Tired? Stale? Scotland’s political hacks are the real fossils

Sunday National, 9th September 2018.

If you are a connoisseur of the cliché, Flann O’Brien is your only man. In his hilarious and wide-
ranging Irish Times column, the writer and civil servant lovingly – and sometimes unlovingly –
curated the bromides and polished the boilerplate of his day in his Catechism of Cliché.

“A cliché,” he said, “is a phrase that has become fossilized, its component words deprived of their
intrinsic light and meaning by incessant usage.” These fossils are a kind of shorthand. Compound
thoughts. Often as not, they’re powerful way of not really thinking through what you’re saying.
Politics is full of the sorts of mortified language O’Brien had in mind. When we talk about Scottish
society, Scotland’s economy, Scotland’s culture – how most of the people in this country live day to
day – it can feel like you’re constantly dodging phantoms and fending off ghosts. Cliché is
everywhere.

Zombie metaphors are a mainstay of political reporting. A long-lasting government grows inevitably? Tired. Its policies? Stale. And what is it likely to have run out of? Steam. Politicians don’t criticise their opponents plans, they blast them. In politics, you don’t have to make do with a scruffy old problem, when a spanking new crisis or a scandal would do.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t real scandals or crises in our politics – there are plenty. But most of
them attract little or no comment. Responding to this week’s programme for government, I was
struck by the particular clichés chosen by Scotland’s male commentators of a certain age.

Accusations of staleness and tiredness abounded. Why? “A dozen bills were announced”, one said,
“but not a single one was anything other than procedural, technical, routine or expected.” Another,
in another title, conceded there were “aspects that were commendable” about the First Minister’s
plans but complained “there was precious little else and certainly nothing to drive the sort of radical
reform required to sort out Scotland’s public services.”

The radical with no idea what their radicalism means in practice is also a well-seasoned cliché of
Scottish political culture. It would be radical to reinstitute tuition fees, radical to roll out prescription
charges, radical to cap the new best start grant for poorer families with a rape clause. I don’t know
about you, but I reckon we can do without that kind of radicalism.

Too often, too many of Scotland’s political reporters write like bored teenagers. Or more precisely –
like middle-aged men with the attention span of a mayfly. “These plans have no substance” is, often
as not, a socially-acceptable way of saying “your political agenda bores me, so I’ve decided none of it
really matters.”

Every university, college and school in Scotland providing free sanitary products? Technical. More public support for struggling families? Bureaucratic. Laying the legal foundations for a Scottish National Investment Bank? Boring. You’d think politics was a game for magpies. To command the attention of the dozing political hack, with no real interest in policy, bureaucracy, delivery, and all those unlovely necessary things, you’re going to have to give it greater bells and whistles than “an aspiration to continuous improvement” through measures which don’t involve burning down great parts of Scottish public life for the sake of it.

But the demands of political cliché didn’t end there this week. The Scottish Household Survey is long
in the tooth. This mass survey aims to gauge key elements of Scots’ social experience and to track
how these change – and have changed – over time. The 2018 study will extend the researchers’
programme to look into emerging issues, on the availability of “places to interact” for Scots, social
capital, and the quiet crisis of loneliness in our communities.

For any opportunistic politician – which is to say, for any politician – the annual report’s publication
represents a ripe opportunity to go cherry picking for statistical details congenial to your point of
view. So it was this week. But the headlines are emphatic about how the overwhelming majority of
Scots experience their homes, rate their critical public services, and feel the hit in their pocket books.
Don’t take my word for it. Take a look at the figures.

92% of Scottish households are very or fairly satisfied with their housing. 95% rate their local area as
a very or fairly good place to live. 82% are content with national health provision, and 70% with
Scotland’s schools. Transport – perhaps understandably – scores worst, with an approval rating of
69%. Across the piece, though, the folk who actually make use of our hospitals, schools and buses
were more positive than the public at large.

83% of Scots had a good word to say about the NHS. 83% of people with personal experience of
Scotland’s schools felt likewise. Remarkably, Scotland’s cantankerous commuter class gave
Scotland’s transport services 76% positive or fairly positive notices. (We can only assume most
respondents aren’t enduring the veal crate voyages between Queens Street and Edinburgh Waverley
on a regular basis.)

My favourite question in the survey – for its ability to baffle both the left and right in Scottish politics
– is, how are your family managing financially? Close your eyes a moment. Ponder the question.
What would you reckon the plain people of Scotland would say? Very well? Fairly well? Just getting
by? Not managing well? Or perhaps in real trouble? The answer might surprise you.

Last year, the survey found that 56% of Scots said they were managing well financially. 35% told
researchers they were “getting by alright.” Just 8% said they didn’t manage well. Only 1% said they
were in “deep financial trouble.” Totting up those figures, 91% of Scots rated their household
finances in positive or neutral terms in 2017.

Cue a few legitimate – sceptical – questions. Do you reckon folk tell researchers the truth? Is it
possible people’s reckoning of their financial circumstances is influenced by stoicism, or
embarrassment, or even false consciousness? That’s certainly a dynamic which could be at play. But
even if we assume that everyone who says they are “getting by” is in denial, that still leaves a
majority of Scots giving their family finances a positive rating.

My purpose here isn’t to give the Scottish Government a clean bill of health. I’ve no interest in
screwing a “nothing to see here” plate on the door of St Andrew’s House. Inequality and its effects
are complicated. It can’t be reduced to a rough dataset about broad attitudes to big issues. The
Survey also tells a shadow story we must not forget. The numbers may tot up for the overwhelming
majority of Scots, but misery, crime, hunger and want is not equally distributed in our country. Just
29% of Scotland’s most deprived households rated their area a very good place to live. Just 39% of
the poorest neighbourhoods said they were managing well financially. 21% of single parent
households are struggling. That won’t do.

But it isn’t complacency to point out that the Household Survey figures cut against – rather than
sharpening – the spin of opposition parliamentarians and much of the media. The catastrophisers
would have you believe that Scotland’s schools are producing kids that are dub as a brick and every
hospital is a butcher’s slab. The survey suggests these overspun indictments still don’t seem to
chime with public feeling, however many press releases Ruth Davidson and Richard Leonard fire into the void.

Scotland is a prosperous country. Why do we so rarely notice that? Here’s one explanation for you.
Too often, we talk – and think – in clichés.

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