Thursday 20 April
Seven weeks of electioneering in prospect – what joy! To political anoraks, they offer a feast of promises, boasts, accusations, recriminations and downright lies, all inviting endless deconstruction and analysis. To those not afflicted with this particular form of madness, there is a powerful incentive to switch off the television, bin all campaign leaflets and 'get a life'.
I'm afraid I am too old to embrace the latter strategy and too cynical to regard the former with any enthusiasm. I shall listen to the arguments but view the stances of all parties with equal scepticism: the Conservatives' efforts to project themselves as defenders of ordinary people; the SNP's attempt to pretend that it is not just a one-issue movement; the desperate antics of Labour activists trying to argue that Jeremy Corbyn is not really a liability; the Liberal Democrats' naïve belief that their politics of 'reasonableness' will be able to withstand the global forces of greed and self-interest. I pass over the Greens and UKIP without comment. As the late Frankie Howerd used to say, 'It's a shame to mock the afflicted.'
When it comes to polling day, I shall cast my vote, based on an assessment of the personal qualities of the candidates in my constituency, but with a heavy heart and no great expectations. Politics is supposed to give hope. At the moment, what is on offer are alternative versions of despair.
Friday 21 April
A study has found that cycling to work brings significant health benefits, reducing the risk of developing cancer and heart disease by almost half. Walking, by comparison, has fewer advantages, though it makes it less likely that people will develop cardiovascular disease. Despite this clear evidence, based on a very large sample, I shall not be donning a helmet and struggling into lurid lycra garments to resume the cycling trips of my youth. I do not doubt the conclusions, but they have to be set against the undoubted risks of cycling on a public road. Buses, lorries and cars present a serious hazard and, when accidents occur, cyclists come off worse.
Moreover, in city centres, the air quality is poor: the prospect of a red-faced Humes, peddling up the incline on Hope Street, Glasgow, and gasping for breath, is not one I wish to contemplate. I shall stick to swimming as my preferred form of exercise.
Before I provoke the cycling fraternity further, let me say that if I felt safe on the roads I'm sure I would enjoy cycling. But even the increase in the number of cycle lanes does not reassure me. Some motorists continue to behave badly and a few cyclists are cavalier in their treatment of traffic lights. Unpleasant 'road rage' incidents between motorists and cyclists are not uncommon.
Off-road cycle lanes are another matter, but it is usually necessary to negotiate sections of the public highway to access them. Near where I live, there is a pleasant (but short) section of cycle track, wide enough to accommodate walkers as well as bikers. On a recent stroll, I enjoyed the sounds of birdsong and the meandering burn alongside the track as I took some air after needing a break from my desk. The only hazard came from the failure of some dog owners to keep their pets in check. Do not misunderstand me. I like most dogs and have a few favourites that I encounter regularly, but I am often struck by the fact that a minority of owners are clearly barking mad.
Saturday 22 April
The Scottish government has just produced a document entitled 'A Research Strategy for Scottish Education'. In some respects, this is a desirable development. Relations between politicians and educational researchers have been strained in recent years, with a fair degree of mutual suspicion. Politicians have doubted the value of much research and have been impatient of its seeming inability to supply clear answers to policy questions. Researchers have complained of being pressurised to play down critical findings and have detected a growing tendency by government to use market research organisations to provide 'quick and dirty' reports rather than commission proper academic studies.
The new document seeks to establish the government's commitment to 'evidence-informed' policy, improving the quality of data that is gathered, learning from the experience of other countries, and building the research capacity of practitioners. All this is welcome, as are the references to the value of 'independent research' which challenges the system. It is evident, however, that the main driver for the document has been evidence from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development that Scottish education, far from being 'excellent', is merely 'average'. Research that is directly related to the National Improvement Framework, and efforts to close the attainment gap between 'advantaged' and 'disadvantaged' pupils, is to be given priority. The focus will be on measurable outcomes, using quantitative methods, rather than on any broader conception of the aims of education.
The authorship and status of the strategy document is a little hazy. It seems to have been produced by one of the social research teams within the Scottish government and to carry official authority. The collective 'we' is used at several points and various agencies are told that they 'must work effectively', 'must collaborate' and 'must show leadership'. It seems rather curious, therefore, that there is this disclaimer at the end: 'The views expressed in this report are those of the researcher and do not necessarily represent those of the Scottish government or Scottish ministers.' This, together with a number of stylistic infelicities, leads me to conclude that the document was produced in haste. In this sense, it could be regarded as the latest example of 'crisis management'.
Monday 24 April
For some time, confidence in the work of the Scottish Public Service Ombudsman (SPSO) has been in decline. Many people who have had cause to complain about their treatment by public bodies, including central and local government, have been dissatisfied with the way their cases have been handled by the SPSO.
From May, there will be a new head of the organisation, Rosemary Agnew, currently the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC). One of her final acts as SIC gives some hope that she will bring a fresh approach to the work of the SPSO. In an interview reported on the website of the investigative organisation, the Ferret, she was sharply critical of the failure of SNP ministers to respond to freedom of information requests. She has been monitoring the problem since 2013-14 and has noted the number of formal complaints from journalists and others about requests which have simply been ignored. She described the performance of ministers as 'totally unacceptable' and said that her office would act with 'the full force of the law' in pursuing the matter. She stated: 'People have to be able to trust public services and how you make your information available is fundamental to helping to build that trust.'
Ms Agnew will no doubt be aware when she takes up her new post that there are wider concerns about the quality of administrative justice in Scotland. For example, public petitions are poorly handled by the Scottish parliament, with MSPs on relevant committees often inadequately briefed and thus unable (or unwilling) to ask the right questions. The mainstream press in Scotland devotes insufficient attention to these matters. Increasingly, it will be necessary to turn to independent voices to find out what is actually happening in the political and bureaucratic agencies of Scotland.