Opinion

There’s nothing you can do about it

by | 12 Mar 2024

Scotland, a country where things are done to you and you have no say over it or ability to prevent it. And they wonder why the public is disillusioned with politics?

I’m pissed off this week. That is different than last week only on the basis of what is pissing me off. Last week it was Big Things, this week it’s little things, but either way it doesn’t really matter because there is nothing I can do about it and there is nothing you can do about it.

I’m not talking about big things that you can never do anything about, like murderous spies getting away with it, murderous soldiers getting away with it, murderous regimes getting away with it. What’s bugging me are minor – a junior admin officer who genuinely thinks she knows more than a chartered heating engineer (she’s got a box to tick dontcha know?) or an ancient hedgerow that is being butchered for no reason because some planning officer just decided it.

What is getting to me is that I have pursued a career in influence, in getting bureaucracies and pubic policy to do things I or my employer want them to do. So when I’m telling you there is nothing I can do about it, it’s a carefully considered judgement. I tried.

In this article I’m going to run through one day’s news headlines (today’s) in the hope that some political leader or other might read it and might take ten seconds to step back and reflect on why they are held in such contempt by so many people just now. Because this is ecumenical; it doesn’t matter who is in a position of power in Scotland, they don’t believe in checks and balances on their power. The two examples above are from a Labour local authority.

But most of what will follow will either be the SNP or bureaucratic empires being protected by the SNP. Why? Because the SNP has more power so is more vested in not letting you challenge it. It’s the system that needs changed in Scotland – and our mind set.

So here goes. First, the Hate Crime Act, a crap piece of legislation that no-one liked which was railroaded through by Sturgeon (because a desire to create good policy came a distant third behind her desire to look strong and do whatever she wanted all the time). To get it there they said lots of things, like ‘we’ll engage and listen to your concerns’.

They didn’t. They didn’t listen to anyone’s concerns. They said anything at all to get the legislation passed but none of the words meant anything. They had no intention of improving the law after it passed because they’d already ‘won’. So now they’re spending money on a PR campaign to explain to you (using your money) that everyone apart from them was always wrong about this legislation.

And right about now they’ll start promising you that there is absolutely no way this legislation is going to be used maliciously, like everyone always does before they pass legislation which will 100 per cent definitely be used maliciously at some point in the future (see Blair’s promises that the terrorism legislation would definitely not be used to remove an elderly man who heckled Blair).

When this legislation is used in ways miles beyond any possible intention, there will be nothing you can do about it. You could hold a public meeting, like they did in Stranraer to raise serious concerns about their local hospital – but chances are that you’ll be treated with contempt, like they were. The health board simply ignored the meeting and refused to send a representative.

If a wealthy developer wants a local authority to knock down some building or other, the local authority will quickly shed the rules and restrictions on their unbridled power, like the requirements to do a proper environmental impact study. This is illegal – but who has the money to mount a judicial review?

You might well think politicians are blatantly breaking the rules of our democracy, but you know, that’s just, uh, your opinion man

Today is the deadline for the consultation on the Circular Economy Bill. This too is contemptuous. I mean, all government consultations there days are acts of contempt (‘do you agree with us a bit, a lot or totally?’), but this is one of the Scottish Government’s endless ‘framework bills’. That means the Bill contains no information, just new power for the politicians.

How will you find out how they’ll wield that power? You won’t. They won’t tell you. They’re also required to add a series of impact assessments onto the end of legislation but in this instance they all say ‘zero’. Why? Because it’s a framework bill so it has no impact other than give power to Ministers. What will they do with that power? You can just fuck right off pleb…

Meanwhile the SNP is fizzing because it wants an investigation to see if Alistair Jack broke the ministerial code, a request it dismissed with contempt again and again whenever Nicola Sturgeon appeared to break the Ministerial Code (and the one time she was cornered they redacted everything except for the one sentence they wanted anyway).

You might well think politicians are blatantly breaking the rules of our democracy, but you know, that’s just, uh, your opinion man. There is nothing you can do about it. Like the new ‘developer plans’ to redevelop Charing Cross (or ‘reimagine it’ as they call it over the grinding of my teeth…). This is in two phases. In the second phase they will transform Charing Cross for the good of the city.

That’s after the first phase where they get planning permission for another giant development of student flats. So you understand this, right now you can release more value from any given patch of land by building student flats then either homes for rent or office or retail space (they live in hamster cage-sized rooms at exorbitant rents).

The rest of the development? Come on, you already know that ‘the economic conditions’ will have ‘changed since phase one, meaning that phase two is no longer commercially viable’. All they did was stick in an application for student flats but with some arts school graduate drawing a picture so you think this isn’t just another student flat development.

There will be nothing you can do about it when this happens. No-one will pay a price. Or what about if you’re under 40 and fancy dying of old age rather than starvation or in some storm? You might want Scotland to decarbonise and stop expanding oil and gas production. In which case you’re fucked, because Scotland is now a contest to see which political party can capitulate most to the oil industry.

(Except the Greens who prop up a government that represents the only political entity in Britain against a windfall tax on oil and gas majors but let a backbencher off the leash to tweet about how cross they are so they don’t look like the hypocrites they are.)

So we’re clear, all of this, every inch of this, cropped up in today’s newspapers. It’ll happen again tomorrow and the day after. Because you can do nothing about the thing that means you can’t do anything about it.

Right now it’s been half of a generation since the independence referendum – is that enough now, or must an entire generation of people be failed?

I can’t leave this without pointing out for the umpteenth time how easy this would be to fix. There are three massive steps that are needs, and yet they’re only massive in impact, not in implementation. The first is a regime that requires public figures to operate according to the rules. 

That means there must be powerful and effective independent scrutiny of whether the rules are being followed and there must be meaningful, personal implications if they’re not. I would make acting as a public official (above a threshold level of seniority) a chartered profession, like medicine And if a senior official was found to be breaking the rules then they would be struck off, like a doctor would. They’d never work in the public sector again.

The second thing is decentralised democratic reform. You can never stop all these things happening if they all happen a mile above your head, in secret, in rooms you don’t get into. Everyone on Dumfries And Galloways’ Health Board should be given a final warning this afternoon and told that they serve the community and will turn up when called, every time, no matter what.

We need local democracy, we need transparency and accountability and we need proper, effective routes of appeal and redress. If everyone knows there is no threat to them if they do the wrong thing, we create a giant moral hazard. (Then again, Scotland is basically one big moral hazard these days, and the UK is even worse…)

And we need a new politics. We have assembled ourselves into tribes every bit as stupid and pig-headed as Democrats and Republicans in the US. I am still amazed how often I meet someone who expects me to keep my mouth shut about government failures for the sake of independence.

Christ man, for how long? For how long must I accept incompetent government? Right now it’s been half of a generation since the independence referendum. Is that enough now, or must an entire generation of people be failed?

Until that happens, until Scotland arrives in a place where we can have healthy politics again, at least increase accountability on the ones we have. Create a Citizens’ Assembly, greatly strengthen Audit Scotland and reform the rules of the Scottish Parliament to shake it out of its dreadful, lethargic complacency.

But, if you all keep voting for your tribes and turning a blind eye to the results, if we as a society can’t generate a political movement for reform, if you all think this is about good enough then here we are. This might be as good as it gets.

And there will be nothing you can do about it.

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