It’s Time for Dangerous Talk: Jaytalking Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 15th 2016

These are strange times. We are told everyday in every way by numerous experts and talking heads that this is an age of unprecedented change, uncertainty and flux. That nothing can be taken for granted.

Yet this is also an age of great conformity and conservatism; not only in mainstream politics but in large acres of what passes for popular culture – from music to novels, theatre, comedy, TV and visual arts.

Scotland fits into this pattern rather well. It has shaken the UK to near breaking point and tells itself continually it is social democratic and egalitarian, while being rather conservative in how it goes about this as well as many other things.

Our country is littered with examples of our collective conformity and lack of interest in substantive change – let alone any real radicalism. And what is telling is our lack of interest or curiosity in these discrepancies – lest they disrupt our telling ourselves how unique we are.

If Scotland were this place of radicalism wouldn’t there be a land filled with lots of examples of radicalism? Of pioneering legislation, examples of social change, and people and communities empowered? Would there not have been a shake up of one of the ultimate closed shops: the Scottish legal establishment? Or the education community? Or even senior health consultants? Public sector reform is a phrase left at the border.

I even had my own small insight into the heart of the system. On a rare occasion speaking to Alex Salmond when he was First Minster I suggested he set up a Commission on Public Service Reform. My rationale was the money was getting tighter, tough choices would have to be made, the Government had to be seen to be strategic, and by doing so he could reclaim the words ‘public sector reform’ from consultant claptrap, while inviting trade unions to be partners in it. He liked it; I wrote a paper for Cabinet proposing this and a Fairness Commission which was agreed. The second got lost somewhere, but the first had legs – and I even suggested getting a retired trade unionist to chair it such as Campbell Christie.

All of this came to pass but became something different which is the way of these things. But rather than be about public sector reform it morphed into a Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services. There is a big difference in those words. Delivery is very one sided and contained; reform has all sorts of possibilities. But we cannot so far even say and allow the words, let alone explore them.

Devolution Scotland, whether Labour or SNP, are much more alike than they would like to have us think. Labour at their peak and the SNP today both have the conceit that they in their very fibre embody the ideals of social justice. No further detail or action is required.

This attitude became problematic under Labour. Ministers, MPs and MSPs thought it obvious that they were champions of a fairer Scotland and that, somehow without ever defining what it meant, in their day to day actions this was what they were bringing about. That myopic, self-congratulatory and ultimately, self-defeating attitude has now been taken up with passion by the SNP. It is never good to be hoodwinked by your own hype and myths.

This is the language and mindset of the Scottish consensus – of a land where politics and public life are defined by a corporate collective interest and set of insider groups who come from a place called Alphabet Soup Scotland – STUC, SCVO, BMA, EIS, SCDI and even CBI Scotland occasionally.

This approach was understandable when Westminster ruled Scotland but it makes little sense with a Scottish Parliament and Government – all with aspirations to be the full shilling. In short, conformity and groupthink are now the last things we need. Instead, we urgently require dangerous talking, thinking and action – in effect what could be known as jaytalking – taking its name from the act of dangerous walking – jaywalking.

The iconoclastic American satirist Jules Feiffer came up with term years ago shocked by the suffocating authoritarianism of New York mayor Rudi Giuliani. This was in the good old days pre-9/11. Little did he know what was coming down the line.

Jaytalking involves a number of activities. First, people are prepared to put their heads above the parapet. Second, there are places where people can meet and realise they aren’t just isolated individuals. Third, ways develop in which such activities can mix and match – across the generations, sectors or views so that something new emerges from the resultant synergy.

What would a jaytalking Scotland talk about? Well, we are spoilt for choice but I would start with being honest about the long journey of Scotland to where we are. Last week saw the unveiling of the SNP’s legislative programme. There were some worthy measures in it, but beyond manoeuvrings on indyref2 there was nothing to set the heather on fire.

That’s not the impression you would get from some of the neutral commentary. I caught by accident a few minutes of a late nightish BBC or STV discussion and the two talking heads were talking themselves into a lather about the contents of the SNP plans– interesting, commendable, imaginative, constructive were some of the words being thrown about.

In reality they were talking about another fairly pedestrian programme filled with window dressing, bills that go through the motions and bills to tidy up public bodies and life. A more radical take, after seventeen years of similar programmes (and that is a bit unfair to the first year of the Parliament when there was a backlog of bills that wouldn’t have got Westminster time or through the Lords) would be to do something striking and original, such as to say call a halt for one year on any new law – a moratorium on new legislation until they assessed the impact of previous legislation.

There is an avoidance of admitting this but the seventeen years of the Scottish Parliament has passed few pieces of legislation that could genuinely be called empowering in that they have directly transformed the life chances of people. I can think of two obvious exceptions: the community buy-out land reform and the smoking ban in public spaces.

What characterises them is that they either put power in the hands of people and communities, as in land reform, or give people the choice to smoke or not smoke, or be affected by others doing it, while creating smoke-free public spaces. Very few – if any – other pieces of legislation in Scotland have this kind of empowering framework and the fact that land reform is one of the main exceptions – a historic wrong and injustice being made right – is no accident.

There is a long tail to this attitude. If we examine the Scottish Office record of legislation what specific Scottish bills has it advanced which were unique to our country and pioneering? Leave out bills such as the act setting up the NHS in Scotland – which although different from the English and Welsh act – was part of all-British reform. The only transformative bill in a good way, certainly, in the post-war era, has been the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 which set up children’s panels – an innovative model drawing on non-experts and actually for once influenced by Nordic practice.

That’s it. Obviously others can make the case for one or more piece of legislation – if one goes back further – Tom Johnston’s ambitious Highland Hydro-electric schemes would be another. The reasons why this is so are deep and historic – and transcend the conservatism and lack of detail of our political classes.

First, the Scottish Office, the UK department of administrative devolution, had very scant policy-making capacity. This was not a strategic, pro-active department – but one set up to manage Scotland and keep it out of trouble. Second, accentuating this it had few opportunities in the legislative programme time wise or in political priorities in Westminster. Critically, for the present, the Scottish Government grew directly out of the Scottish Office and inherited its lack of policy-making and deliberation.

Combine that with the still prevalent influence of professional Scotland particularly around notions of the common good, social justice and well-being and you have a recipe for gridlock. Even the most informed observers can play into it. In a recent discussion on controversy over the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act which produced the named person’s scheme the academic Aileen McHarg said that people were over-stating Holyrood’s capacity to make bad laws – as in the previous seventeen years – only three bills have had European Convention of Human Rights strikedowns. That seems a pretty high benchmark to have to fail over to be judged a bad law: being found wanting by ECHR!

Instead of having such a ridiculous benchmark for bad laws a jaytalking Scotland would ask – what does it take to make a good law? We could even dare to go further and ask what kind of laws can we make which can set people free, empower and transform their lives, and allow them, not the state, experts or authority, to take decisions?

We could even show a little curiosity for why we have gone to all this trouble of setting up a Parliament – a noble, powerful idea – and yet in our collective actions we seem to have little interest in what it actually does? Wouldn’t a Scotland which practiced what it preaches, thought about shifting power and challenging the closed order of too much of public life be a bit more of an interesting place and one which had a better chance of tackling some of our big challenges?