Three important public services in Scotland are currently having a hard time, raising questions not only about their internal management but also about the political context in which they operate. The latest suspensions in Police Scotland come after a series of embarrassing episodes that have cast doubt on the wisdom of creating a single unitary force. Scottish education continues to struggle, with concerns about standards and problems in recruiting and retaining teachers. Similarly, in the health service, it is proving difficult to attract young doctors to work in general practice, and accident and emergency departments sometimes cannot cope with the demand.
In all of these fields, there are regular reports of low morale among front-line staff and a lack of confidence in senior management. The response of government generally takes two forms. First, it seeks to distance itself from day-to-day practices. Thus, it says that operational matters in Police Scotland are a matter for that organisation and it would be wrong for the government to interfere. In education, statutory responsibility for provision in schools rests with local authorities, not central government. Likewise, regional health boards are accountable for medical services in different parts of Scotland, providing a justification for an arms' length stance by ministers.
At the same time, however, central government recognises that it has to demonstrate responsiveness to perceived crises. The most common reaction is the announcement of a policy initiative, which may involve the launch of a new project, supported with additional resources. Public visibility – what is sometimes called 'policy as spectacle' – is important. The initiative is often accompanied by a narrative that seeks to offer a defensive explanation about what has happened and a promise of better things to come. Arrangements to conduct an independent evaluation of the intervention tend to be sketchy or non-existent.
A common thread in the debates about health, education and policing is the vital role of leadership in improving public services. The discourse of leadership needs to be subjected to sharp interrogation. Why is it that, in many cases, we seem to have ended up with poor leadership? In education (the field with which I am most familiar), is it perhaps because the people who have been promoted have too often been conformists, more concerned with climbing the professional ladder than with engaging with ideas and striking out in new directions?
And what about the quality of political leadership over the last decade? Most government ministers are in post for a short time and are not inclined to take a long-term view of what may be required to improve services. They are content with a 'quick fix' (which often exacerbates rather than resolves the problem) or a restructuring exercise which usually involves merely shuffling existing institutions and senior personnel into a new configuration. By the time the house of cards begins to collapse, ministers are likely to have moved on to a new remit. What possible job satisfaction can there be in these exercises? Maybe 'successful' politicians have to learn to inhabit a delusional world, in which rebranding failure as achievement becomes second nature.
In that unpleasant TV programme, 'The Apprentice,' which offers a tasteless mixture of boasting and humiliation, Lord Sugar gets rid of candidates by uttering the phrase 'You're fired.' In the real world, however, when staff are being sacked, employers are more likely to employ a euphemism of some kind, such as 'We're going to have to let you go,' or 'Restructuring means we have to downsize,' or 'You should regard this as an opportunity for a career change.' These formulations are defended on the grounds that they let people down gently but, in fact, their principal purpose is to ease the conscience of the person who is giving the bad news. And if the meeting concludes with an instruction for the employee to empty his locker or clear his desk by lunchtime, the real message is not in doubt.
Euphemism is a linguistic form that is found in many fields. The world of politics offers fertile ground. If a minister gives up his post on the grounds that 'He wishes to spend more time with his family,' you can be sure that there is a scandal in the background. The rules of the House of Commons prevent MPs from calling each other liars but there are various phrases which enable them to get around this stricture. 'Economical with the truth' is well known. And the Clintons have given us the clumsy word 'mis-spoke', which most people interpret as meaning 'told a porky.'
Another restriction on plain speaking in parliament is that members cannot accuse each other of being drunk: the phrase 'tired and emotional' has become a popular substitute, originally popularised by the satirical magazine Private Eye in reference to a former Labour foreign secretary, George Brown. He was a 'colourful' character, as accident prone as Boris Johnson. During Brown's time in government, there was a television advertisement promoting bread, which had the slogan, 'Don't say Brown, say Hovis.' This was adapted by political opponents to 'Don't say Brown, say hopeless.'
Sexual indiscretion also invites euphemism. A politician caught in a gay cruising area claimed that he was not there for illicit sex but was 'watching badgers.' For a time, references to badger-watching became popular on the comedy circuit. A former CIA chief with an army background admitted to 'slipping my moorings' when exposed as having an affair. This particular euphemism would have been more appropriate if he had served in the navy rather than the army.
Finally, sport employs many coded words and phrases which soften the real meaning. In team sports a 'physical' player can refer to an aggressive bruiser who thinks nothing of employing dirty tactics. A 'perfectionist' occupies the obsessive/compulsive spectrum and may be liable to throw a tantrum if the game is not going his or her way. Suffice it to say that the art of euphemism is alive and well and, in our PR-dominated society, is guaranteed a healthy future.
I have always found the alleged attractions of Twitter and Facebook entirely resistible. One of my cheeky acquaintances used to say that this was because, in the case of Twitter, I would find the limit of 140 characters (recently raised to 280) impossible to adhere to. Even if this were true (which I would dispute), I now have an additional reason for avoiding social networking sites. I have no wish to be on the receiving end of unwelcome material from troll factories.
Internet trolls are not new: they are people who, using fictitious screen names, like to provoke or upset others by sending inflammatory or abusive messages. Troll factories are more sinister. They operate on an industrial scale and often have a subversive political motive. It is alleged, for example, that in Russia cronies of the president have flooded the internet with pro-Putin and anti-Western messages designed to undermine democracy. They may also have helped to elect Donald Trump, an outcome that shows the power of misinformation. No doubt China and the United States also use the same strategy for their own ideological purposes.
This is one manifestation of the wider trend towards the creation of a 'post-truth' society using fake news. It is quite hard enough trying to distinguish between truth and fiction in mainstream news channels, which are subject to the manipulations of media magnates, advertisers and spin doctors, without having to negotiate an avalanche of rubbish from some invisible overseas source. For the foreseeable future, therefore, I shall continue to lead a Twitter- and Facebook-free existence.