Where does public policy come from? Political parties created to represent different political viewpoints put forward manifestos full of good ideas for how to run society and then through the process of democratic elections whichever party comes up with the best ideas gets elected and implements them, right? Well, if that’s true, where did the following ideas come from?
No policy in the public domain has had such a persistent shelf-life with so little political support. It fills the pages of the Scotsman on a regular basis, seems to find its way into every submission to government from the CBI and has a media profile massively out of proportion to its significance. Generally if you saw this you would assume there was one lead ‘political communications’ company leading the charge on behalf of one identifiable client. But there isn’t. If one was cynical one might imagine that the whole of ‘vested interests Scotland’ was desperate to make sure no successful enterprise was allowed to remain in public ownership for the collective benefit of all…
Later in this issue Mick Whelan explains why the idea of breaking up the ScotRail franchise into four bits is a very stupid idea – although one might have believed that would be self evident anyway. So where did this idea come from? There is no public call from any group for this policy, no overt lobbying, no media campaign. Is this the work of one of the Big Four accountancy firms advising on the process? Is it the work of civil servants? In either case, have they declared their interests? And above all, why did the Scottish Government go along with it?
Almost everyone in the Scottish higher education sector had resigned itself to the fact that not only were they not getting top-up fees but that the fee they would get for other UK students coming to Scotland to study would be fairly modest and flat rate – they had been told that the Scottish Government was opposed to marketisation. They were therefore quite delighted to discover that they were instead getting fees every bit as deregulated and marketised as their English counterparts. Was this the outcome of secret lobbying by a small group of university principals? Was it a mini-coup by an Education Minister personally known to favour fees? Was this a small act of revenge by civil servants who believed the abolition policy to be a mistake?
North Link Ferries
It was with very little fanfare that the Scottish Government announced that it was privatising North Link ferries. Given that the Scottish Government is opposed to privatisation as a matter of principle, what managed to overcome their principles on this occasion? Presumably it was that perennial problem of the governmental legal advice telling the Government that principles are (in this case) illegal. Even though it has been proved on a number of occasions that governmental legal opinion has a habit of incorrectly ‘proving’ that anything isn’t in the interests of the private sector is illegal, did politicians just go along with this? Or is it possible that the process was in fact handled by ‘independent consultants’? In that case, was there a careful process of declaring conflicts of interest? And did Cabinet Ministers try and fight back?
Like some sort of king among bad policy decisions lies Creative Scotland. What good can be said of this mess? Instead of supporting the arts it has been reinvented as if by a overly precocious first-year business studies student overcompensating for being at an unfashionable university. It is a hotch-potch of neoliberal mumbo-jumbo which has extended its remit to cover, well, just about anything and has sacrificed the support of cultural excellence for a facile ‘investment’ rhetoric. It has united the arts community in disgust and has the support of virtually nobody. So how did it happen? It is probably all the net result of the civil service’s practice of putting ‘its kind of guy’ in charge of designing everything. In this case a merchant banker openly disdainful of artists. But even so, how could it go through endless consultations and numerous fights and still not end up with something better than this? Perhaps because the business model (in this case) considers the client to be the problem. This debacle seems to have manufactured itself out of pure ideology.
Did Scotland’s politicians get into politics because they wanted to merge police forces? Certainly, while every party seemed to want to jump on the bandwagon, none seem to have thought it up. So who did? It wasn’t really the police collectively that was so keen on this, but perhaps the main source was a few powerful people in the police who did. Alternatively, since mergers make a lot of money for consultants and it is consultants that advise on mergers, did one of the Big Four accountancy firms have a quiet day and so hunted around for something to drum up some business for themselves?
As you may have read in the last issue of the Scottish Left Review, the Scottish Government used to have a good and progressive policy on the use of antidepressants as a one-trick solution to mental health policy – and then it didn’t. There was no noticeable public debate on this subject, just a u-turn. Could one expect that this is a result of clinicians changing their thinking? Or alternatively is this an outcome of Big Pharma not making quite as much of a killing out of Scotland’s sick and vulnerable as it otherwise might?
These are simply a few examples of policies which seem to have emerged from an indistinct space somewhere outside the realms of democratic politics, and in some cases even outside extended public debate. There are of course many, many others. We might all benefit from asking some harder questions in future.