Always check your blind spots

I do not want to be writing this, I want to be reading it. But we have found it very difficult to identify an author.

The brief was straightforward (when we were commissioning this issue we originally conceived this as two separate articles). We wanted to find a writer with sufficient understanding of the upper echelons of the civil service to explain how it operates and to explore its networks and interactions. We also wanted to find someone who was close enough to the ‘Scottish establishment’ to explain how it works, who it is, what it thinks and what it wants. But (and herein lies the problem) we needed someone who could write from a critical left perspective.

If you rule out the people who are very critical but have no insider access, the people with insider access who have no intention of being critical and the people who have some access and are critical but are supplicants (for public funding or in academia for public contracts), there aren’t many people left over.

Let me illustrate this. We approached (and had a very amicable exchange with) a member of Edinburgh’s New Club. This is the members’ club of choice of the real movers-and-shakers in Edinburgh. We asked said member if he might tell us about his view of how the club related to power structures in Scotland. His response (initially) was that the idea that the New Club was a sort of ‘conspiracy against the people of Scotland’ was a tired old cliché that was dragged out far too often. So I went to check.

As far as I can discover, the last time there was a media story about the New Club in any Scottish daily newspaper was in 2004 – and that was a ‘puff piece’ about a book about the Club’s history (which was mainly for its own members, according to the story). Wikipedia contains a total of 85 words on the institution, half about the building in which it is housed. I tried to find a book on the subject and the only one I can find which is available for purchase is a secondhand historical volume from 1938.

I point all of this out only to suggest that this is a ‘tired old cliché’ with remarkably little exposure. Rather than being the victims of perpetual impertinent prying and innuendo, members of Edinburgh’s New Club seem to me to be virtually invisible from the moment they cross the threshold.

Does this matter? Well, the idea that people get together in the New Club to plot the fall of Western Democracy is of course silly. Then again, I don’t think that is the suggestion anyone is making. I have known and worked for a number of people who are members of the New Club. Some were very senior figures in public sector Scotland and they come from both sides of the policy ecosystem (i.e. some were policy-makers and others were policy -influencers with others again falling into the category of opinion-formers). Of course, I have no idea what they talk about in their closed circles (my potential author is adamant that it is much more banal and mundane than one might imagine). But this I can assert with confidence; somehow, in some way, a mechanism exists which enables the development and transmission of shared viewpoints among a very senior group of people in society.

And it operates remarkably quickly. One of the moments when I saw this (most of it is hidden) involved a conversation I was on the fringe of which stuck in my mind at the time because of the oddness of the formulation of language used. One very senior figure in the Scottish establishment used a strange turn of phrase which sounded out of place. It related to a current event at the time and I had never heard this phrase before. But I heard it again from a completely different source later in the day, also from a very senior source. Not a similar sentiment, a precise replication of phrase word-by-word. Two days later I read exactly the same phrase in a Scottish national daily newspaper by a writer I would describe as ‘Scottish establishment’.

Now, it is possible that a whole host of people just happened to come up with the same formulation of words, but they were too specific and too odd for that to be true. And it was also possible that this was a commonly-used phrase I had just missed. So I asked a lot of people I know if they had heard this. Apart from a couple who had read the phrase in the media article mentioned, no-one had (and all also thought it a strange combination of words).

These words had a very particular meaning. Roughly the implication of the phrasing was ‘I’m a Scottish citizen too and so don’t tell me that I don’t understand the people of Scotland because I’m one of them’. This was in the context of anger at elite bankers and it was being used by senior members of the Scottish elite to justify themselves and distance them from the bankers from whom they had until very recently been indistinguishable.

Does any of this matter? Well, yes, it very much does matter. The tale above demonstrated that in the course of a day or two a senior civil servant, a senior leader in Scottish society and a senior media commentator had collectively agreed a shared self-justification which was then relentlessly pushed to protect all three from perfectly reasonable allegations that, in their separate ways, all three were genuinely complicit in the RBS-takes-over-Scotland debacle that predated the financial crash. Each had played an important role in entwining RBS in Scottish life to such an extent that it was not only too big to fail economically, in Scotland it was too big to fail politically.

Oh, and just as a reminder, these three are supposed to be the checks and balances against each other. One the keeper of the public purse, one an independent leader part funded by the public purse, one a ‘freedom of the press is the most important thing to democracy’ journalist.

Another story that stuck in my mind: in 2006-07 the then Scottish Executive policy was to keep Scottish Water in public hands (with a bit of an open mind on the question of mutualisation). The Water Industry Commission for Scotland is a Non-Departmental Public Body (quango) with the role of regulating the publicly-owned Scottish Water. It’s Chief Executive then was Alan Sutherland. That year WICS privately commissioned a London-based consultancy to ‘consider different options of ownership for Scottish Water’ (against government policy). They called this ‘Project Checkers’ (perhaps because this game is about ‘capturing’ passive opponents) and kept it completely secret – it was never published. The project cost £209,000 of public money. Of this £17,606.00 went to a non-executive director of two private water companies owned by the world’s biggest transnational water corporation which would clearly benefit from privatisation. The report concluded that privatisation was the way forward.

That story again; a senior civil servant (effectively) who is there to implement government policy decides to use public money to build a case to lobby against government policy and does so by employing (at significant public expense) someone with a very clear commercial conflict of interests, producing the only outcome that was possible given the methodology used – a plea for another giant handover of a profitable public asset to the private sector.

This seems to me to go beyond any reasonable role the civil service should enact. Anyone who believes the civil service (at a senior level) is a politically neutral entity hasn’t spent much time in policy circles. Lobbying for changes in policy is routine – to my certain knowledge senior civil servants lobbied other senior figures in Scottish society for years with the aim of persuading them to come out publicly to campaign against the political consensus against variable fees for Scottish universities. That is to say that a civil servant is not only working against his own government, he was working against every single democratically elected politician in the country. I am virtually sure that this included lobbying of senior media figures (a lot of commentary pieces appeared at exactly the same time making the case in exactly the same terms). It was strongly suggested at the time that one of the conversations took place in a private members’ club (possibly the New Club?) and I believe (though don’t know for sure) that one of the commentators writing on the subject at the same time was also a member.

I think I know who the civil servant is (I was never party to that much detail) and he is still in post. Certainly Alan Sutherland still runs WICS. In fact, in 20 years working around senior policy-makers I can’t think of a single occasion when a civil servant has ever been held to account for any actions – even the fiasco that was the building of the Scottish Parliament didn’t harm the careers of anyone involved on the civil service side.

So, without reaching beyond the partial information I have (mostly accidentally) picked up along the way I can say with some confidence that the civil service actively pursues policies of its own choosing unrelated to any democratic mandate. Often these personal policies seem to coincide with commercial interests. When these policies are pursued there appears to be at least some coordination between different parts of the elite and wherever this coordination takes places no minutes are taken. Even if any of this becomes public there is seldom any proper scrutiny and almost never any accountability. And above all, unless you are already an insider you will never know any of this.

What don’t I know? Almost everything else. Do civil servants dream this up themselves or are they first lobbied by the commercial interests? Where does this take place? Who is involved and what interests would they have to declare were they required?

Let me put this as simply as I can; the use of public power to pursue private benefit is cheating. And the first and only rule of cheating? Don’t get caught. The victims of this cheating? The rest of us. Accountability? Not going to happen (the civil service is its own watchdog and the media very seldom interferes).

To achieve this only two things are needed – power and blind spots. If you have the power the only thing you then need is a means of developing and utilising networks of other powerful people which exist in a hidden, unminuted and unaccountable space. This might be a private club; probably more often it is the lovely phrase ‘off meeting’. Any blind spot will do.

The key quote in all the writing of Adam Smith is: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public”. Unfortunately, the dominant trade today is neoliberal capitalism and the scale of the ‘conspiracy’ is global.

No, none of this is the ‘fault’ of the New Club any more than a dented bumper is the ‘fault’ of the tree. But it is the location, and the damage is very real. Tired old cliché? Sure – which abuse of power, what public corruption isn’t? It doesn’t justify a blinded public.