Wednesday 12 April
Earlier this week I attended a public meeting about the possibility of a second referendum on Scottish independence. Yes, I know – I'm a glutton for punishment. It was organised by the Conservative party and the main speaker was Jackson Carlaw MSP, Ruth Davidson's deputy leader. The audience consisted of 40-50 people, mostly local supporters of the party. I recognised a few Conservative councillors doing the rounds glad-handing the faithful. I adopted my usual role as a detached observer. To be honest, I was hoping that there might be a few nationalists present to enliven the proceedings. The prospect of Jackson Carlaw being heckled would not have distressed me.
Mr Carlaw spoke confidently, without interruption, devoting most of his comments to the 2014 campaign and its aftermath. He provoked a mild frisson of disapproval when he admitted that he quite liked Nicola Sturgeon as a person, though he disagreed fundamentally with her political aspirations. When he considered the first minister's options in the face of Theresa May's 'Now is not the time' stance, he was on surer ground. One of the options is that Ms Sturgeon could resign (and call an election): this was greeted with loud applause.
In the question and answer session, only one member of the audience admitted to being in favour of independence but insisted he was not an SNP supporter. He made some valid points then began to alienate his listeners by speaking for too long. Another questioner said that she was 'very angry', but her anger prevented her from articulating her point clearly. She seemed to be complaining about the lack of reliable information from politicians on all sides but showed no sense of her responsibility as a citizen to find out things for herself and come to her own conclusion.
The age profile of those attending was predictably skewed to the over-65s, though I spotted a couple of well-dressed young men whom I suspect had political ambitions of their own. For me, there was insufficient focus on the future and not enough about how to avoid the negativity of the Better Together campaign in 2014. Polls suggest that a majority of young people support independence. If unionists are to be sure of winning a second referendum, they will need to advance arguments that have appeal beyond the age range that dominated this meeting.
Thursday 13 April
At this time of year, I go through my files to see if there is any material that can be discarded – old lecture notes, reports that I am unlikely to need to consult again, correspondence on matters that have been resolved. One set of papers, which I decide to dispose of, relates to a civil court case in which I was called as a witness. I had to submit a statement in advance and was quite looking forward to appearing in the Court of Session in Edinburgh and being subjected to the forensic skills of the cream of the legal establishment. Unfortunately, the parties reached a settlement a few days before the hearing was due to start and so my oral evidence was not required.
Another file, which I decide to keep, concerns a pamphlet which I co-authored with an academic from another university. It was written in time for the establishment of the Scottish parliament in 1999 and designed to inform MSPs about the policy-making process in Scottish education. The hope was that the analysis contained in the pamphlet would help newly-elected politicians to ask the right questions and hold education officials to account for their actions.
The pamphlet was generally well received, with one notable exception. A very senior official wrote a private letter of complaint to our two universities. We were able to obtain a copy of the letter (by legitimate means) and wrote stiff memos objecting to this behind-the-scenes attempt to discredit us. We did not mind honest criticism in the public arena and offered to take part in a debate to discuss the issues. Our offer was not taken up.
Sometime later, the official concerned found himself on the receiving end of some sharp questioning by a parliamentary committee investigating the examinations crisis of 2000, when a number of candidates failed to receive their correct results. My co-author and I felt that our efforts had not been entirely in vain. Our critic is still alive so I decide it is prudent to hold onto the file for a bit longer. I may even be tempted to write a reflective piece on what the episode revealed about the culture of Scottish education.
Friday 14 April
'Councillors' Tax Shame': this was the surprising tabloid headline in my local newspaper, the Extra, which covers the south side of Glasgow. It reported that three elected members of East Renfrewshire (ERC) had been in arrears with their council tax during the past 10 months. This fact had come to light following a freedom of information request. The council, citing data protection legislation, has refused to name the individuals concerned or to indicate their party membership, despite claims by the journalist that a 2016 court ruling concluded that data protection could not apply in such cases. A strong argument can be made that, in the run-up to an election, voters have the right to know whether candidates can be trusted to pay their council tax. It is not clear from the report whether the offenders in this case are standing for re-election.
Readers of my column last week will know that I have a particular interest in council tax matters as I am currently in dispute with ERC, not over my own council tax, but over a retrospective claim for payment on a property jointly owned by my late sister. I acted as one of her executors. Any suggestion that councillors may be treated more leniently than ordinary members of the public would be potentially embarrassing to the council.
Several features of the story remain unanswered. What prompted the freedom of information request in the first place – a whistleblower? Who took the decision not to disclose the councillors' names? What does it reveal about the relationship between councillors and officials? I was amused to note that, in defending the secrecy, an unnamed council spokesperson stated 'it would not be appropriate to comment on any individual cases'. It is remarkable how often that weasel word 'appropriate' is used by organisations seeking to defend the indefensible.
Saturday 15 April
As part of the research for a current project, I am looking at a number of official reports on Scottish education. It is a dispiriting experience, not only because of the predictability of much of the content, but also because of the barbarous language in which they are written. Many senior people are clearly incapable of writing prose that is clear and direct. In some cases, I suppose, clarity may be a quality they are trying to avoid, in case they are held to what they have written at a later date. Mostly, however, they resort to puffed-up professional jargon because it is the style that has helped their career advancement and they have never learned to master plain prose.
Ironically, two of the documents I have been examining were responses to complaints about excessive bureaucracy surrounding Curriculum for Excellence. They have little to say about the menace of bureaucratic language and freely employ terms such as 'holistic', 'collegiate', 'narrative reporting' and 'aligned and proportionate'. Perhaps wisely, most of the individuals who contributed to these unhelpful publications are not named (though the organisations they represent are listed).
The only one who gets a mention is the chair, Dr Alasdair Allan MSP, who at that time was minister for learning, science and Scotland's languages. I have heard Dr Allan speak. The language of his address was consistent with these documents. He did not take questions and left the meeting accompanied by his civil service 'minders' immediately afterwards. His talents are now employed in the field of international development.