In A Century of the Scottish People 1830-1950, the historian T. C. Smout offers this disturbing observation:
Perhaps . . . it is in the history of the school more than in any other aspect of recent social history that the key lies to some of the more depressing aspects of modern Scotland. If there are in this country too many people who fear what is new, believe the difficult to be impossible, draw back from responsibility, and afford established authority an exaggerated respect, we can reasonably look for an explanation in the institutions that moulded them.
This was written in 1986 and it might be claimed that in post-devolution Scotland the climate has changed significantly, with growing national self-confidence within a new political landscape. I want to argue, however, that in an important respect Smout’s analysis remains valid. Modern Scotland, both before and after devolution, emerges as a country that is more committed to bureaucracy than democracy.
To make this case, it is first necessary to go back to the post-war period. Until 1965, Scottish secondary education was bipartite in character. The minority of children who ‘passed’ the ‘qualifying’ examination at the end of primary school went on to a five-year course in senior secondary schools leading to national examinations. Those who ‘failed’ were sent to junior secondaries offering three-year courses with no nationally-recognised qualifications at the end. The system was seriously flawed in various ways but it did provide a route to social mobility for able and aspiring working-class pupils. Their parents, many of whom had experienced hardship in the 1920s and 30s, wanted their sons and daughters to obtain secure jobs with prospects, preferably with a pension at the end.
A decidedly cynical view on the process was expressed by the radical educator, A.S. Neill, when he wrote that the political establishment ‘very cleverly selects the brighter children of the proletariat, sends them to secondary schools and then to university, thus taking them away from the class to which they belong and for which they might conceivably fight’.
The post-war period coincided with the expansion of the welfare state so there were job opportunities in central and local government, in teaching and the health service, and in public bodies of various kinds. These occupations were attractive not only because they offered security but also because they were seen as fulfilling important social functions. But the way in which they were run was essentially bureaucratic in character. Bureaucracies have certain key characteristics: they are formal and impersonal, depending on hierarchical structures and prescribed rules; their authority derives from expert knowledge, the control of which is jealously guarded; over time, they seek to extend their territorial reach; they encourage conformity to the prevailing institutional culture; when problems arise, measures are taken to protect the ‘integrity’ of the bureaucracy and the reputations of those who hold senior office. It is a system that too often rewards the mediocre and marginalises the talented.
After 1965, the divide between senior and junior secondary schools was ended, with the introduction of the comprehensive system. By then, however, the bureaucratic mindset had become well-established and its tentacles continued to spread. In education, the 1960s was the decade in which the General Teaching Council was established and national curriculum and examination bodies were set up (the forerunners of Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority). All of these organisations are highly bureaucratic in their internal operations and notably deferential in their attitude to government. Any ‘free spirits’ quickly find that their contributions are viewed with disapproval.
The consequences of all this on the quality of democratic debate are damaging. A form of ‘groupthink’ develops which discourages critical questioning of official policies. The language of public exchanges becomes narrow and prescriptive. Presentation is regarded as more important than substance. And the effect on individuals is psychologically damaging.
In the brilliant comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, the central character, Ignatius J. Reilly, remarks: ‘You can always tell someone who works for the government by the total vacancy which occupies the space where most other people have faces.’ This is not so much a comment on the intelligence of public officials as on the fact that, by submitting so readily to the constraints of the institutions in which they work, they lose their identity as individuals. They become mere ciphers of the state, having sold their souls for minor office (and a pension).
Has this picture changed much in the post-devolution period when we were promised a brave new world of transparency and greater accountability? Look at the evidence. When public organisations such as the NHS, Police Scotland, the Crown Office or local authorities fall short of the standards they purport to represent, what happens? A depressingly familiar pattern of delay, evasion and cover-up takes place. Rarely is any individual held responsible. Where enquiries are conducted, their independence is questioned. Members of the public often doubt the fairness and impartiality of so-called ‘regulatory’ bodies. At the same time, with no sense of inconsistency, officials boast that strenuous efforts are being made to reduce bureaucracy in education and other public services. The journalist and former politician Brian Wilson recently referred to ‘the stultifying bureaucracy and risk aversion which afflicts every public body in Scotland as the centralised grip has tightened’.
A healthy democracy requires a wide range of public and private bodies with different aims and values. We do not currently have this in Scotland. Too much decision-making takes the form of cosy consensus among powerful players who all employ the same type of self-congratulatory discourse. They see no contradiction between the managerial style of their institutions and their routine appeals to a sanitised, and unconvincing, version of the Scottish ‘democratic’ tradition.
A glimmer of hope
It is important not to be too downcast by this gloomy scene. Just occasionally, a shaft of sunlight can penetrate the clouds. I recently had the pleasure of taking part in a wonderful conference on Scottish education. It featured many classroom teachers reporting on innovative work in schools, constructive ideas on how to improve the curriculum, and input from writers and researchers on new thinking in psychology and professional development. Comments afterwards on social networking sites were uniformly positive. What was striking, however, was that the event had not been organised by the usual suspects – the Scottish Government, Education Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority or the General Teaching Council. The dead hand of officialdom was absent from the proceedings. We need to take heart from such sites of resistance and beacons of hope. Could we even be seeing the beginnings of a revolution from below?