Sunday, 28 June 2020

Scotland: My part in it's Governance.

A prologue

Last Monday, I wrote what I thought was a draft blog as the third part of my ongoing "J'Accuse" rant about Scotland's schools in the pandemic. I went to bed thinking I had saved it for the morning and certainly without drawing any attention to it.  A morning which heralded a change of policy which made it redundant. 

It was only a couple of days later that I realised I had inadvertently published it. I've left it up as I stand by it but I have also incorporated some of it in what's below. Since the vast majority of my readers come from twitter, I apologise to the 110 poor souls who might find themselves reading some of the same things again..

Scotland: My part in its Governance

For four and a half years in the mid 2000s, I was the legal equivalent of Larry Flanagan.

As Convener of the Legal Aid Committee of the Law Society of Scotland it was my job to negotiate with the Scottish Government over our terms and conditions. I dealt with two different Ministers. Cathy Jamieson for my own Party and Kenny MacAskill for "them". He was by light years the better Minister. 

Cathy, as a Minister, was the political equivalent of the former Sheriff Marcus Stone. Sheriff Stone was just about the most appropriately named member of the Judiciary ever.  Most Sheriffs acknowledge your presence in their court in some way. A nod, to say you should start, a raised eyebrow to imply you had better stop. Some indication, physical or verbal that they have (or haven't) appreciated the point you are making. Sheriff Stone did none of that. He simply sat there as if he was made of.........stone. Once both sides had finished he would occasionally prove himself capable of movement by rising to consider his decision. On his return however you had no idea, even as he started speaking whether it was going to be "A complex argument, eruditely conveyed, with which I find myself entirely in agreement" or "I have rarely had my time so wasted. I trust you will not be expecting your client to pay for your part in the advancement of this hopeless cause."  Cathy was like that. At our quarterly meetings she would listen respectfully but give nothing away except that, in due time, {her} officials would write. When they did you had no idea if it would be "A sensible idea which I have asked the Scottish Legal Aid Board to take forward" or "A ludicrous proposal which I trust will not be raised again." 

I should just say that just as Cathy, who I obviously knew well in a different context, was great company in a social setting, so was......Sheriff Stone!  He could play the piano extempore and sing comedic songs in the manner of Jimmy Durante or Les Dawson. I'm not suggesting that he should have done that on the bench but there was surely a happy medium. 

Anyway, as I say, Kenny was a much better interlocutor. If he thought you were talking rubbish he would just tell you there and then. If he thought you had a good point, likewise. Sometimes expressing one or other view at the outset, having read the advance papers, to save wasting either of our times. And where there was to be argument, or the testing an argument, he was also up for that as well. "Aye, but....." was a well worn phrase in his lexicon.

The point however was that, with both Ministers, there was an understanding that while we might propose, and civil servants advise,  it was the Minister who would decide. 

And a similar experience was observed in my only other (more or less) direct encounter with Government. In 2001, Jack and Bridget McConnell moved house to be in Jack's Motherwell and Wishaw Constituency and Mo and I were invited to see their new home and then for lunch. Logically, it must have been the weekend but in the background (elsewhere obviously) the negotiation of what became the McCrone agreement on Teacher's pay and conditions was taking place. Jack was then the Education Minister. Several times during the day Jack was phoned by a member of the Scottish Government negotiating team and asked to decide on one or other point. As he did, sometimes with a ready "yes", at others a "no but", at others still  a firm "no". The point was though that the Government were calling the shots. Certainly, and quite appropriately, in the forum of negotiation but with no misconceptions of the power balance on either side.

I say all this because of what happened over the decision to re-open the schools in full on 11th August which was announced by John Swinney on Tuesday past. The right decision. 

I have some sympathy with the complaint of both the education authorities and the teaching unions that they were not advised of this in advance. The whole process might, I think even many Nats would admit privately,  have been handled somewhat better. Indeed the statement on this matter from COSLA was issued with the support of SNP Councils.

But that was the decision. And while the Councils made legitimate points about practicalities in the timescale given earlier dithering by the Minister, they accepted that decision.  

Yet the day after Swinney spoke,  Larry Flanagan, the General Secretary of the EIS put out a statement suggesting that it was not a decision at all. Because it had not been "agreed" by the Education Recovery Group on which the EIS sits. 

Now here I just have to be blunt. This is not a decision to be taken by the EIS. 

I'm now going to say something controversial. It is a huge error to think that all unions are forces for progress at all times. Topically , the Minneapolis Police Union in the USA patently is not but in Britain we have any number of other examples. 

Unions represent the interests of their current members. And their current members being in the privileged position of being current members are commonly engaged in battle with those who are not in their ranks.

The role of the Seamans' union in the Glasgow Race riot of 1919, when would be black sailors were attacked and physically driven from the docks, is nobody's idea of progressive politics. Even at the time.

The role of the Clyde shipyard unions in keeping Catholics out for many year is not one that  bears much scrutiny either. 

Similarly the role of the engineering unions when it came to equal pay for women, some of whom were actually (a minority of) their members!  

Even as recently as the last Labour Government, the minimum wage had far from unanimous trade union support in the belief that, while it might help the poor, it would also erode differentials.

But there is a wider issue as well. Those who are employed in the public services are, by very definition, ultimately employed by the public. So if industrial action is taken it is being taken against the public. Sometimes that is justified. Most obviously, if the public, as their employer, is not rewarding them properly for their efforts. But where the interests of the union and the interest of the public obviously conflict, then ultimately it is for politicians, as representatives of the public, to decide. 

Now it is clearly the view of the leadership of the teaching unions that if the choice facing teachers is, on the one hand, going to their work at marginal risk to their health and, on the other, staying in the house and being paid in full, then that leads to an obvious conclusion. But any suggestion that this is not a simple clash between producer interest and the public interest should be dismissed instantly. Any suggestion that the interests of children feature on the teachers side at all here should be given equal short shrift. In my first blog on this I suggested that only three children had died in Scotland as a result of Coronavirus. I got that wrong. It was only three children in the whole of the UK.

Now what's the point to all this you say?

Well, John Swinney spoke on Tuesday and Larry Flanagan on Wednesday.  Since when Swinney has not responded, caught in the headlights between listening to parents and offending (as he sees it) teachers, whose large scale conversion to independence was a significant feature of the 2014 referendum. 

Well I'd give him three pieces of advice.

Firstly, don't assume the teaching unions speak for a majority of their members but rather instead for those with the loudest voices. My own, albeit anecdotal, experience, is not not just that a majority of teachers are prepared to go back to work but that they wish to do so. 

Secondly, make an unconditional statement now that, unless the medical advice changes, the schools are re-opening on 11th August. With or without the agreement of the EIS.

Thirdly, that if the EIS disagree with that, then they had better call a strike ballot.  Because, if they don't, any physically fit teacher not at their work on 11th August isn't just not going to get paid, they are going to lose their job. 

And, by the way, the Education Recovery Group is hereby disbanded. 








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