets, and, in an effort to starve anti-government forces into submission, have enforced a food blockade that has caused massive malnutrition.  These things strike me as utterly reprehensible.

And yet the British government continues to support the Saudi government and sell it arms.)

Our party has always pledged to embed human rights and social justice into our trade policy.

No. I do not believe that Saudi Arabia is the kind of ally we should court in the International word. Although they have long supported the United Kingdom on several grounds over the years they still have an appalling civil rights record and are strongly linked to state sponsored terrorism.

No.

[Olivia Bell didn’t really answer the question – which rather surprises me since the Labour Party’s position on this issue is pretty clear. I assume that she stands with it, but why didn’t she just say so? Struan Mackie‘s answer is the most interesting one here. He is choosing to disagree with Conservative Party policy, which I think is very commendable. Paul Monaghan‘s response is straightforward.]

 

Final comments

1) Each of the candidates has their own style.

Olivia Bell referred to the position of the Labour Party several times, whereas the other two candidates didn’t actually mention their parties. She also was a bit more likely to say “that depends”. The fact that she wouldn’t commit herself on several questions could be seen as wise, and means she is less likely to be accused of changing her mind or breaking her promise. It led to the impression that she would generally follow the party line.

Struan Mackie, by contrast, came over as someone who was giving his own personal opinion, and who was willing to go against the party line on some occasions.

Paul Monaghan was very good at giving short, brief replies!

2) In an effort to try to assess the candidates, I tried to work out which questions were more important, and to assign values to them, and then to try to work out how many marks to give each candidate for their answer to each question. Neither of those is an exact science. For what it’s worth, Struan Mackie and Paul Monaghan came out well ahead of Olivia Bell, with Paul Monaghan possibly slightly ahead. All of them, however, are far from ideal from my perspective.

3) When trying to decide which way to vote in a general election, there are a lot of things that come into play. I took the “I side with” test in order to compare my views with those of the different parties. The result was not the same as when I compared myself with the different local candidates. That’s a useful reminder that parties all contain a variety of views, and candidates often are at odds with their parties on important matters.

Another thing that comes into play is personalities. How much I personally like a candidate as a human being is not the same as how much I agree with their views. The same is true of the party leaders. It is possible to like the leader of Party A more than the leader of Party B, but to actually agree more with the policies of the leader of Party B. How do we vote: according to personalities – or according to policies?

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