Wednesday 3 February
I take part in a recording to announce the winners of the Scottish Schools’ Young Writer of the Year competition. The event is overshadowed by the sudden and tragic death of one of the joint runners-up, Owen Britton of Balfron High School. As one of the adjudicators, I was asked to pay tribute to Owen’s essay. 'Blurred recollections’ is a touching and sensitive meditation on the power of memory, focused on a particularly significant experience in his childhood. It is a fine piece of writing, made all the more poignant by the sadness of a promising young life cut short.
The judges were impressed by the range and quality of work submitted from across Scotland. We had reflections on personal experiences, humorous takes on social trends, serious analyses of political issues and of the impact of technological developments. Some of these topics called for formal writing involving the presentation of an argument with supporting evidence. Others allowed for a more imaginative and creative style. The judges were appreciative of good writing of whatever kind. Jonathan Tevendale of Mallaig High School, the overall winner of the competition, produced a quite outstanding essay on the effects of internet shaming. What all the finalists had in common was an understanding of the power of language – an appreciation of its potential to persuade, to entertain, to inspire. It was a privilege to have had the opportunity to read so much good work.
Thursday 4 February
The leader of the Liberal Democrats at Westminster, Tim Farron, has attracted criticism for his remarks on the 'unthinking monoculture’ of SNP MPs. He is reported as commenting: 'I’ve never heard or witnessed a single one of them utter an independent thought’. The Lib Dem coalition with the Conservatives in the last UK parliament means that Farron’s views have been briskly dismissed by SNP supporters. However, they might have done well to give more thought to what he was saying. Many commentators, some of them not ill-disposed towards the nationalists, have detected a growing authoritarian trend in the party, a disinclination to pay heed to those who ask challenging questions, an intolerance towards anyone who does not sign up fully to the official agenda.
One of the most visible signs of this can be seen at question time in the Holyrood parliament. I have lost count of the number of occasions when the first minister has responded dismissively to perfectly valid points about finance, health, education, local government, or law and order. Her technique is to ignore the question and say rather stridently: 'I will not take any lessons from Labour/ the Tories/ the Lib Dems on this matter', and make some reference to the past failings of these parties. She has usually been supported by an array of nodding puppets in the seats behind her.
Ms Sturgeon’s slapping down of the opposition worked well for a while, particularly in respect of Labour, whose record in Scotland is an embarrassment. But the SNP has been in power for nearly 10 years. Despite the sustained efforts of its press office and assorted enforcers, it cannot continue to deny that there are real problems on a number of policy fronts, not all of which can be blamed on the Westminster government.
What we are witnessing is the consequence of a lengthy period of power combined with weak opposition unable to hold government ministers to account. The SNP is in danger of becoming a party of cheerleaders and sycophants, with a cabinet that is unwilling to look hard at the evidence and listen to critics. Any organisation which relies on a default position of denial loses the ability to learn from experience. The biggest losers in all of this, however, are ordinary citizens who suffer the effects of a complacent government which ignores reality and hopes that PR spin will see it through.
Friday 5 February
A question for readers aged between 49 and 59 – are you content with your life? According to a recent survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), you shouldn’t be. This is the period when happiness is at its lowest point in the life cycle, and anxiety at its highest (with the suicide rate, particularly among men, showing a disturbing upward trend). It’s not hard to think of a variety of reasons for this finding: career disappointment; job insecurity; financial worries; marriage breakdown; regret for the loss of youthful energy; the onset of health problems.
By contrast, if you are in the age range 65-79 you should be feeling quite chipper. The ONS survey found that many older people enjoy relatively good health, financial security and the freedom to travel and pursue many interests. Where they do face setbacks, their experience enables them to have a greater sense of perspective and to count their blessings. The attitude seems to be: 'I’m lucky to have reached this stage, so I shall make the most of it’.
Many of the results reported in the ONS survey are hardly surprising. Married couples and civil partners reported higher levels of happiness than those who were divorced or separated. People who subscribed to any religious faith were happier than atheists. Ethnic groups with strong support from extended families tended to be more positive in outlook than those with weaker ties.
The study is an attempt to measure 'national wellbeing’. It’s interesting how the term wellbeing has acquired a central place in public discourse: for example, it now features regularly in policy documents about health and education. Part of its attraction for politicians is that it is not easy to challenge. Who would want to argue against the desire to promote wellbeing? But is it much more than the latest piece of 'feel good’ rhetoric? And is there any meaningful sense in which it can be measured? It has so many dimensions that attempts to quantify it must be regarded as highly questionable.
Saturday 6 February
Last night’s episode of the crime series 'Shetland’ on BBC1, based on the novels of Anne Cleeves, has triggered an unexpected memory. One of the characters in the drama is a stereotypical Glasgow 'hard man’, who rules his criminal empire through fear and a demand for 'respect’. Needless to say, this quality is never evident in his dealings with others.
I once knew a man who, as a result of drink and careless words in a pub, managed to offend a real-life 'hard man’, head of a well-known gang. Both parties are now dead, otherwise I would be disinclined to report what happened. My acquaintance was summoned to the presence of Mr Big and asked to explain himself. Fortunately, he had time to prepare and was able to rehearse the form of words he would use. He also took along a bottle of the crime boss’s favourite tipple as a peace offering and a mark of 'respect’. The strategy worked and he emerged from the encounter with a stern warning and without the need to seek treatment at the nearest hospital.
There was another positive outcome from what must have been a frightening experience. My acquaintance started to drink less, managed to extricate himself from some dubious 'friends’ and began to get his life back on track.