The decision of the RBS to close a further 63 branches across the country (following the closure of 30 branches earlier this year) has provoked widespread criticism. It is reported that the latest move will involve the loss of 158 jobs and cause considerable inconvenience to many customers, particularly in rural communities. People who lack personal transport or access to the internet will find it much more difficult to carry out routine transactions. The owners of small businesses, especially those catering for the holiday trade, have also complained that it may adversely affect their ability to manage their finances.
It can be argued, however, that the move is actually much more sinister than this, and symptomatic of a wider trend to control the financial freedoms of individuals. As more and more people rely on direct debits to pay bills, the capacity of remote institutions to access their bank accounts increases. When problems arise (as they often do), seeking a remedy becomes difficult if there is no local branch where concerns can be raised. Endless hours spent on distinctly unhelpful 'helplines', staffed by poorly-trained advisers who are obliged to follow a script, are likely to increase frustration. The option of taking one's custom elsewhere is of no use if the only alternatives are other organisations that operate in the same way.
What we are witnessing is the large-scale takeover of individuals' economic lives orchestrated by global corporations, aided and abetted by financial advisers, management consultants and corporate lawyers. The capacity of governments to oppose this trend is weak and, in some cases, they are quite willing to collude in the process. This represents a serious threat to democracy where the scope for resistance is being steadily eroded.
Capitalism is endlessly inventive, seeking not only to protect the interests of multinational companies and the super-rich, but also to extend its power and weaken the likelihood of any counter-movement. If individuals no longer have effective control of their money, they are easily subject to pressures to adopt practices that suit the big institutions rather than themselves.
My own bank (not RBS) is not shutting up shop but it is currently undergoing refurbishment. Customers have been issued with a leaflet headed 'We are closing for improvements.' It is safe to predict that the 'improvements' will include fewer counter staff and more self-service. The temptation to keep one's cash under the bed is increasing by the day.
St Andrew's Day saw the announcement of a new organisation, the Scottish Policy Foundation, which hopes to improve the quality of public debate. Its aim is 'to promote honest, insightful and objective policy research' by co-funding studies undertaken by think-tanks, charities and other organisations across the political spectrum. Private sector donors have pledged substantial initial funding. Among those involved in the initiative are Angus Robertson, former leader of the SNP at Westminster, Douglas Alexander, former Labour cabinet minister, Conservative peer Lord Dunlop, and former lord advocate, Elish Angiolini.
The thinking behind the scheme is that Scotland currently lacks sufficiently robust independent policy research, particularly in the light of the increased powers assumed by Holyrood following the 2012 and 2016 Scotland acts. The Scottish parliament information centre produces some useful briefing documents but these are variable in quality and do not always have much impact on the exchanges that take place between MSPs, many of whom seem to prefer rehearsing party positions rather than weighing the evidence.
Moreover, sometimes the evidence is simply not available.
In education, one critic, Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University, has described Scotland as a 'data desert' because the government has discontinued compiling some data that could inform policy decisions. This echoes a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2015 which said that it could not carry out a full 'evaluation' of Curriculum for Excellence because some of the necessary information was lacking. Instead it produced a 'review', which had all the hallmarks of a heavily negotiated document.
I wish the new organisation well because there is no doubt that, despite repeated claims by all the main political parties in Scotland that they wish to put forward 'evidence informed' policies, their record hardly bears this out, as their 2016 election manifestos demonstrated. These were strong on political rhetoric but weak on reasoned argument based on research findings. Even if the new Scottish Policy Foundation does manage to improve things, however, the harsh realities of political rivalry are likely to set limits to what can be achieved. As Ben Levin, a Canadian who has worked both in government and in academia, has written: 'in the political world belief is everything...no amount of research will displace or replace politics.'
As I write this, I am looking at the chubby but cheerful features of Jackson Carlaw, MSP, deputy leader of the Scottish Conservative party – not in the flesh, I hasten to add, but on the front cover of his annual report to electors in the Eastwood constituency. This is a fold-over leaflet of six sides, which is moderately informative but also illustrative of the modern tendency to regard the art of politics as a series of photo opportunities: there are no fewer than 15 pictures of Jackson (as he styles himself) engaged in a series of worthy activities – visiting schools and care homes, supporting a Scout jumble sale, meeting European visitors to discuss Brexit, speaking to the Association of Jewish Refugees.
He looks particularly fetching in pink as part of the annual 'Wear it Pink' campaign in support of the breast cancer charity. And, not to be outdone by his leader Ruth Davidson, who loves to appear in combat gear, we have a shot of Jackson landing successfully on a parachute simulator. This last escapade made me think that there are a number of MSPs that I would happily nominate to attend a course on free-fall parachuting.
Readers are told that 'Your views are important to Jackson' and are invited to 'Let him know what you think.' This is followed by six questions, including 'What's your principal local concern?' My principal local concern is the environmental vandalism of East Renfrewshire Council, which gives planning approval to seemingly endless expensive housing developments which involve the destruction of trees and green spaces, and the loss of important habitats for wildlife. The increased council tax revenue which this generates does not seem to be directed towards improved services or infrastructure.
The many objections by local residents who see their community being systematically destroyed are ignored by councillors and senior officials who arrogantly assume that they know best. As for 'consultation' exercises on proposed developments, it is no accident that the word begins with a 'con'.