This is a mess we can pick up ourselves

Robin McAlpine

There is a literary quote which has had an outsized impact on my approach to politics and policy. That impact is purely because it comes from one of my very favourite books and the message was drilled into my repeatedly by my mother when I was young. It goes:

“And this mess was so big / and so deep and so tall / we cannot pick it up / there is no way at all”

Then again, if there is much about life that you can’t derive from the Cat in The Hat (or at least the collected works of Dr Seuss) I am sceptical it is all that important. Because in the book the mess gets cleared, and while it does indeed get cleared through a miraculous cleaning machine, the lesson is the same. You start by picking up the first thing, and then you repeat, until some point when you realised you’re done.

Oh my god the mess in Scotland’s public policy and democracy is so big, so deep, so tall that standing in front of it and being dissatisfied leaves you with an overwhelming sensation – despair and paralysis. I have been seeking out an awful lot of conversations with people (activist and decidedly non-activist alike), and that is what everyone says. The mess is to big to see a way out.

So let me persuade you that that is a mistake. The mess is less total, less complete than you think. If we start to pick up a surprisingly small amount of our mess, the task will quickly start to feel very manageable indeed. I want to persuade you here that the source of Scotland’s problems is eminently fixable.

Look through the mess; are there really any fundamental reasons we can’t get our act together? It isn’t the skills of our citizens – we’re one of the best educated countries in the world. It isn’t our natural resources which are excellent. It’s not the fundamental building blocks of our public services which are way more than adequate for the task.

And, despite my familiarity with the burgeoning body of spurious crap written by people who are desperate to convince you that public attitude research proves that we’re not a nation of social democrats after all, but it’s all measurably wrong.

Unlike most of Europe Scotland not only doesn’t have a resurgent far right or a substantial anti-immigration politics, it has almost no politically-organised far right and next to no organised anti-immigration sentiment. You can’t get a cigarette paper between the strongly social democratic policies of about 80 per cent of the political parties Scotland votes for. Right now, in a western context, that is like absolute gold dust. 

So why does it feel like such an overwhelming mess? It’s down to how our democracy is operating in practice and the way public policy has been delivered in recent decades. Both are eminently reformable.

First, to really pick up the mess we’d need to escape Westminster’s economic and political straitjacket and undertake very major media ownership reform. But that isn’t something we can do right now, so let’s work with what we can do.

Of what remains, an enormous amount is to do with centralisation. Scotland’s enormous human resources are dreadfully poorly used because a centralising tendency among both politicians and bureaucrats means that Scotland’s human resources are starved of power and money. Try doing something good and useful in Scotland without a bureaucrat’s express permission and you will be punished for it.

Oh, and try and get permission and you will almost certainly fail. We have normalised the withholding of power and resource by a bureaucratic elite and it is choking the life out of the country.

It is also wasting our money to an absolutely inordinate extent. I’ve written loads on the way that management culture in public services proliferates managers (who can replicate themselves at will because they control the budgets) who then need to impose massive amounts of bureaucracy on frontline workers so that the managers have something to do.

A substantial chunk of the rest of our public resources are hived off by corporate elites which don’t mess around with democracy and instead use privileged access to the civil service and executive agencies and use it to direct ever-increasing amounts of public money in their own direction. From PFI to the tens of millions spent on policy consultants, our money ends up with the people who need it least.

The power of commercial elite and their lack of any commitment to the public good shapes our legislation for the worse, so we get shit policy that always privatises something. I mean, they’ve literally just issued a public tender to commercial consultants to come up with a model for ‘monetising’ (i.e. privatising the value of) Scotland’s atmosphere and animals. It literally says that.

From there, the culture of our politics is broken internally and externally. The the SNP, Scottish Labour, the Greens, Alba – none of their senior figures ever saw signs of internal democracy they didn’t see as in need of being brought under control.

And in all of the above we no longer have the means to scrutinise what is going on because the ‘organs of scrutiny’ in Scotland are so emaciated. From the media to think tanks to academic commentators, Scotland is denuded. Our loss of local media is perhaps worst of all.

I know this sounds like a wide-scale mess, so big and so wide and so tall that we are screwed. But stop and look again at how easily each of these pieces of mess could be picked up. A decentralisation bill which created the full gamut of local and participatory politics would unleash a phenomenal amount of Scottish energy and talent.

Using co-design (designing policies as a real partnership with users and those delivering it) rather than commercial consultants would transform the quality of policymaking overnight (and save a fortune). Looking at ways to enshrine a not-for-profit requirement into the delivery of public services would cut out massive amounts of waste and corruption.

Wherever failed approaches can be changed, change them. PFI is a perfect example where there are better alternatives that aren’t being considered because the ‘public’ agency which handles infrastructure is all but a trade association for the private equity industry.

Reform the civil service by shifting much more of the debate into the public realm and crack down on the ‘black box’ effect of decisions being made in secret for opaque reasons. Take a mandatory ‘front line first’ approach to funding. You could legislate. Let frontline workers challenge bureaucracies to prove that they are all necessary to delivering the service. Set up Citizens’ Juries to adjudicate and hand managers P45s if they can’t.

Drop managerial culture and end both targets and performance indicators. Targets are for government, not for frontline services. Learn about self-management and the ways in which frontline workers can self-organise in effective and efficient ways that improve services and result in major cost-releasing leanness.

Tackle our political weaknesses through reform of democracy. Invest in journalism. Create a second Citizens’ Chamber of the Scottish Parliament, reform parliament to make committees and backbenchers more independent, perhaps implement action to ensure that political parties which are eligible for election to the Scottish Parliament achieve a robust level of internal democracy. Again, perhaps members of political parties should have a pathway to challenge their own parties legally if they do not.

That is basically four programmes of action – decentralisation, stripping managerialism and profiteering from public services, reforming the process of policy development and enacting basic democratic reforms. 

No, this doesn’t undo 40 years of going in the opposite direction. No it doesn’t deal with the underlying problem of the failing global economics we’re stuck with. No, in itself it won’t reduce inequality. No, it won’t improve public health in an of itself. Nope, it does something more important than that; it makes those tasks easier by equipping our democracy with the tools to do it.

A big mess is an invitation to start picking things up. Freezing in despair and shrugging is frankly what the baddies want us to do. But if we shift some of the big items early, the task ahead will look an awful lot more achievable than it does now. Scotland is perfectly saveable. Now, who is going to start it…

6 thoughts on “This is a mess we can pick up ourselves”

  1. A good way to achieve decentralisation and cut out wasteful spending would be to removed education from local government control and have a national education service: teachers and other staff would all be employed centrally but schools would have totally devolved budgets and decision making within broad national policies to ensure minimum provision/entitlements. At a stroke, this would remove the waste of having 32 separate education bodies, directors of education etc, with 32 different sets of HR policies, Union negotiating bodies etc. it would allow for pay and conditions to be negotiated nationally without allowing COSLA to use the education workforce as a pawn in their battle for funding from central government (by delaying and not engaging in serious negotiations over annual pay settlements.) Schools would then have more scope to address their local circumstances without being controlled by local councils. Sadly, this decentralisation of power and control would be attacked as centralisation by political opponents and local councillors who felt their role was being downgraded.

  2. Alasdair Macdonald

    I largely agree, Mr McAlpine – except for your ‘invest in journalism’ proposal.

    We do, indeed, have amongst our population a great wealth of talent, which is, sadly, not being empowered to deploy its creative abilities to resolve local issues. Centralisation is a big impediment to this. In addition to government and (not-so-local) local government, private business is even more centralising and, indeed, prompts government to empower it as your example shows.

    The fact that these businesses are successful and profitable is testament to the abilities of the workforce, much of it being inadequately paid and with insecure conditions.

    Your proposed decentralization bill might well release the creativity of a greater proportion of our population. I suspect that the larger trade unions like the egregiously led GMB, would be among those stridently opposing such decentralization. As a career long trade union member, I often witnessed trade union conservatism. I support trade union membership for all workers, but trade unions, too, need to decentralize.

    My cynicism about your ‘invest in journalism’ proposal is that there are so few people involved in journalism who are not venally right wing and contemptuous of their fellow citizens. Partly this is due to the narrow right wing ownership of our media. Journalists either have to shape up to the demands of right wing propaganda or ship out. And, most of our journalists have taken the former path. Like trade unionism, good journalism is important for a transparent society to highlight misuse of power, but, I am not sure that we have enough people of moral principle involved in it.

    Finally, as someone who spent 30 years in senior managerial posts, I think good management is essential for the success of any project, large or small. I think that bandying about unexamined terms like ‘managerialism’ is unhelpful. Everyone is involved in management to some extent, even though a fair proportion is feart of the responsibility and accountability which management entails. Because of this apprehensiveness amongst so many, management has become, increasingly, a wielder of power and an earner of greater remuneration. So, we need to require more people to accept power, we need to have checks and balances on these powers and transparency about their deployment, and we need to ensure that pay differentials are much narrower than they are now.

    1. Robin McAlpine

      Hi Alasdair,

      I’m rushing to finish up by next Friday for a two-week family holiday so I shouldn’t be responding but two quick things. First, on managerialism. That’s not the same as management, in the same way that finanicalisation isn’t the same as finance. Management and finance are functions; managerialism and financialisation are ideological ways of undertaking that function. Managerialism has shifted the role of management from facilitating and coordinating to directing and controlling. That’s the mistake; NHS managers don’t have the knowledge to manage frontline workers so do it through bureaucracy. It is also wrong to think of managers as the appropriate ‘check and balance’ on frontline workers. They can fire them. That’s not a check or a balance, that’s direct control. Plus the bigger question is where is the check and the balance on the management class? They get to appoint their own boards half the time. For example a clear majority of University Courts are lay members appointed by the existing court which is largely appointed by the existing executive team which will have created the nomination list for the existing Court and will do so for the new members. Executives don’t put forward nominees for their governing body who are likely to cause them trouble. The only position of power not in their control was the Rector position (elected by students) and they’ve spent 20 years trying to strip power from he Rectors… One of Common Weal’s wins was to get our proposal for directly-elected Chairs of Court not in the gift of the Executive. I spent a length Committee hearing on the other side of university managers arguing with all their might that a check or balance on them would derail their institution. THAT is the problem.

      And I really worry about the independence movement’s attitude to journalism. I was a journalist. I have worked with an enormous range of journalists over the years. The idea that they are hand-picked by Rupert Murdoch is simply not true. Journalists are EXACTLY like the rest of us – a subset of society. I’m sure where you were a manager there was something or other you did in your career that didn’t entirely sit with your own moral values. I know I have. I had to lobby against greater disclosure of the treatment of animals in laboratories once, which I hated. But it was that or resign. The problem isn’t journalism but media ownership. If you read my proposal you will see that I’m very specifically NOT proposing subsidies to media owners but to create a new form of public interest PUBLIC journalism. In any case, the idea of a democracy without extensive journalism is utterly petrifying.


  3. Ian Davidson

    Hi Robin
    Switch off and enjoy the holiday. The good, the bad and the ugly will be waiting for your return plus the usual full in-box which I will try not to add to!

  4. The majority of people under 30 don’t even watch TV, certainly don’t read newspapers, and get their news from TicTok. There is a major generational disconnect that tends to be ignored. Watching news on TicTok leads you down an algorhythmic rabbit-hole. Try it for a week. It is an ideal means for brain-washing. It’s quite possible that what journalism wants in reality is more mathematicians.

  5. florian albert

    There is plenty to analyse in Robin McAlpine’s take on Scotland today.

    ‘We’re one of the best educated countries in the world.’
    Is that really so ? There are centres of excellence in schools and the old universities but there are areas of utter mediocrity. Attainment levels in many working class and deprived areas are lamentably low. There has been a five fold increase in the number of school pupils with ‘additional support needs’ in little over 15 years. Nobody has seriously analysed why this has happened. Covid had a negative effect on attainment but we don’t know how much, since we had so little accurate data at the start of the pandemic. Disruption of teaching on a massive scale, was accompanied by record high levels of attainment in external school exams.
    Technical education has been neglected for decades. The Curriculum for Excellence had massive flaws but those in power simply ploughed on.

    Evidence produced suggesting that we are not social democrats is ‘spurious crap.’
    I would suggest that, if we go with Kolakowski’s definition of social democracy – ‘the obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions which produce avoidable suffering and oppression’ – Scotland simply does not make the grade as a social democratic nation. The inability to deal the social problems caused by de-industrialization, not least in schools, is clear proof of this. What Scotland has is a fondness for statism, a different beast entirely. When a serious social democratic party was set up in the 1980s, its impact on Scotland, unlike England, was minimal.

    Scotland does not have a ‘substantial anti-immigration politics’.
    True but Scotland has not had – post 1950 – immigration on the scale of England, Ireland or Sweden. In fact, Scotland has only had one massive wave of immigration; that of Irish Catholics from the 1840s on. Scotland’s record here was not pretty. Discrimination against this group lasted for over 120 years, reaching an apogee 90 years after the immigrants first arrived. You did not need to go to Ibrox Park to find it when I was growing up in Glasgow in the 1960s.

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