Wednesday 4 January
The resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers as the UK ambassador to the European Union has raised questions about the proper relationship between senior civil servants and politicians. Sir Ivan felt that there was confusion and a lack of strategy among pro-Brexit ministers in the government. His advice about the complexity and probable timescale of negotiations was not welcomed. As a parting shot, he urged his civil service colleagues not to be afraid to speak truth to power.
Brexit supporters moved quickly in an attempt to discredit Sir Ivan. He was accused of being negative and unduly pessimistic. One of those who went on the attack was Iain Duncan Smith. His argument was poor but his manner was revealing. As a former soldier, Duncan Smith has an unfortunate 'officer class’ style of pronouncing on matters which comes across as arrogant and dismissive. Someone should advise him that a patrician air no longer cuts any ice with most people.
I was led to reflect on relations between mandarins and cabinet secretaries in the Scottish government. Is it at all conceivable that a senior civil servant in Edinburgh could break ranks and resign amid allegations of control freakery by the SNP leadership? Highly unlikely, I think. In my experience, the various bureaucratic representatives of the Scottish establishment wouldn't say boo to their political controllers. Career advancement has required conformity rather than independent thinking.
As a footnote, I once wrote about the role of civil servants in pre-devolution Scotland, referring in critical terms to a speech given by Sir William Kerr Fraser, who was then permanent secretary in the Scottish Office. He subsequently became principal of Glasgow University, where I happened to work at the time. I still recall his comment when we were introduced: 'I think we may have heard of each other’. Almost worthy of Sir Humphrey in the TV sitcom 'Yes, Minister’.
Thursday 5 January
In a bookshop, I ask the manager if sales had been good over Christmas. 'Disappointing,’ was his reply. He went on to explain that it was now common for customers to buy from the company’s online facility and return the books for a refund at their local store. In many cases, it is likely that the books have been read. He cited one instance where a student claimed that the item purchased online was not the text he needed for his course. It was obvious from the spine that the book had been laid flat and large sections photocopied.
The manager said that the practice was now widespread across the retail trade. One national clothing company was reputed to have 50% of its business in the shape of 'returns’ of this kind. It is suspected that people order high-value items online for special occasions, wear them once and then seek a refund at their nearest shop. Presumably they manage to find a way of removing and restoring labels.
While such behaviour may be regarded as reprehensible, it is not entirely surprising. The business practices of some companies have been exposed as unethical in, for example, their exploitation of cheap labour in poor countries and working conditions at distribution centres in this country. Customers may feel that this serves as a justification for their own dubious conduct. I’m afraid we are turning into a nation of spivs.
Friday 6 January
The tabloid headline was predictably sensational: ‘Chiefs at Edinburgh church handing out toy guns and talking about porn to lure more men to attend.’ The story behind the headline was rather less dramatic. Membership of the Church of Scotland has been in serious decline for a number of years. Moreover, women are much more likely to attend church and take part in its activities than men.
In response, it has been decided to hold some men-only days in an attempt to address the gender imbalance. The first such event will take place in March at Barclay Viewforth Church in Edinburgh. It will feature a hog roast, rubber dart guns and talks on internet pornography, social media and online gambling. The guns are to be used on speakers who go on for too long. It does not seem to be a requirement, however, for attendees to demonstrate their masculinity by wearing lumberjack shirts, cowboy boots and distressed denims. And there is no suggestion that what is proposed bears any relation to Victorian ‘muscular Christianity’, which came to be associated with chauvinism, elitism and imperialism.
Churches up and down the country, despite their diminishing numbers, continue to do good work in visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved and supporting the vulnerable. Presumably they could do even more if they recruited new members and remedied the shortage of men. I hope the event at Barclay Viewforth Church attracts a good audience, but I fear that the cultural roots of diminishing faith commitment will require a much deeper response.
There is little sign that the higher councils of the national church are prepared to acknowledge the scale of the problem, far less begin to address it. An uneasy peace exists between the ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ wings which leads to decisions marked by timid respectability rather than the courage, vision and energy that is needed. A useful starting point would be to open up debate about the ‘established’ nature of the Church of Scotland. The maintenance of traditional ties to the monarchy, parliament and the law, reinforced through ritual and ceremony, may not be the best way of demonstrating serious engagement with the challenges of the 21st century.
Saturday 7 January
I have made a modest new year resolution. Setting the bar low reduces the chances of failure. My aim is simply to be more tolerant towards novice swimmers at my local pool. Each January there is an influx of new faces as people resolve to take more exercise and improve their fitness. This is to be commended, but their arrival means that the pool is more crowded. Some have limited control over the direction in which they swim, while others have a poor sense of spatial awareness, failing to observe what is going on around them and unable to anticipate potential collisions.
Grumpy old regulars (like myself) are inclined to resent the newcomers, as we dodge and weave to avoid them, forgetting that we were once novices ourselves. In the past, I have been known to refer to some of the January arrivals as ‘shipping hazards’. I hereby resolve to present a face of sweetness and light to all and sundry during 2017 – at least in the swimming pool. I give no undertakings about other venues.