The term ‘official Scotland’ covers a number of important institutions: central and local government; national organisations responsible for a wide range of services (e.g. health and education); professional bodies which set standards and control entry to particular occupational groups; regulatory agencies intended to monitor performance and investigate complaints.
Those who occupy senior positions in these organisations seek to project a positive view of their function and achievements. Visit any of their websites and you will encounter grandiose ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ statements, expressed in boastful discourse. There is also usually an appeal to a version of Scottish identity that emphasises justice, equality, inclusion and public service. Terms such as ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ are regularly invoked. In practice, much of this turns out to be rhetorical flourish.
The point about language is important. The various agencies of official Scotland enjoy considerable powers of ‘narrative privilege’, a concept that refers to the ability of senior figures to tell their own story in a way that reflects well on themselves. Policy documents, minutes of meetings and reports of enquiries are crafted using sanitised bureaucratic language designed to put a favourable spin on events and forestall further enquiry. Within government, civil servants have had decades of experience in finding forms of words that conceal more than they reveal. Under pressure, however, they may resort to the tried and tested techniques of delay, evasion and cover-up.
The Use of Patronage
Central government is able to exercise patronage in deciding who should be appointed to boards, committees and working groups. Relevant experience and expert knowledge play a part, but appointments are also influenced by perceptions of whether candidates are prepared to observe the unwritten rules of the game. In a brilliant study of the policy community in education published in 1988, Andrew McPherson and Charles Raab showed that ‘deference and trust’ were essential qualities. Those chosen had to be prepared to defer to established hierarchies and to demonstrate that they could be relied upon not to rock the boat. There is no evidence to suggest that the situation has changed markedly in the post-devolution period. Dissident voices continue to be marginalised. For those who are willing to conform to official expectations – and there is never any shortage of aspirants to the charmed inner circle – there is often the prospect of receiving some minor recognition in the honours list in due course.
Mechanisms designed to hold public bodies accountable have had limited success, partly because their protocols and procedures are weighted in favour of institutions rather than members of the public. To lodge complaints with any hope of success requires knowledge, determination and stamina. Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation has had some benefits but institutions have learned ways of resisting requests. The Scottish Information Commissioner has had cause to criticise government ministers for failing to respond to FoI requests within the statutory time period. And many of those who have taken their complaints to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman have been dissatisfied not only with the outcome, but also with the way their submissions have been handled.
Professional bodies, such as those representing doctors and lawyers, often claim to be motivated by an ethic of public service, which places the interests of patients and clients above their own. The record hardly bears this out. The campaigning group, Action for a Safe and Accountable People’s NHS (ASAPNHS), which has drawn attention to the serious failings of health boards, in some cases leading to avoidable deaths, as well as the failure to conduct properly independent enquiries, has encountered major obstacles when it has raised its concerns not only with NHS Scotland, but also with government ministers and Police Scotland. A study of the written replies ASAPNHS has received provides an interesting insight into the linguistic tactics of back-covering organisations.
The Scottish legal profession hardly inspires great confidence either. The Crown Office has been castigated for entering into plea-bargaining deals which seem to favour criminals and lead victims and witnesses to feel that justice has not been served. Scotland’s system of Fatal Accident Enquiries has been described as slow and inadequate, again often leaving relatives of the deceased feeling that they have been treated shabbily. As for complaints against solicitors, is there anyone, apart from lawyers themselves, who is satisfied with the procedures of the Law Society of Scotland and the outcomes of cases taken to the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal? The self-importance of the judiciary might just be tolerable if it was matched by an impressive track-record of judgements. But its members constitute a closed, self-perpetuating elite which allows them to disregard outside critics.
A Compliant Media
One of the reasons why the Scottish establishment gets away with its various strategies to maintain the fiction of a properly democratic society is that the media have too often failed to hold officialdom to account. Newspapers are under great economic pressure and employ few investigative journalists of the kind who might interrogate press releases and dig beneath the surface. Moreover, one journalist has referred to the ‘clubby nexus between politics and the media’ in Scotland which often prevents potentially embarrassing stories being published. Who knows how many articles have been spiked following a discreet telephone call from a politician or senior official to a newspaper editor? Official Scotland is a relatively small world and many of the key players meet and socialise on a regular basis. Cronyism with a Scottish accent is no more acceptable than the public school/Oxbridge variety.
For too long Scottish people have been presented with a flattering self-evaluation by the powerful, unchallenged by a dispassionate assessment of the evidence. Far from being a beacon of democratic enlightenment, official Scotland exhibits many of the worst features of narrative privilege, bureaucratic defensiveness, professional protectionism and the abuse of patronage. There is no easy answer to this deep-seated cultural problem, but the first step is to acknowledge that it exists. Only then can the task of meaningful reconstruction begin. There will be strong objections from those who flourish under the present dispensation and who have developed various means of protecting their interests. It is highly questionable whether existing political parties are up to the task of reform, since many of their members routinely collude with the networks of influence that maintain the deceptions. Identifying the most promising sites of resistance would be a useful starting point.
Image: International Council of Education Advisers via Scottish Government CC BY SA 2.0