Much needs fixed – but it can be fixed

Robin McAlpine

A few weeks ago in something I wrote I described the SNP leadership contest as like Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin recast with the Still Game team. Well right now either we’re facing Serpico reimagined by Scot Squad or this is Goodfellas in Balamory

Or, to put this another way, after the events of the past week which saw the police cordon off a former First Minister’s house with incident tape, whatever the final outcome it is now pretty impossible for all of Scotland’s institutions to come out of this well. Either the SNP is in serious trouble or Police Scotland and the Crown Office have gone mad.

No outcome now looks good when it comes to Scotland’s reputation. In a moment I’m going to take a shot at persuading you to be optimistic and believe all of this can be fixed. But first we need to talk about what needs fixed.

There are sustained questions about how well the Scottish Government is doing, major problems in underfunded local government, a struggling NHS, public services with workers unhappy (and too many cases of institutional bullying), an NGO sector far too close to government, a legal system which has had controversies…

To that we can add things that should seriously worry us – slow progress on climate change, a really worrying exodus of headquartered Scottish businesses, declining infrastructure supporting our islands and rural areas among them. Ironically after decades in which our (men’s) rugby and football teams were our reliable source of gloom, they’re the ones offering some positive respite.

It is pretty widely accepted that there is some kind of fundamental rot which has set in across the UK and its institutions. Trust is collapsing. This is true across Europe and the US as well. There are serious problems in Western democracy.

In Scotland we’ve tended to believe that this is all someone else’s problem, that because ‘Tories are the real baddies’ and ‘London is run by bankers’ and ‘there are all these racists in the Home Counties’ and so on, that by simple comparison Scotland ‘isn’t like that’.

And it’s not; we’ve got our own set of problems and we’ve been ignoring them for too long. Our media is now decimated and incapable of doing its job properly. Our legislature (parliament) is far too weak when it comes to holding the executive (government) to account. All our political parties are run by tiny groups of insiders who rig selection processes and so have turned Scottish politics into a ‘friends and family’ operation.

(Seriously, Anas Sarwar blocks respected Glasgow councillor Matt Kerr from standing so he can parachute in his millionaire next-door neighbour? And you’re worried about the Tories?)

Civic Scotland is addicted to government money. The legal system is still mainly privately educated white men. Corporations and equity capital are grazing on our business base like free-roaming megafauna. The churches are on their last legs. The civil service doesn’t seem to be capable of making a cup of tea without messing it up (and then it loses the paperwork).

Academia is a risk-averse private-fee-gathering operation run by middle managers in which academics are an afterthought. Our arts sector has to get by on loose change while mega-companies cannibalise all our national festivals so they can squeeze in the maximum number of ‘franchise opportunities’. And you may have noticed that there is a never-ended stream of senior public figures who resign suddenly for no obvious reason and none of us ever find out why.

Plus (and I know it isn’t polite to mention it among Scotland’s ruling classes) there’s all that poverty and the health and education inequalities, drug deaths, crime rates and generational failure that come with it.

The list goes on and it is depressing. But this is not a depressing article. I’m not here to make your Easter weekend more unsettling than it already is. I’m here to persuade you that none of this is beyond fixing. None of it.

So what is at the root of these problems? There are two fundamental drivers of what is going wrong. The first is our economic model and the second is governance. It goes without saying that these are both very big issues that can’t be seriously addressed here. But this is a taster.

First the economy. Scotland’s governments can fire out all the press releases they want with the words ‘wellbeing economy’ on them, but their actions have all been as free-market obsessed as those in London. We are at the tail-end of an era of get-rich-quick ideology in which everything was for sale and nothing shouldn’t be commercialised.

Nothing wasn’t better without ‘public private partnerships’, partnerships which were never equal, partnerships which were always with global corporations and almost never with Scottish businesses.

From there consultancies (one of the real villains in this story) start to stretch their tendrils everywhere. A public or publicly-funded body brings them in to advise them and the advice is always sell-it-cheap-to-the-market and watch the good times roll. And because all these corporate sector people they hang out with are getting rich, why not the public officials who brought them in in the first place?

Silicon Valley pay for bog-standard public officials? Nice new job with a contractor you introduced to government? Lovely boardroom place awaiting you when you finish? New lucrative bonus scheme you yourself implemented? There is a reason that a lot of people don’t think the public sector is working for them, because a lot of the time it isn’t.

This get-rich-quick, step-out-the-way-and-let-the-market-rip has hollowed out our business base, our civic sector and our public sector. Public money sustains untold armies of ‘professional managers who manage professionally’, not properly-supported frontline staff. A hundred and sixty civil servants working on the National Care Service legislation? Dear god, what are they all doing?

That has led to the second part of the problem – Scotland gave up on governance. Just as we imported get-rich-quick ideologies from the corporate sector, so we imported the corporate sector’s ‘need to know only’ governance attitude. A governing class governs each other by sitting on each other’s boards, hides anything they can behind ‘commercial confidentiality’ and hides the rest through bureaucracy.

Universities used to be run by their academics through a process of democracy which worked from faculty committee through senate to the university court. Now the ‘executive team’ (that is the elite of the professional-managers-who-manage) decides everything and appoints everyone.

‘Local’ government in Scotland is a misnomer. We elect councillors to go in and front giant regional administrative entities which do much the same thing before and after a change of party control. Go back again and look at the story of St Fittick’s Park in Aberdeen if you want to get a condensed version of how all of this works.

So Robin, when is the uplifting part of this coming I hear you ask? It is simple; to paraphrase the wonderful David Graeber, every square inch of the above was something we chose and so is something we can choose differently whenever we want.

We can’t change neoliberalism at the global level but we can get it out of Scotland’s institutions any time we want. Start by banning from government KPMG, EY, Deloitte and the rest and instead set up a Public Consultancy Company, recruit the brightest minds and start writing government policy for the public good, not the corporate good.

Strengthen the lobbying rules. Strengthen the conflict of interest rules for public officials. Increase the cooling-off time before they can sell their insider knowledge to the market after they retire or leave. End the revolving door of corporate place-people in government altogether. Absolutely ban all public sector bonus payments without exceptions.

Stop outsourcing public services to the corporate or civic sector and return to accountable public agencies delivering public services. That lets NGOs get back to being what they should be, which is certainly not arms of government.

Decimate the Professional Management Class, the all-powerful blob of senior managers who have created an entire empire for themselves inside the public sector. Retrain them as social workers or nurses or something useful. Make that attractive by, you know, paying the social workers and the nurses.

Then turn to governance. Appoint nobody, elect everyone. Put universities on notice that all their governing processes will be populated by people elected by staff and students and let them fix the problems. Abolish Health Boards and replace them with Health Councils elected by all health workers and let those fix the problems.

Get round to what everyone claims they want to do and get burning those quangos. Get their processes back into government where they are accountable. Identify who is the frontline provider and who is the service user in every remaining agency and let them elect the Board. Keep the targets of their regulation a million miles away from their governance (if Sepa wants corporate input it knows where to find it without handing over the power of board places to them).

Set up a fast-working review into the checks and balances in the Scottish Parliament stat. Do the same for checks and balances in the processes of government. You now have a high-power public consultancy; task the Permanent Secretary to come back soon with an internal review to explain why the civil service is so bad and what is going to be done about it.

And decentralise this bloody country. Set up a proper layer of local government and turn our existing local authorities into what they are, regional authorities. Then create an internal system of reserved power (what has to be at the national level) and let local and regional government pull down the other powers (and attendant money). Then just get out of their way and let communities fix their own problems.

Oh, I need to stop. I can feel myself getting carried away. This piece is already too long and I can feel myself winding up for more. Because there is so much more to do. It’s all in Sorted. Get a copy.

What I wanted to do in this piece was persuade you that there is currently very good reason for despair but that despair is not inevitable. Things are a mess. If you’re not a ‘governing insider’ it might look like the mess is too big to fix. I’m trying to persuade you it isn’t. It isn’t at all.

I could get every piece of the above into two pieces of legislation (a local democracy bill and a governance reform bill) with loads more and I could do it and start implementing it in under a year. If I can do it there are hundreds if not thousands of people who could also do it. And, once done, you’ve extracted a lot of the source of the rot.

Don’t pretend Scotland is in good shape. It is not. But do not be tricked into thinking that nothing can be done because it absolutely can. If we don’t, public trust is going to nosedive from low to non-existent.

If we do we take by far the biggest step towards building a Scotland which isn’t, well, fucking embarrassing.

4 thoughts on “Much needs fixed – but it can be fixed”

  1. Hi Robin,
    First of all, the solutions you propose appeal greatly to me. What are you doing about engaging with the new Scottish Government leadership to progress them?

    Next, the chaotic mess you describe is not just in Scotland; indeed it is far worse in other places and, to be fair, the Scottish Government has done much to mitigate Tory austerity. We have free prescriptions, child payment, free eye tests, free tuition etc. I say this in full understanding of the arguments about mitigation v radical reform.

    Lastly, perhaps there comes a tipping point when the public won’t stand for this any more. What is that critical mass and will we ever see it here? I look at the French and their reaction to changing the pension age from 62 to 64. I get mine at 66 others, 67 or 68 with proposals in the pipeline for 70. Hardly a peep from our public. What do you think it will take here to mobilise our citizens?

    Best Regards,

  2. Hi Robin,
    Thanks for your contribution. It is much appreciated.
    I wonder about “Health Councils elected by all health workers”. Health workers are only one stakeholder, subject to their own propensity to avoid difficult decisions. Simelweis is just one of thousands of examples.

    What is the role for free and fair markets in all of this?


  3. florian albert

    There is a detailed prospectus for radical change outline here.
    Who, at Holyrood, does Robin McAlpine think is going to implement it ?
    The present, imploding, SNP government has shown no interest in such radicalism.
    A future, different, SNP government is much more likely to be led by Kate Forbes than by anyone committed to
    the sort of radicalism being proposed.
    There is no other political party on the horizon which might do the job.
    Radical change needs a radical political party to deliver it.
    Such radicals as Scotland has, continue to shy away from the hard work involved in building a radical party.

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