We can’t afford to normalise failure

by | 2 May 2023

At the weekend I saw in visual form Scotland's current expectation of failure. It hit me just how far along the corrosive path to the loss of faith in the public realm we are.

On Saturday I was in Greenock for a family event. It was the first time I’ve seen the hulks of 801 and 802 since they became visibly something a bit like a boat. I hadn’t really thought about this in advance – I drove round a bend and… there they were. And they depressed me more thoroughly than I was expecting.

It reflected something that hit me last week – the current catastrophising over the state of affairs in the SNP makes it easy to miss the state of affairs in government, and that in turn has very major consequences for Scotland as a nation. They worry me very deeply.

What is happening is that we are starting to normalise chaos and failure in Scotland. Everyone seems to be normalising this for their own reasons, but they are anyway. And let’s be honest, if you’re looking for some failure or some chaos you fancy normalising by mistake, Scotland would currently be a pretty good destination to seek out.

The implication of normalised failure is to crush belief in possibility. If you believe that anything that you try to do will inevitably end in a disaster then it makes you passive, a recipient of what comes to you. It clears the ground for chancers, crooks, the rapacious and the incredibly rich. That is what is happening in Scotland.

This was something that I realised was a problem for me never mind anyone else. Last week I checked in to see what had happened in First Ministers Questions earlier. My response to the summary was as follows: ‘Dear god, they’re three times over budget on a Barlinnie extension? I didn’t know about that one, but of course they are.’

It’s really hard to keep up, and I get paid to keep up. I have spent a few weeks very concerned about the multiple impacts of the current crisis inside the SNP (or rather, I’m worried about the impact of the SNP leadership seeming to be in denial about it). And that means I’ve had less capacity to think about what is going wrong in government.

I won’t bother with a list since you already know it, but the point is that I’m not bothering with a list because you already know it. You already know that if the Scottish Government tries to do something it will probably be either vacuous (the long queue of bills, consultations and grant funds there to exist rather than to really do anything) or go badly wrong.

And that is a serious problem. It is a serious problem when you stop counting the individual things that go wrong and instead you start to ‘weigh’ them in batches. Once you’ve crossed that mental threshold it doesn’t really make any difference if more things go wrong, because you’ve already reached an aggregate ‘nothing works, no point hoping’ conclusion.

It is a serious problem when you stop counting the individual things that go wrong and instead you start to ‘weigh’ them in batches

We can debate forever why this is happening, but if we only debate it in party political terms we get nowhere. The SNP seems to think this stuff isn’t going wrong really, its just teething problems exacerbated by a hostile press and scurrilous opposition parties. Which is definitely wrong.

Scottish Labour believes its some kind of intrinsic malady of nationalism which means they must always get things wrong forever. Which is definitely wrong. The Tories think this is all the result of not getting with the programme and cooperating with a genuinely brilliant UK administration. Which is definitely wrong.

This is a complex issue resulting from a whole host of factors. Neoliberalism and the marketisation of public life is a massive culprit (it is hardly difficult to find similar failures at the UK level and that is for the same reason). So is the part-privatisation of the civil service through external consultancy contracts which creates a clear conflict of interests (it is worth noting that KPMG’s clients are the major beneficiaries of a collapse in public confidence).

Sturgeon’s government was structured in a genuinely terrible way and responded to all the wrong signals – I’ve tried to explain this in some detail but the damage has been done. In fact almost everything that is going wrong is a legacy of her means of governing – whether or not you consider her a ‘great politician’ you must surely be realising that this much doesn’t go wrong under a good leader.

But even a better government would have made mistakes because of Scotland’s massive centralisation and because of the giant empire of agencies and hangers-on which seem to exist to milk the public sector and then cover it up.

In fact much of the content of this website is simply me trying to pick over what I see as a set of circumstances that led us here and to try and encourage discussion about how to get back out again.

But I’ve said this is complex, and that is the magic ‘paralysis word’ where suddenly trying to do anything seems pointless because, well, it’s all so complicated. Because what I’m trying to show is that the disasters may be complex and there may be multiple causes, but fundamentally they’re not difficult to understand.

(For an analogy, you may be with a patient who has multiple fractures, mild brain damage, internal bleeding, some signs of organ failure and extensive muscular damage. That is complex – and yet it is all because he jumped out of the window of a third-floor flat.)

So if the cause of the problems are explicable and fixable (and I’m certain they are), why aren’t we getting on with it? Why is there not a national will to resolve this? Sure, we can go back to the point that all the political parties in their way have a vested interest in either denying or encouraging failure and the public sector empire will always have an interest in covering it up.

But there is a more fundamental risk, which is that the public simply looses trust in the public realm altogether. To be clear, this is pretty well the explicit strategy of London’s Tories. They want you to believe that a comprehensive, totally free NHS is unworkable. Normalising ordinary people going private for treatment because they’re in pain and can’t get it from the NHS is a big win for the Tories.

And for that awful, awful character Keir Starmer who has quite clearly set his mind on becoming the Tory Party the Tory Party no longer wants to be. Wes Streeting wants to privatise the NHS with the same zeal as a Tory. Both want much, much more of the public realm to be delivered by private interests. The main difference is who pays (people in a free market or a public insurance scheme in all but name).

That’s why I keep arguing that no-one in politics wants to fix this. It’s the fact that so many in the public are now so far along this path that the destination is now in sight – an era where we don’t trust our public institutions so we allow them to be cannibalised by a corporate sector we don’t trust either but which has the money and power to do as it pleases.

We need to drag our eyes away from the sorry spectacle of camper vans getting toed away from the house of the former First Minister’s mother-in-law and stop the constant, involuntary shrugging

The irony is of course that right at the heart of the problems of Scotland is the private sector. It isn’t letting more public sector regulation of the private sector which is causing failure and chaos, it’s allowing more private sector infiltration of the public realm. That and governmental incompetence.

If we don’t trust the public realm then it is Amazon-or-nothing. It’s that stark. We must trust collective endeavour or we really are in it each of us on our own. In the 21st century going it alone isn’t an option. After all, if our collapse and failure is bad in Scotland, have a look at the utterly petrifying bin fire that is public life in the US. They are piloting our future for us and it looks like Trump.

I’ll tell you why the glimpse of those two hulls behind their scaffolding in a Greenock shipyard on a grey Saturday evening depressed me so much. It’s because they looked, well, small. Big boats sure, but you could walk round the scaffolding surrounding them in a minute or two.

I started at them. They are so, well, contained, so all-in-one-place, so familiar. These are just boats, floating tubs with engines. Everyone does this. How can we not? How is this so hard to fix? They’re just… there. Is it really so naïve of me to wonder why someone who knows what they are doing can’t just take a close look and, you know, fix whatever is wrong?

Or to put it another way, if they can’t, if we can’t either find someone in Scotland that knows how a boat works and is empowered to sort this out or at the very least attract such a person from somewhere else, what is wrong with us?

And if we accept this debacle as normal, all the debacles as normal, what does it say about Scotland the advanced western democracy? We need to drag our eyes away from the sorry spectacle of camper vans getting toed away from the house of the former First Minister’s mother-in-law and stop the constant, involuntary shrugging.

There is something clearly wrong. Either we believe in the public realm and start fixing it, or we take any of the others stances above (gloating, denying, hand-rubbing, confusion) and we will pay the price in the medium term.

Or let me put that another way; if you like me shrugged and said ‘of course they can’t build a prison extension’, fix your own head and stop normalising this. I’m going to try to be surprised afresh with each new failure in Scotland so my outrage remains where it needs to be – well-stocked and ready to flow in the right direction to try and repair this nation I love.

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