Wednesday 29 March
The Scottish political scene doesn't get any better, does it? Despite the best efforts of nurses and doctors, the health service struggles to meet expectations. In education, after years of official denial, it is now recognised that the system faces serious problems. Local government is having to cut jobs and reduce services because of budget constraints. There are also serious challenges in housing, transport, policing and the environment.
Against this background, what did the Scottish parliament spend time on yesterday? The constitution, of course. For nationalists, there is only one topic that matters – a second referendum on independence. Although leading members of the government looked uncomfortable in the face of some opposition attacks, the result was a foregone conclusion. The general standard of the discussion was poor, rarely rising above the level of a student debate. No original arguments were advanced. Nothing new was learned. It was a massive waste of parliamentary time and further evidence of the extent to which the political class is out of touch with the issues that really matter to most citizens. To suggest that these issues will somehow disappear in an independent Scotland is a cruel deception.
The first minister regularly invokes the notion of 'the will of the Scottish people'. The will of many Scottish people is for better politics and more principled politicians. The inadequacy of our current set of representatives was painfully exposed in yesterday's exchanges.
Thursday 30 March
I have a sudden urge to indulge in a spot of spring cleaning. This is unusual for me and I know the mood will not last, so I decide to press on. Tiles in the kitchen and bathroom are given the full treatment (as distinct from a perfunctory wipe); the vacuum cleaner receives an extended outing; cupboards are emptied, some items discarded and the rest rearranged. I become slightly obsessional and remember some nifty little cleaning sticks I acquired a while ago. They are plastic, with a small piece of sponge at one end and a sharp point at the other, enabling access to those hard-to-reach places where grime can accumulate. I survey my handiwork and even begin to think that I should get out my paintbrush and freshen up walls and ceilings. But I know that way madness lies. By this time my enthusiasm is beginning to wane and I decide I deserve a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit.
I settle down on a recliner and my mind drifts back to the time when I used to have to attend academic conferences on a regular basis. As I am not a good 'networker', I never really enjoyed these events and within a few hours of arrival I used to conclude that I would be better off at home washing the kitchen floor. My reasoning was that, instead of listening to an endless series of tiresome presentations (including my own), I could see the results of my floor-cleaning efforts and feel a sense of achievement. But there was an element of fantasy in my recollection as, temperamentally, I prefer a life of reflection to a life of action.
My reverie has caused me to nod off for a few minutes. When I awake, I find all thoughts of spring cleaning have ceased to hold any attraction. I reach for a book.
Friday 31 March
All governments attempt to manage the news to their own advantage. They do this through various means: by issuing upbeat press releases; by arranging carefully choreographed launch events to announce policy initiatives; by formal and informal briefings for journalists; by leaking damaging material about opponents. As they are anxious to maintain their democratic credentials, however, government ministers are also obliged to give interviews and take part in public debates. Moreover, they are expected to be even-handed when it comes to granting access to different parts of the media.
What happened on this evening's television news was, therefore, rather remarkable. On BBC Scotland, there was a brief clip of an interview given by Nicola Sturgeon, following her letter to Theresa May requesting agreement to hold a second referendum on independence. The interviewer was Brian Taylor, the station's chief political editor. No such interview was given on STV. A request for one had been made, but declined. Instead, STV was told that the BBC interview had been made available to other broadcasters. Unusually, STV issued a statement about the rebuff: 'STV regrets that, on such a significant news event, the Scottish government would not make the first minister available for interview by STV News. That decision puts our viewers at a significant disadvantage, as we are not able to scrutinise the issue in a way that is consistent with our editorial standards and our requirements for thorough reporting.'
It is interesting to speculate on the reason for the differential treatment of BBC Scotland and STV on this occasion. Could it possibly be that Nicola Sturgeon was happy to answer questions by the capable, but rather emollient, Brian Taylor, but reluctant to submit to the more robust style of STV's chief political editor, Bernard Ponsonby? Or was it further evidence of the arrogance of power exhibited by a government that has been in office for a decade without being held to proper account by an effective opposition?
Saturday 1 April
The president of the University and College Union (UCU) in Scotland, Dr Douglas Chalmers, has warned of the danger of universities losing sight of their intellectual purpose and turning into 'retail outlets' driven by commercial imperatives. He points to the constant pressure to align institutional targets to economic priorities set by government and to treat students as 'customers' seeking 'value for money'. As yet, these trends have been more evident in England than in Scotland but, according to Dr Chalmers, Scottish university principals have shown little inclination to resist them.
The process has gained ground since the 1980s under the influence of Thatcherite ideology, reinforced by the establishment and growing strength of business schools. In a characteristic PR response, Universities Scotland, which represents the collective voice of principals, issued this statement: 'Universities face often conflicting demands from a vast range of stakeholders, whether that be students, staff, the government, employers, funders, local communities, industry and others.'
Faced with so many competing interests, it is important for academic leaders to defend the centrality of knowledge and truth as the defining purpose of universities. That role should not be distorted and undermined by economic or political pressures. What is disappointing is that the debate in Scotland so far has been decidedly low key. Whereas in England, there have been several sustained analyses of what is happening – most notably two powerful studies by Stefan Collini, professor emeritus at Cambridge – nothing comparable has appeared in Scotland. Have the values of George Davie's 'democratic intellect' been forgotten by an academic community that has been house-trained in the politics of compliance?