Common Weal Versus the Virus: The virus is exposing the reality of the weaknesses in our economy, society and democracy. Over the last six years Common Weal has been showing that the weaknesses can all be fixed. Over the next few weeks Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine will write a series of columns showing how Common Weal policy is the best way to survive this virus and then rebuild when its over. Today – governance in Scotland.
I HAVE been in and around politics and government processes in Scotland for nearly 30 years. I’ve been a journalist, a lobbyist, a campaigner and a policy analyst. I have reached a point where I can’t ignore what I have seen and heard.
It ends up at a worrying conclusion – everywhere I look, Scotland is corrupted. I don’t mean ‘money in brown paper envelopes’ (though I’ll get to that). I mean that powerful vested interests have distorted the process of governance so completely that they don’t need corruption – the corruption is built in.
I’ve written on this a lot and this morning Ben Wray did a pretty devastating piece summarising how the powerful vested interests are getting everything they want from the virus.
This is going to shape our future. The public mood is calling for change, for a different kind of society. Big Money is mouthing off about ‘getting it’ while they plunder government for every decision and every penny they can before it all runs out. We’ll get anything left – it won’t be much.
I’m afraid as usual the most perceptive voice on this may be Frankie Boyle when he writes about a ‘ruling class, media, and virus that are broadly in agreement’. Disaster capitalism – using the death toll to roll back the regulations you’ve been fighting for decades – appears to have the Scottish Government’s full backing.
This is all a massive national failure in governance. I know that this may seem strangely understated, not the call for a revolution you might expect. But because for a long time I’ve been up close with the machine in motion I can promise you that, pointy-headed as it might sound, a major reform of governance IS a revolution.
Why governance matters
The biggest failure of lefties and reformers is to not understand how power works. We tend to think that getting a politician to say something that sounds like the thing we want them to say is success. We’re wrong. It’s the decision that counts – its always the decision.
This is why we always lose – we march, they rig the system from within. We have the slogans and (often) the best arguments, they have the membership of all the decisive committees and boards. We need enormous amounts of public effort to get issues onto the agenda, yet they can undo it all again quietly and in private without any real effort.
We expect there to be checks and balances; they own the checks and they own the balances. The governing bodies of newspapers and quangos and universities and the civic sector contain the same kind of people as the advisory groups and short-life working groups.
Pretty well everyone agrees in advance. I’ve lost count of how many reviews, inquiries and pre- and post-legislative scrutiny processes I’ve been involved in. You would be very surprised at how little disagreement there is – fundamental things like ‘corporations do it better’, ‘outsourcing is efficiency’ and ‘commercial confidentiality trumps transparency’ are not up for discussion.
But worse, even as an insider I often find myself having to guess at what the hell just happened. They call it the ‘black box’ – the bit of the process where everything disappears from sight for a period of time and then remerges, usually fundamentally different and always fundamentally weaker.
There just isn’t any diversity, and as I’ve tried to argue strongly, the overwhelming evidence is that diversity makes better decisions. Let me put this as bluntly as I can: people on zero-hour contracts and nurses do not feature at all in these governance structures.
To illustrate, I was one of 35 people asked to spend a day contributing to an overarching Scottish Government strategy process – as token leftie. My group (otherwise all eminent business leaders, senior civil servants and lawyers) came to a remarkable conclusion. They all agreed that the decline of Scotland’s towns was inevitable – but not important.
To repeat: explicitly, no action should be taken to help towns because failure was inevitable. I expressed strong dissent to this view at the meeting and was mocked by the former chief executive of a very larger corporation.
It’s nonsense to believe that you win or lose change in the media or (for the most part) on the streets. You win or lose change in the shady committees of public governance. That is where we must fight.
Vigilance is our only real defence from tyranny – so you can see why Scotland is in some trouble. There is very little effective media and they mostly don’t do investigation (if it’s not on Twitter). We have loophole-filled Freedom of Information laws and an entirely toothless lobbying register.
Audit Scotland does its best but it doesn’t seem to matter how many times they expose things like PFI fraud – onwards the machine rolls. And Scotland has no lobbying monitoring whatsoever. Common Weal, the Electoral Reform Society and Transparency International based in London work together and do what we can, but it’s peanuts in the face of the power of Scotland’s lobbyists.
There are simple steps we can take. We must strengthen Freedom of Information, and we need a proper lobbying register that covers civil servants and is not limited to face-to-face meetings and requires financial disclosure. Such a system would reveal things which would make you very angry. That’s why it doesn’t exist.
Commercial confidentiality must end when tenders are won and if businesses want public money they must accept it comes with public accountability – to a high standard.
Far from bailing-out out the media we have, we need to create a media which isn’t silent in the face of what is happening. And we need much, much stronger rules on what is and is not acceptable for senior public officials – having lunch with corporations and then working for lobbying companies within a couple of months of ‘retiring’ fall into the ‘not acceptable’ category.
Common Weal has a substantial set of reforms ready to go when there is a government more interested in good governance than in toadying to the powerful.
The real key to the problem is to replace the feudal system we have (in which powerful people appoint powerful people to positions of power without scrutiny) with a democratic system.
There are few public appointments which cannot be selected through means other than patronage; using a stakeholder system you can easily get democracy into governance. Let’s take the NHS – the governance of hospitals can be created as a five-partner system with nurses, doctors, auxiliary staff, patients and senior managers all getting a fifth of the places.
It is then easy for each of these stakeholder groups to arrange a method of choosing their own representatives (through trade unions, staff associations or by creating associations). The finance managers will still say ‘just in time management saves money on PPE’ – but this time there will be a nurse to say ‘and it kills your staff’.
Universities should have governing bodies elected by staff, students and community stakeholders. That would restore academic freedom – Scotland’s university managements routinely suppress research they don’t like these days. The system isn’t criticised by academia. The various subject ‘Tsars’ can be elected – if you’re going to have a disability Tsar, let registered disabled people elect her or him.
But much of the way we structure decision-making is inherently wrong. Experts are crucial, but don’t always make the right decisions because the ‘counterfactual’ (the thing no-one in the room noticed might happen) isn’t raised.
Again, Common Weal has an extensive set of tools which can be used to replace undemocratic government by committee. To give you a taste, an early two-day emergency citizen’s jury (say in late February) supported to take evidence from lots of medical experts would probably have prioritised PPE and supported an earlier lockdown with testing.
Instead, experts behaved like politicians, trying to guess what the public would accept – and got it wrong. The ‘rich men in private’ model is going to look as daft as the ‘only men who own land on criminal juries’ rule does to us now.
We need to make policy in a different way
This is a little obscure for many, so I’ll be brief – but this might be one of the most important things we could do. We need to change how the civil service makes policy.
The problem is a conflict of interests built into the system. The civil service devises policy, but it also implements that policy. I have seen over and over the process whereby good policy ideas are reduced to bad policy ideas because civil servants change them according to what is easiest to administer.
Partly this is fair enough – there is no point in policies that can’t be implemented. But because this process is hidden you never get to know what they deemed ‘too difficult’, nor can you have any confidence they did so in good faith. When policies are dead on arrival you just think they were bad policies. Often that’s not true – they were made bad for ease of implementation.
We should split this process. Set up Policy Academies based round Scotland’s universities, each being a big national government ‘think tank’. When government wants policy advice it goes to a Policy Academy and that academy then goes through a process and publishes its final proposal.
At that point the delivery part of the civil service can argue for its downgrading or abandonment – but they have to do it in public and you will know what policy you could have had and assess it against the policy you actually got.
Again, if you had this information you’d be pissed off at the embarrassingly weak crap that comes out of government in Scotland compared to the sometimes inspiring ideas that go in.
We need radical reform of lobbying
It has become really quite difficult to work out where Charlotte Street Partners ends and the Scottish Government begins. CSP writes all of Sturgeon’s economy strategy or appears to choose who does (would it surprise you to know that Benny Higgins is a former CSP client from his Tesco Bank days?).
There is a constant revolving door between government and CSP – it is littered with senior government officials and very senior civil servants who are on the payroll within a couple of months of ‘retiring’.
We don’t know all their clients because the are darkly secretive. What we do know is that the clients that have been uncovered seem to make out big (Canadian corporation takes over Alexander Denis busses, gets represented by CSP then promptly gets a half-baked contract for £500 million announced personally by Nicola Sturgeon).
I could write endlessly about this. The presence of big financial interests in and around government (in places they very clearly do not belong) is so endemic that you can’t even get people on the inside to notice it. It’s like trying to explain water to a fish.
Hundreds of millions of pounds of public money every year go into the pockets of corporate interests (billions if you include public procurement). And they’re not Scottish businesses – domestically owned SMEs get screwed over on this every time. They don’t have lobbyists (they’re not even represented at all on Sturgeon’s new ‘recovery committee’).
The first response ought to be for the Scottish Government to look at itself in the mirror, recoil in horror and recognise what it has become. But I’m afraid the key figures in that government are drunk on the power and connections it confers on them.
So once they’re gone and we can start cleaning Scotland up, I think we should start looking at some radical options. I have reached the point where I think I would just ban all private contact of lobbyists or commercial interests and any civil servant or politicians.
They can submit their requests in writing (knowing it will be public) an they can give evidence in televised sessions – but all other contact would be banned. This is perfectly workable and the idea that government needs lobbied is a construct of the lobbyists.
The civic sector needs to reform itself too
In the early Blair years there was a strategy to take the teeth out of civic scrutiny of government – by putting them on the payroll. Blair’s outsourcing and privatisation sprees gave just enough delivery contracts to big NGOs to make them tame and complicit. From there, many of these ‘charities’ just adopted an attitude little different from Serco.
What’s so sad about this is that the charity sector is filled with good people trying to make a better world – but those people exist within a compromised system.
The giant charities don’t criticise because they’re part of the establishment. And the ethos has changed. For example, I know of an NGO whose entire income is basically public money. That NGO was tasked with both delivery and strategy and so designed the strategy not to best deliver but to maximise income. A lot of the work they have done is really dodgy.
This was the subject of a major academic review. That review was scathing – so a senior civil servant buried it at the request of the NGO. The directors of this ‘NGO’ then set up a private subsidiary with only its senior staff as shareholders – and appear to be funnelling work from the parent NGO to their profit-distributing off-shoot.
This is going to blow up soon but I’ve been copied in in advance. I passed their annual accounts to a chartered accountant (no leftie) whose reply opened with “there’s something thoughtfully rotten here”. But the sponsoring civil servant is complicit, so getting this into the public domain is a long and painful process.
Scotland PLC (the name the top officials give to this merger of corporations and government) includes the NGO sector as well. It’s why you never hear much proper analytical criticism of government policy in Scotland – and why (utterly shamefully) the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations lobbied against the Lobbying Bill. There has to be reform.
My biggest fear is that over the last five or six years Scotland has become more and more like a ‘Little Malta’ – a nation in which vested interests corrupting the fabric of the nation is utterly endemic. Post indyref, it really looks like those Big Money interests got a fright at the Yes movement’s reforming rhetoric and so sought to colonise the whole of public life.
The main difference is that no-one would be able to find an investigative journalist to assassinate. Scotland’s ‘investigations editors’ and politics desks have successfully uncovered none of this.
BBC Scotland doesn’t seem to think it’s an issue. When Andrew Wilson goes on radio they never press him on his secretive company, billing him as ‘an economist’ or some such. This weekend they had David Leask on the Sunday newspaper review, insisting that mention of the secret services having a role in Scotland is ridiculous.
Now at this point, for some balance, Isobel Fraser pointed out that he was actually caught grassing up independence movement figures (including me) to a dark propaganda arm of the British secret services… Actually, no she didn’t – she purred agreement.
The first rule of Media Club is you don’t mention Media Club. There is to be no scrutiny of why our media is so bad, no real questions for powerful people and no digging into corruption. I mean, there should be an entire TV series dedicated to PFI and its endless scandals alone.
I’m going to write about the media and the virus next, so all I can say is that ‘bailing the failing’ is not an adequate response. There needs to be a jolt to the very fundamental ethos of journalism in Scotland. You’re not bloggers, you’re not activists and pursuing petty vendettas is not journalism.
So it’s going to have to be reeducation
Senior people who really understand government have been reviewing the big post-virus economic recovery plan Common Weal is working on. We are going to propose a Transition Academy, a training centre for civil servants to help them understand the economic priorities they’re leaving behind and learn the ones they are now pursuing.
One of those senior figures said ‘good, we need a reeducation committee if we’re going to achieve anything in Scotland’. When something that is corrupted isn’t seen as corruption (and it isn’t), the failure is in seeing. Powerful people have created a plaything out of Scotland and they no longer see it as a project but as a statement of reality.
As soon as they are told that this is no longer the reality, they lose influence. That’s what’s so wonderful about governance reform – it’s hard to argue against, it’s popular and in one stroke it removes an enormous amount of the anti-democratic power wielded by money in Scotland.
And that’s why they want you to pull on that slogan t-shirt, occupy something or other for a couple of weeks and then just give up – as long as you don’t talk about governance. Because that would really scare them.
Next Up: Scotland’s media