A conversation took place between a young radical and a young civil servant at the beginning of the second term of the Scottish Parliament. The debate was about who was running Scotland. The civil servant (like so many career civil servants) was blithely of the view that the ‘real business’ of government was controlled and managed by civil servants. In his account the politicians were just decoration.
“Wow, it was you people behind the abolition of tuition fees?” asked the radical. “Well, not that one” admitted the civil servant. “So it was the banning of warrant sales that you were masterminding?” “OK, not that one either”. “Well perhaps it was free care for the elderly?” “Not that one.” “Banning fox hunting?” “No.” “McCrone teachers’ deal?” “No.” “Repeal of anti-gay legislation?” “No, but you’ve got to look at the things we prevented.” “Ah, so it’s your doing that Scottish Water is still a public utility?” “Hmmm.” “So what exactly is it that you did?” The answer was vague,
In the early days of the Scottish Parliament there was a political expectation that the Parliament would be used to pursue political programmes. There is of course a legacy issue here – there were lots of pieces of legislative activity that were pending as a hangover from the Thatcher regime and a number of other outstanding issues which could not be properly addressed in Scotland through the previous constitutional settlement. There was a backlog. But that does not in itself explain where we are now.
“Do less, better” was basically a neoliberal invitation to vested interests
Where are we? Well try to imagine the same conversation today. The civil servant would be pointing to things like privatisation of the North Link ferry, the splitting up of the ScotRail franchise, the Creative Scotland business model, the ongoing ‘debate’ about the privatisation of Scottish Water and an awful lot of low-level activity (who gets appointed to what, who gets this contract, that contract). On the other hand, Scottish Water hasn’t been privatised, prescription charges have been abolished, privatised prisons have been stopped.
It would be possible to argue at length over all of these things, but it seems irrefutable that in comparison to the early days of devolution, the proportion of the business being discussed in Parliament and the balance of legislative priority has tipped significantly away from the shared social and democratic agenda of the early days of devolution.
Why? Well, the transition from the brave new world of early devolution to now is not an unbroken line. There have been gains as well as losses – the end of PFI is a gain (although its replacement might reasonably be considered a partial gain by the civil servant). An increasing emphasis on universal services and an end to ‘co-payment’ is a gain. But in so much else the gains are to commercial interests.
There are a number of reasons for this:
The civil service has quickly got used to the dynamics of devolution and has become better able to manage it.
There has been a continuous increase in the extent to which the commercial lobbyists have entwined themselves into public life.
The accountancy firms and the consultancy sector have infiltrated decision-making, pushing government towards a neoliberal analysis.
The culture of the public sector has been corrupted with alien concepts like the ‘bonus culture’ inserting itself into the top layers of decision-maker
The Scottish media has been hollowed out and there is little scrutiny of this process.
The left of the political parties in Scotland have made great sport of identifying the blame for this in their opponents. The Labour left is convinced that Alex Salmond is a neoliberal evangelist (Tony Blair was a blip, a mistake). The SNP left just shouts ‘New Labour’ as if that is sufficient defence (those letters to Sir Fred were just a blip, a mistake).
Both are wrong – in Scotland all the parties of government have a decidedly mixed relationship to commercial power. Donald Dewar brought PFI to Scotland with enthusiasm – and PFI was the beachhead from which most subsequent invasions began. Jack McConnell’s doctrine of ‘do less, better’ was basically a neoliberal invitation to vested interests – we’re not going to try anything too new, rather we’re going to obsess about the efficiency of what we’re already doing. It could almost have been phrased as ‘please come and see if there is a way that you can redesign what we’re already doing in a way that doesn’t cause too much disruption but makes us look like we know what we’re doing – we’ll make it worth your while…’ Then along came the SNP which at the time acted at least in part as if the prospectus for independence was the complete merger of the state and RBS. (And any Lib Dem’s reading needn’t get too comfortable – it is your party that is the leading advocate of the privatisation of Scottish Water.)
And so the hope of a Parliament that was the home of a lively debate about the priorities of the people of Scotland has become all too much like a wrestling match of vested interests. The more obvious ones – the openly partisan lobbyists – are perhaps least to blame. The many interest groups that represent business were hardly secretive and if the parliamentary committees and government inquiries were always packed with these people (usually at the exclusion of everyone else) then they are hardly to be blamed.
But who is to blame for the god-awful fake business-school model that is creative Scotland? The CBI didn’t lobby for that. And how did government come to think it was OK for the Chief Exec of Scottish Enterprise to take a paid job from a big commercial firm that is a client of her organisation – and still keep her day job? That isn’t the fault of an interest group.
It is the infection of the system. It is the result of the belligerent practices of the commercial interests allied to the rather pathetic instincts of some career politicians and many in the media to ‘be liked’ by people with money. It is the arrogance of the civil service which believes it is really driving the bus. It is about a media sector which does not understand
The thing that is so dispiriting about all of this is that it has been so utterly predictable. The Scottish Parliament was born to be open and honest – what else was a commercial system which operates on secrecy, mistruths and intimidation meant to do?
There is a name for this form of social organisation. It describes a circumstance where “a small group of people having control of a country, organisation, or institution”. It’s called oligarchy. And it is not inevitable. If the last ten years has seen the rise of the Scottish oligarch then it reminds us there was a time before their dominence. Reform isn’t only necessary, it’s actually possible.