Wednesday 18 May
As I watch the photo call for Nicola Sturgeon’s new cabinet, I find that I almost feel sorry for them. I am not noted for my sympathetic feelings towards politicians, so what is the explanation? After all, these are people who enjoy a generous salary, ready access to a ministerial car to whisk them from one engagement to the next, and a retinue of civil service bag-carriers to keep ordinary folk at bay. But think of the downside associated with high political office: having to be endlessly upbeat about policies which you may have private reservations about; traipsing around TV studios being grilled by pushy presenters; watching your back within your own party; being hounded and caricatured by the rougher elements of the press; having your private life subjected to unwelcome scrutiny.
Then there are the psychological hazards. Power does things to people, most of them unattractive. Look at the way Tony Blair has turned from golden boy to social pariah (safe within his own global network), or Alex Salmond from popular tribune to a classic case of hubris. The risks of arrogance, megalomania and sheer fantasy are always present among those who ascend the greasy pole of politics. As has often been remarked, all political lives end in failure.
Thursday 19 May
The composition of the new cabinet involves a re-shuffling of old jokers in the pack and a couple of new faces (to give hope to back-benchers who aspire to greater things). I am intrigued by the two financial portfolios (Keith Brown for economy and Derek Mackay for finance) and hope that the arrangement bears no similarities to those dodgy businesses which keep two sets of books – one for the tax man and one to be secreted in a locked safe for private consultation only.
Perhaps the most formidable task has been given to John Swinney, now responsible for education. He is widely regarded as 'a safe pair of hands’ but also as a tough enforcer. There is a danger that he will move too swiftly to impose a series of high-profile policy initiatives without taking sufficient time to assemble the evidence. One of the criticisms in the recent OECD report on Scottish education was that the reviewers did not have access to enough hard data to carry out a full evaluation. What they produced was a limited 'review’ which bore all the hallmarks of a heavily negotiated text: that is, a version which had been subject to a fair amount of editing by officials, with the aim of highlighting good news and playing down bad.
Nicola Sturgeon has said that she wishes her government to be judged by its ability to bring about improvements in education, particularly by reducing the gap in attainment between children from privileged backgrounds and those who suffer from various forms of disadvantage. All the evidence suggests that schools alone cannot achieve this. Disadvantage is a complex phenomenon and involves a range of issues covering poverty, unemployment, health, housing, community and family values. Simply setting higher and higher targets for pupils and teachers, based on questionable testing regimes, is unlikely to achieve the desired outcome.
We hear a great deal about the importance of leaders in education, but one of the types of leadership that rarely gets a mention is intellectual leadership. Mr Swinney needs to look for good ideas beyond the usual sources of ministerial advice, notably the inspectorate within Education Scotland and senior staff in the Scottish Qualifications Authority. He has a reputation for being willing to disturb the complacency of officials. To bring about real improvement in Scottish education, he will need to do precisely that.
Friday 20 May
I have great admiration for the skills of top golfers but none at all for the petty pomposities of some golf clubs. Muirfield, otherwise known (with no sense of irony) as 'The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers’, has been widely condemned for its decision to maintain its ban on women members, with the result that the Royal and Ancient – hardly a bastion of progressive thinking – has decreed that it cannot host future Open Championships. Presumably the financial implications of this will be considerable. Television reports of Muirfield’s self-inflicted bunker shot showed a group of elderly men wearing blazers and club ties, some looking mildly embarrassed, others positively gleeful. Once the cameras had departed they could no doubt repair to the club bar to congratulate themselves on their stance against the pressures of political correctness.
Membership of Muirfield is regarded as a mark of social acceptance by the Edinburgh elite. Those who see opportunities for beneficial business and professional networking feel they have arrived once they are admitted as full members. Visitors are tolerated on Tuesdays and Thursdays provided they book in advance and are willing to pay the fee of £220 for one round. The calendar of bookings on Muirfield’s website shows that slots are taken up months in advance.
The website also refers to the club’s 'colourful history’, pointing out that its origins go back to 1744. One of the less 'honourable’ aspects of that history relates to its links to the Scottish civil servant, George Pottinger, who was jailed for corruption in 1974. Pottinger was a snob with a taste for the high life. This was reflected in some of the books he wrote: an uncritical biography of Lord Fraser of Allander, one-time owner of Harrods; a guide to St Moritz, a favourite ski destination for the 'smart set’; and, not least, a history of Muirfield itself, expressed in the respectful tones of the socially aspiring.
Pottinger had a house built within walking distance of Muirfield: at his trial it was said that this was only possible because of substantial financial support from the architect, John Poulson, who was awarded major contracts for the development of the Aviemore centre. Pottinger was dining at Muirfield in June, 1973 when he received a call from his wife saying that he had better return home to speak to members of the fraud squad who had come to arrest him. The scandal that ensued did not reflect well on Pottinger’s superiors in the Scottish Office, but a familiar strategy of evasion and back covering was quickly put in place. It is doubtful whether the full facts of the episode will ever be known.
After the latest instance of Muirfield’s 'colourful history’, with its vote to exclude women, club members would be well-advised to settle for a monochrome phase, during which they should engage in some thoughtful reflection about how they are perceived by the world outside their self-regarding circle.
Saturday 21 May
'Real change depends on mavericks.’ The comment came in a television programme about building design. The speaker, herself an architect, argued that it was only when people were prepared to challenge established practices, and question the received wisdom of professionals, that breakthroughs took place. Viewers were shown examples of tower blocks, which had been constructed at no additional cost compared to conventional builds, where the imaginative use of light and space had greatly enhanced the quality of life of residents.
The remark prompted this thought. For a country blessed with vast tracts of stunning natural beauty, Scotland’s built environment often seems poor in comparison. Over the years, planning disasters have been inflicted on all the major cities. The grimness and greyness of many towns and villages means that there is never any shortage of nominations for the controversial 'Plook on the Pinth’ award, which is given annually to the most dismal place in the country.
A legacy of poor social housing and badly-designed schools is testimony to the lack of aesthetic appreciation by civic leaders and those who advise them. The commercial motives of builders, intent on making the maximum profit from private housing developments, must also bear some of the blame. Many estates consist of identikit dwellings, crammed too close together and with poor attention given to the surrounding landscape. Local authorities collude in the process because of the council tax it generates.
In this area of Scottish life (as in so many others), we are sadly short of 'mavericks’ who might start raising awkward questions about the practices and priorities of those responsible for the environmental legacy bequeathed to the next generation.