Monday 28 December
I listen to the radio diary of a 13-year-old girl, a refugee from Syria who has spent the last two years in a camp in Lebanon. She describes her existence, living in a tent, looking after younger brothers and sisters, going to school, speaking to others in a similar situation. She loves books and regrets that she was unable to bring any when she had to flee from her homeland. One of the people she talks to is a boy who says: 'I want to be a journalist and my voice to reach the entire world. I want everyone to hear my pain – and my happiness too'. Giving voice to the dispossessed is an aspiration that most politicians in the west would claim to support. But putting it into practice would involve changing existing power structures (including their own) in ways that would meet with opposition. Nevertheless, hearing these young refugees expressing personal ambition and hope for the future is an inspiring start to the day.
Tuesday 29 December
Two of my friends, one until now a regular reader of the Herald, the other of the Scotsman, announce that they are switching to the Times in the new year. They are certainly not fans of Rupert Murdoch or News International, but they have become progressively disenchanted with the two Scottish broadsheets. It is partly to do with limited news coverage – hardly surprising since both have shed journalists – but also because of a perceived decline in the quality and balance of political commentary. Last year additional staff were appointed to strengthen the Scottish edition of the Times and readers also have access to many of the articles written by London-based staff. Against the prevailing trend of declining readership of printed newspapers, circulation figures for the Times in Scotland have enjoyed a modest increase.
A healthy democracy requires a vigilant and varied press. It is questionable whether we have this at present in Scotland. This is worrying, particularly where we have one political party in a dominant position. Television coverage of Scottish matters also gives rise for concern. Judged in relation to the amount of licence income generated north of the border, BBC Scotland has been underfunded for many years. The Scottish Government has rightly challenged this, but its complaints often come across as a desire to see more 'sympathetic’ treatment of its policies. What we are witnessing is the familiar and depressing drift of a popular movement, promoted under the banner of freedom, moving steadily in the direction of increased authoritarianism.
Wednesday 30 December
I offer some suggestions for verbal New Year resolutions. We should all make an effort to discourage the spread of inflated language. Let me give three examples. The word 'absolutely’ has become a standard response to perfectly ordinary questions where 'Yes’ or 'That’s right’ would be quite adequate. Again, everything has to be 'exciting’ nowadays, even where it is manifestly routine and unexceptional. Thus relaunched political programmes and over-hyped business ventures are invariably described using this overblown term. And, of course, we have the dreaded 'c’ word – 'celebrity’. This is a description that should be confined to genuine high achievers in a variety of fields. Thanks to the commercially-driven efforts of PR companies and media sycophants, it has been extended to cover every attention-seeking wannabee without regard to his or her talent. A modest start in trying to reverse the trend would be to rename a 'popular’ TV programme as 'Nonentity Big Brother’.
Thursday 31 December
The ongoing repair work to the Forth Road Bridge has highlighted the role of an important national organisation, Transport Scotland. Note the name. Set it alongside a number of other public bodies: Education Scotland; Visit Scotland; Police Scotland; Historic Scotland; Creative Scotland. In recent years there has been a steady process of renaming organisations to highlight the 'Scotland’ brand. Not all of the changes can be attributed to the SNP government – some pre-dated its election successes. Put together, however, they provide a clear example of the maxim that politicians should aim for a simple message repeated often. At what point does uniform branding become propaganda? Is it only a matter of time before we have a new body (staffed by pliant journalists and tame academics) called 'Thinking Scotland’?
Friday 1 January
How would you describe a country which, over many years, has awarded some of its highest honours to the following groups: discredited politicians and their accomplices (advisers, publicists, donors); senior public servants with a track record of delay, evasion and bureaucratic obstruction; establishment lackeys in the churches, law, medicine and academia; business spivs, driven by greed and a lust for power, who are held up as models of entrepreneurial flair; narcissistic luvvies from the world of entertainment; well-connected products of the public schools and Oxbridge?
Against this background, how is the latest Honours List to be regarded? Many of the recipients are no doubt deserving and it is unfortunate that their achievements should be sullied by the unmerited bestowal of some of the most prestigious awards. Even the right-wing press is vocal in its criticism. The Times says that recognition should be for 'exceptional achievement’ and complains that too many awards are for 'time servers’, adding that 'Our honours system is acutely vulnerable to ridicule and the charge of cronyism’.
At the peak of this rotten edifice is the House of Lords, that comfortable rest-home for the privileged. Why doesn’t the UK government put its 'democratic’ credentials to the test by holding a referendum on the simple question: 'Should the House of Lords be abolished?’ Of course this is highly unlikely to happen since those taking any decision to consult the electorate would, in the main, be actual or potential beneficiaries of the present system. But it might still be worth floating the proposal, if only to hear the squeals of protest from the well-padded benches at Westminster.
Monday 4 January
2016 will be an important year for Scottish politics. Current indications are that the SNP will secure a comfortable victory at the forthcoming Holyrood elections. The opposition parties have so far failed to mount an effective challenge. It is interesting, however, that while Nicola Sturgeon’s personal popularity remains high among the public, commentators are increasingly drawing attention to the marked gap between the party’s policy boasts and its actual achievements (in health, education, local government, law and order). A third term of office may mark the end of what has been a remarkably extended honeymoon period – and a setback to those supporters who are hoping for a second vote on independence sooner rather than later.