Toxic soup

Nearly two weeks in and events continue to move at remarkable speed.  Every day, a new development and a fresh revelation in hacking gate grabs the headlines: a week ago, Rebekah Brooks was safe, now she is the chip wrapping.

Every sacrificial lamb offered up by Murdoch simply serves to point up the difficulties his global enterprise finds itself in.  This weekend, we awoke to hand wringing apologies, magnifying the rottenness at the heart of this particular borough.  At no point, have we heard Messrs Murdoch state what steps they will take to clean up their act.

For the moment, all eyes are fixed on News International but everyone else has been at it too.  And yes, it’s been going on for decades, centuries even but that doesn’t make it right, far from it.  As well as illegal and spurious activities, what is now being exposed is the nauseatingly internecine relationships in the metropolis among politicians, the press and public institutions like the police.   While crusaders see the opportunity to topple Murdoch dance before their eyes, the burd hopes that someone, somewhere is stepping back and thinking strategically.   There is so much to expose and put right, it is hard to know where to begin.

Not only have the currencies of fear, graft and intimidation been traded for acquiescence and silence, other, more subtle but just as potent means have also been used by all sides to seal the power bubble.  The friendships, the romances, the dinner parties, the marriages, the nights on the lash, the backroom channels that sent aides scurrying across to plumb media and influencing roles and back again – lots of sets, different actors, same pool.

It is a very metropolitan miasma, but we would be wrong to assume that it has not permeated Scottish affairs.  If Westminster is a village, then Scotland is a clachan, with its own crony establishment exercising a vice-like grip on everything that moves and shakes up here.

In the aftermath of Stephen Purcell’s downfall, there was a hint that a light might be shone in the very messy and intertwined relationships that exist in Glasgow among the ruling Labour class (though maybe not for long), businessmen and public agencies.  Initial probes were hastily silenced – these people have real power and our press outlets are so impoverished, one doubts they could afford costly legal actions to assert their right to search for the truth.  In any event, they too appeared to be part of the power club.

Circles of influence operate at many levels and in all spheres of Scottish life.   I know of people who have applied for many positions they are eminently qualified to contribute to who have never so much as been offered an interview by our supposedly independent public appointments commission.  Your face fits or it doesn’t, and some have been allowed to carve a very lucrative career out of serial appointments.

So much of our public life is conducted behind remarkably closed doors.  I recall seeing an attendee list for a dinner at one of Edinburgh’s private clubs, hosted by a major firm with a significant interest in the development of PFI projects.  Half of those attending were high-ranking Scottish Government officials in departments engaged in PFI activity.  I was gobsmacked.

None of us who swim in Scotland’s shallow pool is exempt.  Even in the voluntary sector, there are people who hop between plum roles with scarcely a whiff of competence behind them.  It doesn’t take long to join the dots of relationships and friendships to work out why.

A clubby culture at Holyrood has developed too, albeit in pale imitation of that at Westminster.  MSP attendance at receptions and dinners where alcohol and nosh flow freely at someone else’s expense is always much better and more cross-party than at an event hosted by a charity offering up tea, shortbread and earnestness.  And there might only be one bar, but it is regularly row deep in politicians, staff, journalists and the occasional lobbyist exchanging chummy anecdotes and rounds.

The SNP has been no exception; indeed, many observers have been puzzled by the party’s apparent willingness to cosy up to establishment Scotland with its exclusive mores.  By dent of its ultimate ambition, the SNP is a dis-establishment party and while the lack of a majority in its first term of government might have clipped any intentions in this direction, this time round it has no excuse.

There is a risk that the party becomes embedded in the cosiness of life at the top.  It is alluring and its practitioners are masters at the art of defending the status quo of their privilege and position.  While it is understandable for the SNP to have played the game thus far according to the current rules, events south of the border show that the public won’t wear it any longer.  The SNP now has a once in a generation opportunity to smash open institutional Scotland, to set the tone for a new way of doing business in all walks of life and to remove nefarious and shadowy influences. Its mandate for competence from the Scottish people carries with it an inverse responsibility to expose and remove incompetence from our lives.

The toxicity of the soup being ladled onto our screens daily gives us the chance to create a very different Scotland, where consomme is the order of the day.  Creating a different culture, one founded on and bounded by equality, justice, merit, fairness, transparency and accountability, is a necessary part of Scotland’s constitutional journey.

For what is the point of independence if we are offered business as usual and nothing about Scotland’s culture of governance beyond the Union is to change?




4 thoughts on “Toxic soup

  1. Pingback: Scotland’s public sector carousel must cease « A Burdz Eye View

  2. “There is so much to expose and put right, it is hard to know where to begin.”

    There certainly is, but I think the press and police are definitely the correct starting place. As long as both are ingredients in this toxic soup, then there is little chance of the other parts being exposed and brought to justice. I think there’s a feeling in some quarters that the phone hacking business is less important than other issues such as jobs, but the fact is there is never a bad time to get things cleaned up. Indeed, if we can get round to cleaning up the sort of plum role merry-go-round that you mention goes on in the voluntary sector and the likes, there could be signficant savings to be made, be it people getting overpaid jobs that they don’t deserve, or just awarding contracts on the basis of cost rather than funny handshakes.

    I would like to think the SNP are still radical enough to have not gotten too cosy with the establishment, and certainly if there is to be a big clean up of all our institutions, it has come along at just the right time for them – there shouldn’t be too many skeletons in the cupboard (and any that do exist won’t be nearly as bad as those in the cupboards of Labour and the Tories), and they have the chance to lead the way in the clean up. I’d like to think they are more than capable of performing this important role, although I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed anyway, just in case.

    • I’d agree. Though I’m not sure the voluntary sector is the worst of our problems! The plum role merry go round is far more significant in the public sector, through quangoes. Step forward one Christine May for a good example…. She’s on Audit Scotland and has a biog there that shows just how many plum roles she has had.

      I don’t think the SNP has got too cosy and if ever there was a good time to flex their dis-establishment muscles it’s now. They do have a golden chance to lead in the clean up.

  3. The SNP have, from where I sit, moved to be just as much an establishment party as Labour. They may wish to take power from Westminster and give it to themselves at Holyrood but “independence” (whatever that means) seems now more about the location of power in a different executive with a smaller electorate than about anything more radical.

    Indeed, under Alex Salmond the SNP seem quite keen in concentrating power at Holyrood and centralising control of things that used to be decided by local government – I’ve overheard one saying that “nobody wants to be a councillor because we’re being turned into administrators”.

    The links that the SNP have built with civic scotland, the concern shown to nurturing support of the oil industry and other big businesses, the tip-toeing around equality so as not to offend the church or Brian Souter are all part of a process of the SNP bedding into the establishment and finding it quite agreeable.

    Independence, we’re told, won’t be a revolution, nothing too much will change, the queen will still be the queen and deals will be done over a few rounds of golf and a couple of rounds of lager.

    This is not the chippy, radical party I knew in my yoof…

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