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Answering the question

Updated: May 26, 2021

In a 2007 interview, the BBC’s Gordon Brewer asked then-First Minister Jack McConnell a simple question about his proposed reform to council tax: “what would my house have to be worth before I paid more?”

The question was dodged nine times, with the apparent conclusion that McConnell simply didn’t know.

We’ve all been there. One of the challenges for politicians is being frank, while also appearing competent. But the risk is flippant comments are taken out of context or we appear ill-informed. Worse still, in an effort to avoid wedding ourselves to a particular position, we seem to evade questions and speak in garbled language.

The political interview is a minefield.

But there are some politicians who make an art of not answering questions. These master-evaders will speak at length in flowery language, punctuated by flamboyant hand gestures and dramatic head movements, only for you to realise shortly afterwards that they haven’t addressed your question. If you’re lucky, they might answer another question entirely, but often you’ll receive a completely irrelevant political speech spouted at you like some unwanted and annoying street preacher.

I was given a public lesson in this recently by the Tory Health Secretary, Matt Hancock – the grandmaster of evading questions. He was appearing before the Health and Social Care Select Committee. I began by asking him a detailed question about how the integration of health and social care was going to be achieved – how would it be funded and why was integration coming before the much-needed reform of social care.

It all descended from there. Political stump speech followed political stump speech: an answer never close to breaking free.

And there’s a simple reason for that. The UK government has not committed a single penny of additional investment for the NHS or social care as it now demands tired and overstretched staff to perform a major restructuring.

Refusing to fund the integration means it will fail people in England. It also means we won’t see any additional money for health and social care in Scotland, which is linked to funding decisions taken by the UK government.

Wouldn’t it be something if we could make our own decisions about how to raise money and spend it in Scotland. As a politician, I’d be happy to give a straight answer about that…

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