The trams scandal is Scotland’s future – unless we act

by | 20 Sep 2023

The public inquiry into the Edinburgh Trams disaster is a fairly neat encapsulation of everything that is wrong in public sector Scotland. And yet it is going to change nothing - unless citizens really demand change.

When I started this website it was never meant to be about me and my opinions but about a very specific series of missions. They all related to issues that I didn’t think weren’t being discussed properly in Scotland. One of those missions was to try and push much more discussion of the structure and quality of our governance – what is wrong with how Scotland is run that so many mistakes are made?

So now we’ve got the trams inquiry report and it kind of does my job for me. Here’s your summary – not a single institution in Scotland can be expected (with confidence) to do anything right. The beauty of this inquiry is that it’s findings cast a harsh light on governance in Scotland and it’s processes fills in the blanks.

Which is to say that the findings echo everything I’ve been trying to push onto the public agenda about government, the civil service and its agencies and consultants, and the story of the way it took such an inordinate time and chunk of money to complete shows that these problems do not stop at the public sector.

So just before we get going; this isn’t a party political problem, it’s baked into the whole system and a change of government alone would change nothing much (though the SNP is very deeply culpable). And this isn’t a ‘Scotland problem’; this is a post-Thatcher, late-capitalism problem. Think of the public sector version of a shit-built dishwasher with only an automated chatbot to ‘help’ you when it broke and you’re living in it. It’s everywhere. It’s everything.

But it has a very specific Scottish accent and it’s for us to get our house in order. So what follows is to pull out the main strands so you can see the shape of the story, with a strong suggestion of steps to take to fix this at the end. Let’s dive in.

First, petty party politics kicks off the problems. Jack McConnell wanted it, Alex Salmond didn’t, and the parliament sided with McConnell (because at the time it didn’t truly accept that Alex Salmond was the First Minister). Then the Scottish Government makes a political statement by withdrawing its support – but not its money. This was silly and reckless.

That sends responsibility to a local authority which takes the whole thing into the network of consultants, advisers, agencies and contracts which are at the heart of why Scotland is like a graveyard of governmental projects. It is so difficult to tell the difference between facilitator and leech in this sector it is probably best to assume that everyone is draining more than they should out of the process and into their bank accounts.

This is quickly solidified in the creation of TIE, the agency/company which was actually supposed to deliver the project. I knew someone who worked there at the time and they described it as Babylon – the money flowed so freely through that organisation that it was barely worth turning the heating off because it was easier just to open the window.

The government tells the public it is bending over backwards to be transparent and then does everything in its power (and things beyond its legitimate powers too) to cover up, obfuscate and be evasive-going-on-dishonest

What it wasn’t at any point was competent. This becomes clear after a couple of years. The first PR stage (‘not us mate’) fires this whole project out and away from government as far as possible to make a point. The second PR stage (‘oh no, what’s this!’) is when it becomes clear a couple of years later that things are going badly wrong and so government dives back in to try and head off a crisis – but doesn’t tell anyone and keeps pretending it’s nothing to do with them.

This tells us the next thing – everything in Scotland is top down. If it isn’t, it is only because the top isn’t interested in the down. Then it becomes interested and ‘heads get knocked together’. But here’s the thing; complex logistical snarl-ups with built-in incompetence at almost every stage aren’t fixed by banging together the heads of the people who made the mess. That is just hard-man management bollocks about being a ‘firm leader’.

So on we go with none of the fundamental problems solved because this is really about PR and trying to avoid embarrassment. That’s why it goes badly wrong again – but by this point we’re well into the phase which really cripples Scotland. That is the phase where government goes ‘god, we can’t do anything properly and now we’re getting caught so let’s throw lots of money at it’.

Ferries reached that point a long time ago and was made official policy recently. With the trams it seems to have started as soon as Swinney was brought in. There was no way that this project wasn’t going to be pushed over the line in at least some form no matter how crap the state it was in by then.

This leads to the inevitable – a scandal that grows and requires an inquiry (these are what gets you out of a problem in Scotland, as we shall see). So you set the remit of the inquiry to be useless (it is set up to learn lessons not about why Scotland’s governance keeps failing but to inform all the other tram projects in Scotland, of which there won’t be any).

This is when the leeches change, because the lawyers are now on the gravy tram. They seem to have weighed this up and said ‘look either we’re useful and fast or we’re slow and rake it in – what do you think boys?’. So they fucking raked it in and went inexplicably slowly.

Which leads us back to Scotland’s ‘public servants’. The one thing we know for sure is that they don’t serve the public but the politicians. So, as with every inquiry, the promises to cooperate fully are quickly followed by ‘but no, Salmond inquiry, you can’t have the legal advice’ and ‘my Covid WhatsApp messages are off the agenda’ or ‘here’s the findings – there are two sentences not redacted’.

The single useful thing from this report is that it makes clear that the Scottish Government doesn’t act with integrity. The government tells the public it is bending over backwards to be transparent and then does everything in its power (and things beyond its legitimate powers too) to cover up, obfuscate and be evasive-going-on-dishonest.

So finally it is published and we immediately see its purpose – absolutely nothing. I can only read Mairi McAllan’s official response as an accusation of outright corruption on the part of Lord Hardie. If he is acting in a quasi-judicial manner and he is drawing conclusions which aren’t supported by any evidence led, it rather feels like it should be reported to the police.

But it won’t be because the Scottish Government is going to go away, absorb the findings and learn the lessons. Let me translate this for you: “we’ve now reached phase three of the PR campaign where we deny the legitimacy of the report, absorb one day of bad PR and then every single person who has leeched inordinate sums of money out of this whole debacle can get back to doing what they do best (spending it) and the public can fuck the fuck off.’

We need to take the power of patronage and inquiry-design out of the hands of the people who are caught making the mistakes

The end. Or at least it is the end if we, as citizens, let it be the end. Because right now I can promise you that we’re about 20 years from a public inquiry into ‘PFI for Trees’. Let me save you the anticipation. It will say that in 2022 Lorna Slater used dodgy data to press the case for a system of nature restoration whose main feature is making the rich richer.

In 2023 the fact she fiddled the numbers is discovered but no-one does anything about it. And then the landowners treated the whole thing as a financial scam, planing trees in peat bogs, above the treeline, in flower pots, up their arses – anywhere they can make a plausible claim on so they reap the grants. Many of these trees won’t make it because of this.

Which means that in 10 years we’ll not have done the job, there will be a crisis and people will be raging so there will be calls for a public inquiry. It’ll be another decade before it is actually set up and reports. And it will say all of the above and call for lessons to be learned.

(Look, I know the Greens think that they can deflect all criticism of Lorna Slater by shouting ‘misogyny’ at everything from mild satire to legitimate policy analysis, so just substitute the public inquiry into the Butcher Surgeon of Tayside or the Covid inquiry and repeat. It literally doesn’t matter.)

There is something that I find hard not to call corruption at the heart of this. These are all (all) powerful and wealthy men and women and they’re all (all) powerful and wealthy because of public expenditure. They have a system that works brilliant for them but not for us. None of them will reform this alone (again, look at how the demeanour of the Scottish Greens has changed since they got their noses into the trough).

So here is my basic answer – only a real, civic campaign to hold this whole stinking system to account will make any difference. It has to take the power to reform this out of the hands of politicians because they won’t. And it can’t be given to their pals either (KPMG, former senior Civil Servant, judge) because they won’t do it either. The only solution is citizen-led.

We need to take the power of patronage and inquiry-design out of the hands of the people who are caught making the mistakes. We don’t let defendants in a criminal trial control the timing of the trial, the trial judge, the evidence led or the sentence delivered.

My solution is simple and neat; create a Citizens Assembly of 100 people chosen at random in Scotland on a rolling basis and give them the power. Make them the watchdog of the powerful. They have no conflict of interest; they actually want the public interest to be served. They have no prospects of getting a nice board position out of soft-soaping the picture.

They wouldn’t accept a ten-year inquiry. They wouldn’t consider it right that no-one is ever held accountable. They would do what this whole shitty system doesn’t do – they would look dispassionately and honestly at the whole thing without any prospect of them gaining from any particular outcome. Then I’d encourage them to go after Scotland’s contract system.

The political system is imperfect – no great revelation. It can’t be made perfect. We are what we are; humans. We can only hope to create a system which is better than the alternatives. That is not what we have. It cannot and will not be fixed from inside that system alone. We need balance to politics. That used to be civic Scotland, but far too much of that is on the gravy tram as well.

Which leaves only the citizens – also flawed humans, but with a different set of interests and perspectives. Let’s put the looking glass in their hands and not solely in the hands of a bunch of people who all drink at the same private club…

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