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January 14, 2009

Big Thinking Lottery Consultation

The lottery is currently in consultation about its future funding policy but it’s a joint consultation with COSLA, SCVO, Chambers of Commerce and Scottish Government – so don’t expect fireworks. Great piece in Scottish Review by Kenneth Roy captures how the ruling political establishment co-opts the leaders of civil society.

Kenneth Roy, The Scottish Review

Why don’t we rock the boat?

Some years ago, a rising star of the Scottish Executive (as it then was) – not one of those here today, gone tomorrow politicians, but someone real and solid, a public official – said to me: ‘Of course, we’re going to buy you lot off.’ I had never been described as part of a lot before. I had spent most of my life trying not to be part of a lot. ‘What on earth do you mean?’, I replied; or words to that effect.
Well, it was like this. The ‘lot’ to which he or she referred was the voluntary sector, ‘third sector’ as it is fashionably known, or more broadly ‘civil society’, a phrase almost as irritating as ‘fit for purpose’ but descriptive of the many important people, uniformly fit for purpose, who clog the Glasgow to Edinburgh train with their laptops and graphs and ever-bleeping mobile phones and dense reports with the word ‘Strategy’ in the title, most of them destined for the commitee rooms of Holyrood, or other less illustrious committee rooms, each room identically equipped with a flip chart, pads and biros, and small bottles of Campsie Spring. I observe these busy functionaries with an astonishment bordering on awe. What is it all about? What good does any of it do? Why must society be civil? Why cannot it be uncivil and challenging?

Anyway. This person, the public official, reminded me not only that I was, formally at least, part of that hyperactive class of concerned administrators rattling through Polmont station but someone who could look forward to being bought off by the new political establishment. How so? It appeared that I would be given monetary acknowledgement of my worth – a grant of some kind, an incentive to go on doing whatever it was I was doing, crudely speaking a bit of dosh. I was not to get too excited by the prospect. It wouldn’t be much. Heavens, no. The country of which we spoke was still called Scotland. But it would be – well, enough.
‘Enough for what?’ I persisted.
‘Enough to buy your silence, of course,’ came the reply.
My silence. It was quite an exciting thought. But there was more. In addition to, or in some cases in place of, a bit of dosh, we, the leaders of civil society, would be flattered by some appointment. I was led to understand that there would be many appointments in the years to come, mostly insignificant if not actually meaningless, but conferring minor prestige and a sense of self-justification, an appointment of which one might reasonably boast, modestly of course, at the many gatherings of civil society.
I then asked what, in exchange for our grant and/or appointment and a Christmas card frae the First Meenister, we were supposed to be silent about.
The answer did not surprise me. We were to be silent about everything that matters: publicly unquestioning and uncritical; discreet gossip permissible in the approved circles of the knowing; ‘access’ to ministers an occasional treat; civilised lobbying for our ‘client group’ (another ghastly confection) perfectly okay – but all of this controlled and unthreatening, all conducted within a safe and closed environment, all of us accepting implicitly the unspoken rules of engagement, or rather non-engagement.

Since that curious conversation, I have had cause to think often, with a mixture of sadness and amusement, how prophetic it has turned out to be. I scan the daily papers for evidence of that lively, sceptical ‘civil society’ monitoring and exposing the actions, utterances, pomposities and delusions of the political class, but find such independent-minded criticism largely wanting; I await with a decreasing sense of expectation the howls of outrage about transparent injustices; I wonder who speaks for the inarticulate and the marginalised and the 25 per cent of our young people who admit to being long-term depressed.
The alternative narrative, of a sort, provided by the opposition parties is ritualistic and self-serving. The indigenous media (I choose to dismiss the incomers as cynical opportunists) to some extent scrutinise the established order, but are too enfeebled by financial restraints to mount the sustained inquiry required. In short, Scotland has become a strangely acquiescent little place. Maybe we are too worried about the size of next year’s grant (more worrying still, the possibility of no grant) to have the courage to say what needs to be said; timorous beasties, the lot of us. Or maybe, our grant secure for the time being, we are too preoccupied by the minutes of the last meeting and the agenda for the next one to see beyond bureaucratic sterility. And, of course, there is always the faint prospect of that long-delayed meeting with The Salmond Himself: so best not be impolite in advance. All these are reasons in a small, incestuous country not to rock the boat.
My hope for 2009 is for a braver, more outspoken and intellectually healthier Scotland. To that hope I say at once: fat chance.