Newspapers are notoriously dispiriting and today there are plenty of stories to provoke anxiety. A ‘no deal’ Brexit, climate change, Donald Trump…
However, as a result of my own experience and what I’m reading in newspapers and social media I see heartening developments within Scotland. Not all of them are cheerful subjects in themselves, but they contain the seed of something positive. Most of what I track has emerged in the last month but I begin with something that has long roots and is only now beginning to bear fruit.
The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry
This month sees the publication of the first Case Study Findings of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry. Set up to investigate the abuse of children in care in Scotland, the Inquiry resulted from the action of survivor-led support groups which formed in the 1990s and ultimately petitioned the Scottish Parliament. Without their actions and bravery in speaking out this Inquiry would not have been set up.
The first findings related to two residential homes run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. It found that the children did suffer abuse. Some of the children were beaten every day with a variety of implements, including the Lochgelly Tawse.
For many children who were in Smyllum and Bellevue, the homes were places of fear, coercive control, threat, excessive discipline and emotional, physical and sexual abuse, where they found no love, no compassion, no dignity and no comfort. Lady Smith, Chair of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry
This first report is an indictment of the Catholic Church, and much of the abuse was carried out by nuns, but there are allegations against the Church of Scotland and medical establishments.
With a huge number of residential homes and schools to investigate it will be years before the Inquiry publish their final report. But survivors of abuse in two Scottish care homes have had their day in court. They are not just being heard, they are also believed.
Neil Mackay speaks up for women
In the same week that Gerry Hassan wrote a trenchant article on ‘Toxic Masculinity’ in Scotland and beyond, former Sunday Herald editor Neil Mackay disclosed that his daughter was ‘failed by police’ after she was the victim of a sexual offence. That article led lots of Scottish women to contact Neil with similar stories. A common theme emerged: They were most likely to be failed when a man was in charge. Neil tweeted:
This is a global problem but the stories I’ve heard are all about Scotland. This country needs to wake up. We’re not some utopia where women are valued or treated better than elsewhere across the western world. We fail women – at their most vulnerable – every day. Shame on us…
Neil thinks men have to take ownership of this problem. They need to stop being silent about the way women are often mistreated and speak out. He wants men to get in touch to discuss how they can take action.
The state has a role to play in ensuring that victims are heard but we also need a shift in men’s consciousness and behaviour. And that’s more likely to happen if it is instigated by men. So what Neil Mackay is doing could be a highly significant development.
ACE Aware Nation – from grassroots
At the end of September an extraordinary event took place in Glasgow’s Armadillo. Two women – Suzanne Zeedyk and Pauline Scott – had the vision and courage to invite Scotland to become the ‘first ACE aware nation’. (For those who don’t know, ACEs stand for Adverse Childhood Experiences, the traumatic events that can have profound implications for children’s future physical and mental health.)
Around 2,500 people attended the main conference and 250 were at a more in-depth event the day before. Of course, many of them were professionals and there is already a significant institutional response to ACEs. The First Minister welcomed participants in a video address and her deputy, John Swinney, spoke in the afternoon. Nonetheless it felt more like a grassroots campaign than a government initiative.
Some speakers preached rebellion. John Carnochan, formerly head of the highly successful Violence Reduction Unit, encouraged us (metaphorically) to stand before tanks and make our voices heard. David Cameron, in a style reminiscent of an evangelical preacher, told us to be angry, to stand up to those whose values we do not share. Strong stuff, and quite unlike anything I’ve experienced in a fairly middle of the road, professional audience.
That matters because grassroots action is more likely to make an impact. In recent years Scottish government initiatives and campaigns have not have had much staying power. Across different sectors, many people are privately saying that despite great policy documents and strategies real change is hard to see. The Early Years Collaborative, for example, was supposed to change everything. Now it is hardly mentioned.
As long as this ACE movement retains the authenticity of a grassroots campaign rather than a Government-led initiative – and practitioners refuse to use tools such as Education Scotland’s ACEs tracker – then I have high hopes for what it might achieve.
Cross-party challenge on food and P1 testing
The voting system of the Scottish Parliament was designed to facilitate multi-party politics and coalitions. Things have not turned out this way. The SNP have dominated the Parliament since 2011. But, this is beginning to change.
The four opposition parties, including the Conservatives, are now collaborating to stimulate some progressive policies. In September they jointly demanded a much more radical response on food from the Scottish Government. The SNP had promised to bring forward a ‘Good Food Nation’ Bill – covering topics such as local food production, food poverty, food security and obesity. But it wasn’t on their programme for Government. Unhappy with this omission, the other parties united to support an amended motion ensuring that the legislation will not be ‘kicked into the long grass’.
The four parties united again to defeat the Scottish Government on P1 testing, putting forward a range of arguments advanced by the broad coalition of organisations and individuals who want the tests scrapped – the EIS, Connect (formerly the Parent-Teacher Council), The Scottish Childminders Association, Upstart Scotland, Children in Scotland and countless headteachers, parents and grandparents,
Disregarding the will of the Parliament, the Scottish Government says it will plough on. But, with their education policies attracting more and more criticism they are unlikely to get away with that for long. Sooner or later they will have to back down.
Teachers talk back
On BBC Question Time and in social media, teachers are beginning to express pent-up frustration. At the beginning of October a Scottish primary school teacher wrote an open letter to Education Secretary John Swinney outlining the things that were making her job impossible. Teachers have been told not to vocalise their concerns, she added. People fear reprisals.
The letter went viral, and had to be addressed by the First Minister herself in the Scottish Parliament. Openness and transparency were ‘hugely important’ said Nicola Sturgeon. She was making it clear to every local authority that it was ‘unacceptable to say to any teacher they will be disciplined’ for speaking out.
But teachers are taking matters into their own hands. Speaking out has now been made much easier. A Fife teacher, Mark Wilson, has set up a whistle blowing website Dear Madam President enabling Scottish teachers to post anonymous letters online. Mark Wilson invites teachers to speak up and makes the reason clear:
At a recent SNP conference, Mr Swinney accused his political peers of ‘politicising education and of not having children’s best interests at heart’. This statement, coming from an Education Minister who refuses to listen to practicing teachers and who is dismissive in his responses to professionals seeking assistance, appears to be nothing short of arrogance.
As teachers, we want our concerns addressed, and our expertise trusted. We want to be able to improve the standard of education for our children. The current system and curriculum is not working well enough for our kids. We lack resources. We lack coherent courses. We lack time to teach content-heavy courses.
We want to be engaged with. We are not here to attack any politician or political party. We are asking for genuine assistance. We want practicing teachers in a room being listened to by people who can affect change.
There is no political agenda here, We simply want our voices heard. We are speaking out on behalf of the children whom we are not being allowed to educate to the best of our ability. Dear Madam President.
Rebuilding local democracy
James McEnaney, in his newly published book A Scottish Journey, wonders whether ‘those who live in places like Applecross really feel that Holyrood is, in a day-to-day sense, any closer or more accessible than Westminster.’
Scotland is indeed a highly centralised country. We have a system of local government that hardly deserves the name. Lesley Riddoch, who has campaigned on this issue for years tells us: ‘Across Europe the average council serves 14,000 people – in Scotland it’s roughly 170, 000. In Germany the average council is 15 square kilometres in size – in Scotland it’s 990 square kilometers.’
The Highland Council area is the size of Belgium. And, when it comes to funding, only 10.7% of the money Scottish councils spend is raised locally. The average for EU countries is 41.6%.
What’s the point in local politics? In a powerful article Professor Jim Hunter suggests it’s time for local councilors
‘to quit council chambers, lock the doors and mail the keys to Holyrood. “Since you guys insist on calling all the shots,” their covering notes could say, “it’s high time you carried the can.”’
None of this is new. In 2014 the COSLA Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy published radical proposals to rebuild Scottish democracy. [see HERE] Its recommendations have not been acted on. But, important figures are now giving notice to the Scottish Government that there must be change.
The Scottish Green Party is seeking cross party support to make Scotland a ‘normal’ European democracy. The Green Party – whose support is essential to the minority SNP administration – is making reform of local government funding a ‘precondition’ of budget negotiations with the Scottish Government.
— Perth Greens (@Perth_Greens) October 12, 2018
COSLA President, Alison Evison, is also calling for change on funding and demanding reestablishment of regular meetings between COSLA and the Government. Meetings where they are treated as equal partners. If this happens it could be a vitally important step towards genuine local democracy.
There is a link between the absence of strong local democracy at the moment and the prevalence of inequalities COSLA Strengthening Local Democracy
Getting out from under
Of course, this is a highly subjective list. Many others would include the large independence rally and celebrate the great range of grassroot organisations allied to the independence cause.
But for the moment my concern is not about Scotland’s fate vis a vis Westminster. My focus is on the negative forces at work within Scotland itself and what we can do to challenge them and bring about change.
Centralising forces rob individuals, employees and communities of autonomy and respect. Some of the negative forces hark back to more authoritarian or patriarchal times still making their presence felt in today’s Scotland. None of these negative forces lead to good decision-making. They need to be swept aside. I celebrate all of those who are trying to do just that.
Featured image: Rowan trees in full fruit by Molly Bones CC BY-NC-ND 2.0