The Scottish Review is published weekly by the Institute of Contemporary Scotland

Editor: Kenneth Roy
Deputy Editor: Islay McLeod

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* This week's banner: The swings at Whiting Bay, waiting for Scotland's political leaders to sit on and start bawling at each other. Photograph by Islay McLeod

27 August 2014
We are sleepwalking
into an authoritarian
Kenneth Roy

As the people of Scotland prepare to put a cross in a box to decide their future, the school-children of Dundee will be completing a much more complicated form: a questionnaire of many boxes.

It will take the people of Scotland only a few seconds to make their mark. The assignment facing every child in Dundee between the ages of 9 and 16 is more time-consuming: it will absorb between 30 and 40 minutes of their precious day of education, one of the comparatively few days in the year when they receive any.

Parents in Dundee (as well as Angus and North Ayrshire) are being assured in an official letter that the questionnaire is part of an 'exciting' collaboration – everything has to be exciting these days – between the Scottish Government and 'your local council'. Who could resist such an offer? Who would deny their child a chance of excitement? The Games are over, after all.

If, however, you are one of those pesky people in Dundee who don't approve of your children confiding intimate details of their private lives, it won't be all that simple to opt out. You are obliged to call a freephone number and leave a message. Someone in Devon – for the survey is being conducted by a company in that distant English county – will get back to you.

The letter goes on to explain that the information gathered in the 'ChildrenCount Survey' – note the exciting collaboration between two unrelated words – will be used to enable the authorities, national and local, to better plan public services.

Sounds familiar? If you were a regular reader of this magazine last winter, you will remember our long campaign opposing 'Evidence2Success', a questionnaire circulated to children in Perth and Kinross schools in which, notoriously, secondary pupils were asked if they had ever had anal sex.

Just before Christmas, we announced a partial victory in our campaign; or what we thought was a partial victory. We were able to report that the survey would not be rolled out to other local authorities until the Scottish Government's analytical services department approved it. The SNP administration gave an undertaking that the survey would in future be 'in line with the strong ethical and quality guidelines employed by the Scottish Government in any research it carries out'. Great. (We thought at the time.)

Our only regret was that it had come too late for the parents and children of Perth and Kinross. In view of the intimate nature of many of the questions, inviting disclosure of criminal behaviour and family dysfunction, the remarkable lack of detail in the introductory letter to parents and a rather perfunctory commitment to anonymity, we took particular exception to the policy of assuming consent from parents and quoted two impeccable sources in our support.

The European Data Protection Directive insists that there must be some active [our italics] communication between the parties before research work and that organisations 'should not infer consent if an individual does not respond to a communication'. Well, that's clear. It should have been enough to persuade a government which aspires to be 'part of Europe' in an independent Scotland that assuming consent is unacceptable.

The fearless folk down at analytical services, with their rigorous commitment to the highest standards, might additionally have referred to the framework of the Economic and Social Research Council. This states that writing to prospective research participants or their parents notifying them of an intention to include them in research unless they proactively opt-out 'will not normally constitute the giving of informed consent'.

Early in the new year, we were surprised to discover that the Scottish Government, despite its earlier protestations about standards, had somehow managed to convince itself that the European Data Protection Directive and the Economic and Social Research Council were both wrong. We were given sight of a report from analytical services in which the experts declared that they were 'content' with the policy of assumed consent.

Content. What does this mean? It is a handy little word. It often crops up in official documents. It is part of the lexicon of the bureaucrat who, struggling to build anything resembling a case, relapses conveniently into a state of contentment. It excuses any actual justification for a course of action – or, as here, a course of no action.

Analytical services are content. Now go away, why don't you?

We didn't go away. But nor did we say anything. We decided to wait and see what happened next.

Something just has. 'Evidence2Success' – a concept tainted by all the bad publicity, mostly in or inspired by the Scottish Review – seems to have disappeared as a brand, but only to be replaced by 'ChildrenCount'. From next Monday, children will be counting all over Dundee and they will go on counting until a few days before the referendum.

This is not some innocuous local initiative. After the pilot in Perth and Kinross, it feels like the next stage in a grand plan: the creation of a massive national database backing up the present administration's intention to have a 'Named Person' for every child in Scotland. The named persons will be public officials. They will assume the role of advisors and guides to our children, though only in office hours and not on bank holidays. The named persons will also require to have what is called 'annual leave'. No doubt, however, the paperwork spewing out of ChildrenCount surveys will be their beach reading.

In this intriguing new Scotland, where European directives are lightly ignored in the interests of contentment, the only people who will be explicitly forbidden from being named persons are the child's own parents.

This is the broader political context for what is happening in Dundee next week. The referendum-voting public, the sort of worrying people who formed the audience at Monday night's televised rabble, ought to be aware of it before they sleepwalk into the authoritarian future that awaits us: a future of databases and named persons – to say nothing of our old friends at Police State Scotland, armed to the teeth, watching over us.

Exciting? That's one way to describe it.

Kenneth Roy will be returning to this issue in next week’s SR