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The Bodies (January 2011)

This article was first published on Bella Caledonia

The Scottish modernisation of the 1960s was a sort of Enlightened Despotism with Marxian trimmings, with a base and brickish skirt mired in B-division local corruption. Andrew O’Hagan gets the spirit in his novel Our Fathers (1999) and it had its parallels in university courses, at Strathclyde and Edinburgh in particular.


I studied Victorian urban reform and its philosophy and politics under Professor Geoffrey Best and regarded the Wheatley reorganisation as embarked on a similar improving course, directed by Benthamite ‘statesmen in disguise’. Geoffrey thought I might have a future as a regional administrator of a Fabian sort; a career which might have brought 2-3 times my present salary and early retirement in the 1990s to play golf and spoil grandchildren in some fetching wee Brigadoon, miles away from the ‘real Scotland’ where most of my achievements would be turning to ashes.

Motorways, mass car ownership, large comprehensive schools, multi-storey housing, new towns, retail parks: all have either proved flawed in practice or environmentally incompatible with the post-carbon economy which we now consider ourselves (with ample natural-resource justification) well-adapted to further. As for the ‘statesmen in disguise’ the Hungarian economist Tommy Balogh had already taken the ‘dilettante generalists’ expertly apart in 1959: respectable, subtle, cultivated, but not inclined to assess outcomes, for these were generally poor.

Instead the future was the Open University, which had the activism of Lloyd George and company in World War I – my dynamic boss being the high-risk Arthur Marwick, their historian in his still-convincing The Deluge (1965). Our unpromising centre, Bletchley, still pulsed from its World War II intelligence career. What kept the show going was North Sea oil, in which Balogh was involved as a founder of the British National Oil Corporation. Oil was home-grown, not just because laying pipes and building and crewing production platforms drew on the engineering schemes of the previous epoch, and the Scottish National Party under Gordon Wilson and Donald Bain had politicised it in 1972-74. In 1981 the Glasgow politics professor Bill Miller noted in his End of British Politics that Scotland as an issue could no longer be discounted from the British political calculus. Yet the cash was used to fund the grotesqueries of Thatcherism – the Union Hi-Jack? – and its New Labour clone.

The first provoked a separatist culture, in an exciting scene – from John McGrath’s Cheviot to Alasdair Gray’s Lanark – of which my Fool’s Gold, 1994 (still the only narrative account of the oil) was an outlier. The second saw the peculiar inflection of Tom Nairn’s ‘archetypal Scotch crawlers’ into a London ruling caste, equally prosperous/preposterous on the left and on the right: Rifkind, Forsyth, Blair, Brown, Darling, Campbell, Neil, Naughtie, Marr, etc., are Brigadoon-ripe. Though the real magician here was John Major’s obscure ‘safe pair of hands’ John MacGregor who presented Blair with the coup of rail privatisation in 1997. ‘The nation that fails to control its transportation will not long remain a nation’ wrote John Stuart Mill in the 1850s. MacGregor made this a fact.

II Our Masters the Drafters

Analyse what Scottish political society consists of: meaning the establishment that actually ‘makes’ the decisions for the Ayr-Aberdeen lozenge. It seems to resemble what Mill himself, philosopher and briefly Liberal MP, sketched out 150 years ago in his Parliamentary Reform pamphlet. He would have replaced the English cabinet by a salaried board of policy drafters rather like our pre-devolution Scottish civil service, who were to submit their schemes to the yea or nay of a proportionally-elected Chamber. Our drafters now boil down to an oligarchy of 90% middle-aged white males, members of which regularly, tantalisingly, appear before me in Holyrood’s Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee.

They can be effectively divided into a dozen interlinked categories, with salaries/ incomes of £ 120,000 a year and counting:

- Scottish Government ministers; senior civil servants of Scottish and reserved ministries; executives of leading Scottish quangos, (Scottish Enterprise, etc.)
- Scottish officials of British public agency bodies (the ‘new unionism’ of Ofgem, Ofcom, etc.), privatised utilities, outsourced public services
- Senior academics/ head teachers/ inspectors/ research institute heads with salary autonomy
- Executives and senior staff of surviving Scotland-based private industrial, agriculture, property and financial enterprises, and surviving public enterprises: CalMac, Scottish Water, Transport Scotland
- Local authority and NHS senior management; public regulators
- Senior accountants and corporate/property lawyers
- The criminal law/ prison establishment and major solicitors
- Senior medical, dental, architectural professionals
- Executives of supermarkets, online retailers, call-centres
- Bosses of major transport groups, automobile retailers, the military
- Best-selling authors (the Famous Four: Rankin, Rowling, Welsh, McCall Smith), celebrities, presenters
- Politicians, officials or journalists turned consultants or lobbyists

There are a few bigger fish outwith the property/finance/insurance area, but not many. There is a ‘second-home Scotland’ of the international rich, no more useful than they were when slaughtering wildlife in Victoria’s days. There is no equivalent to the West German Mittelstand, whose modestly prosperous concerns stretch across local banking, industrial production, innovation and training, local government. As for the civil society which doggedly persevered with the Constitutional Convention, 1989-93, and which Holyrood was supposed in turn to gee up – the trade unions, the clergy, teachers, journalists, the local volunteers? The institution of a Civic Forum which was supposed to do this just faded away, unremarked.

Even granted goodwill, the above oligarchs are – through official cars, second homes (often abroad), the beckoning of early retirement/consultancy, the firewalls of secretariats, ‘due process’ and PR – complacent, sheltered and mutually-defensive. They have neither the immediacy of old burgh and county (the town clerk with his high street office) nor, as on the continent, does there exist a corpus of business or administrative law to govern them. Heavy industry had its own controllers, planners and instructors – still present as a counterweight in Strathclyde until the 1990s – but has effectively vanished. What they do have instead, as a disturbingly close neighbour, is what Jeremy Rifkin calls the Fourth Sector: a ‘black oligarchy’ of figures who are essentially ‘temporary kings’ – lottery-winners, million-a-year footballers, ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ investment banking matadors, contractors not bigoted about inducements. Not least, successful career criminals (trading their patches on to what we might dub ‘Interhood’) and others feeding on Europe’s most intractable drug scene.

What emerged in my Broonland, a study of ‘moral hazard’ not as risk but as organising principle, was that non-transparency united the ‘overextended’ financiers, the regulation-flouters, the outright crooks, and (most intriguingly), the upholders of laws which were impossible to enforce. If elites are built on synergy, this lot were glued together by malfunction. ‘He/she knows where the bodies are buried’ has covered many an uninspiring official appointment. Back in 2007 some of us MSPs made a proposal to the Scottish Futures Forum (a relict of the Civic Forum ethos) to probe our ‘black economy’, our Heart of Darkness but, though it gained initial interest, even my one-term Holyrood stint has outlived it.

III Meet the Martians?

There seems no evidence that this largely supine establishment (the modern version of the ‘Bodies’ in George Douglas Brown’s House with the Green Shutters, 1900, and its far-from transparent interlinks) was put at much discomfort by the SNP’s time in the sun. Indeed the welcome it gave the Salmond government in May 2007 makes in retrospect a crude politique sense. But something had changed by 2010, in the sense that the Edinburgh financial oligarchy that survived was too well-heeled or tax-haven-based to be more than a marginal part of the above.

Go back to Bill Jamieson’s Scotland’s Ten Tomorrows, a free-market, right-wing manifesto emanating from the Scotsman in 2006, and marvel at Big Finance’s absence from the scene even then. The Royal Bank’s new headquarters at Gogar appears, contrasted positively with the travails of the Holyrood Parliament project, but it’s rather like a description of the Martian tripods in H G Wells’ War of the Worlds, without any study of the Martians themselves: their lethal-rays, cannibalism and propensity to drop dead.

Further collective mayhem was about to occur. You can take your pick between the saga of the banks, the National Trust, Creative Scotland (I guess and fear …), the evictions from Silicon Glen, the morphing of burgh after Scottish burgh into TeScotland. Let’s choose the career of the Edinburgh tram, recorded by that brilliant franc-tireur historian George Rosie in a recent Scottish Review of Books piece, which combines Scotland’s chronic deindustrialisation, the executive incompetence of the Edinburgh oligarchy, and a strange attitude from the SNP government which rejected, then accepted the project, but refused to steer it. Can there be any confidence that the much bigger second Forth Road Bridge scheme (already ‘iconic’, poor thing) will be (a) completed – almost wholly abroad – without a severe overspend? and (b) justify its cost in the age of the $200-plus barrel of Peak Oil?

This conspectus doesn’t include one remarkable cross-party campaign: the defence of BAe and its giant aircraft carriers project. From its pariah status for bribery (only spared by the ‘reasons of state before rule of law’ intervention of Blair and Brown) BAe became the saviour of Scottish heavy industry, at five million quid a job. It soon proved, however, that the two ‘marine airfields’ (one of which would be mothballed on completion) would come at the cost of two out of the three dry-land bases, and ultimately thousands of non-carrier shipbuilding/ engineering jobs.

IV Scotland Renewed?

As I sign off from the Scottish parliamentary scene (not to be dismissed, because of civility and potential efficiency, and the quality of information available) the talk is of tens of thousands of jobs to be created by renewable energy, although the mechanism for securing this is strewn over four ministries. The goal isn’t fantasy, for hydrocarbons are running out as rapidly as their CO2 legacy darkens above us; we’re Europe’s largest marine power reserve; the technology is only starting to develop. But, translated, it means that tens of thousands of skilled workers need to be trained. Where? And taught by whom?

It costs £ 5000 to train a ‘telephone sales executive’ (part of the exciting ‘knowledge economy’, aka. call centre operative), perhaps ten times that to train an electrotechnician for boring old ‘metal-bashing, widget making’. The investment for that rests with the European economies which didn’t give up on civil manufacture. Our links with them are more important than those with the United Kingdom of London, which in subsidy terms (taking £ 100 as the UK regional average) now gets £ 170 for every £ 115 spent on Scotland. Spent on public transport/bikes/walking, not as here on nostalgic 1960s car-culture, it’s more formidable than ever. But our direct ferry connection to Europe has just ended. Our main rail routes, passenger and freight, to the Channel Tunnel – in principle far more efficient than road or air, as a recent Scotsman test found out – wind up ‘chiuso per restauro’ most weekends.

Back in 1982 I wrote Fabian Tract 242 Against Metropolis, arguing for a federal Britain on the pretty successful lines of the German Bundesrepublik. Something of the sort still underlies the various Calman-style initiatives, though the structure has never subsequently been elaborated on. But federalism depends on powerful shared legal and cultural traditions and a logical corpus of constitutional law, while the UK has continued to rely on its ‘statesmen in disguise’. Only problem: matters haven’t improved since Balogh’s time. Our mandarins are part of a glued-up ‘property-retail driver’, tolerated by actual mandarins to whom Mao was only a blip in a 2000-year process. The British way doesn’t function and no longer attracts respect. By compromising with it, we get the oligarchy we deserve.

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