Small Can be Beautiful – and Dangerous

Small is beautiful, wrote the German philosopher EF Schumacher more than forty years ago. True, but small can also be dangerous. Exhibit A: Public Sector Scotland.  

The beauty is that everyone knows each other. Speak to SNP Ministers and you hear a familiar point being made. Unlike Whitehall – where gargantuan government departments often fail to communicate with one another, never mind anyone else – Scotland is different. Ministers in Edinburgh can wander down the corridor and knock on each other’s doors. Government, being smaller, is more coherent. You can get all the key people involved in public health, for example, – from doctors, to educators, to police chiefs – and come up with a shared plan. 

The danger? It’s that everyone knows each other. Because small, self-contained systems like this are a petri dish for cosiness, cronyism and – at their worst – corruption.  

Consider Scottish education. Cosiness and cronyism? As Aveek Bhattacharya – the chief economist at the respected Social Market Foundation – wrote recently when assessing Scottish education: “To progress to senior positions….people have to conform and avoid ‘rocking the boat’”. Education leaders, he noted, “form a relatively insular group, rotating on a merry-go-round with limited outside influence.” Or, as Melvyn Roffe, the Principal of George Watson’s College added last week, teachers know it’s more than their jobs’ worth to speak out and “are often instructed what they must or must not do” by government. Supposedly independent organisations in education, even the Inspectorate, “too often end up as apologists for policy failure”.    

And corruption? Consider the remarkable revelations earlier this month after journalists uncovered an internal note from Public Health Scotland which showed that its duties now included shielding Ministers from reputational harm. To be clear, this is not its job. Public Health Scotland is the country’s national health body. On its website, it claims to offer “professionally independent” advice. Its responsibilities have included examination on Ministerial decisions to let elderly patients into care homes during the Covid crisis. Yet the note showed that, privately, it was scoring its own work to determine whether or not they criticise government policy. It’s hard to know what is more shocking: the revelations, or the assertion from Ministers that this is all perfectly in order. 

Of course it’s true to say that these kind of issues and scandals don’t just affect small nations. But it is surely also true to note that small countries – particularly those with strong national myths and conceits about their perceived exceptionality – are particularly prone to falling prey to them. From there it is a short step for a powerful and skilful national government to manage affairs for its political benefit without even having to coerce people into doing so.  

As Hugh MacDiarmid declared in poetry (“Scotland small?”), we are easily affronted by the suggestion that Scotland might be on the little side. But chest-puffing here is useless. In the union or independent, Scotland needs to tackle its stifling culture of smallness. It needs politicians in the Scottish Parliament – of all parties – prepared to hunt out corruption, cosiness and cronyism; it needs policy-makers who are prepared to put innovation above management; it needs mavericks, rebels, and trouble-makers. This is the way to retain the beauty of small systems, without falling prey to their dark side too. 

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Post, 20th June 2021

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