ECCLESIASTES is possibly the most depressing book in the Bible, even though it was written, quite literally, with the wisdom of King Solomon.
It argues that for all our endeavours to find meaning and fulfilment in life – in learning, career, wine or any pleasure – it is all in the end “meaningless”. Harrumph.
I am generally an optimistic and hopeful sort, though this part of my spirit is tested sorely from time to time. But I was drawn to the repetitive hopelessness of Solomon’s words this week: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
The reason? The 20th – count them – annual publication of the Government Expenditure and Revenue report in Scotland. Created by the Tories in the 1990s to argue that Scotland was a financial basket case, it remains a useful source of information about the past and how we have been run. It tells us next to nothing about the future, unless you buy into Solomon’s core belief.
We truly live in an Orwellian world when the innocent citizenry are asked to buy an argument that goes something like this: “We are in charge of the UK public finances and can tell you that under our leadership and policies Scotland runs an unsustainable financial deficit. It is therefore imperative that we keep things as they are now.”
Only in Scotland would we be asked to believe that the beggaring of future generations and the blowing of North Sea oil means that things should stay the same and the people responsible should stay in charge.
For me such patterns of bad conduct and lousy outcomes are not a reason to cower in the corner of the cabin as the water level rises on our sinking ship. We should seize the wheel for ourselves or get off the ship.
So reform and change are a must if we are to break the bad habits of our collective lifetimes. That is one of the greatest underlying opportunities of any democratic test, whether an election or referendum. And for us, the voters, the responsibility we carry is to find and keep the leaders with the vision and gumption to take us where we need to go.
At all levels of life, leadership is at a premium. In the conduct of public service, especially so. I believe it is imperative for our future happiness that we experiment and open our minds to different ways of governing ourselves at all levels. And find the best possible leaders to lead. Not just at a national level.
So much of life is lived locally and true leadership in our communities can truly transform our well-being. We need to consider new ways to embolden and empower local municipal areas. All parts of our nation can move from a culture of managing things as they are now to transformation. We should demand world class excellence everywhere rather than tolerate mediocrity and Tammany Hall style democracy.
We would be missing a huge opportunity if we merely change control from London to control from Edinburgh without changing the mindset and culture of government and democracy as we go.
One idea is to create directly elected mayors to lead our local councils. We could try it out and see how it works. In some areas what would we have to lose?
Take Aberdeen as an example. On many measures it is possibly Europe’s richest city. But its public infrastructure could be, well, so much better. The inexplicable rejection of Sir Ian Wood’s investment in public gardens and the blocking of new world class football facilities bemused this casual observer.
However, recent revelations of simply demeaning behaviour by council leaders (long-haul jaunts and attempts to ban the First Minister from council properties to name but two) suggest to me that this is one city whose citizens deserve so much better. The detail of the japes is less important than the impression they leave of small-minded behaviour when the opportunities being neglected are so large.
How much better if one of the most important cities in Europe had a directly elected leader combining the democratic and executive offices into one? Properly empowered and with financial flexibility they could truly galvanise the ambition and transformation of what can and should be one of the finest cities in the world.
Prove the model and it could be copied elsewhere. Demonstrate leadership and powers could and should flow from London and Holyrood much closer to the people. The names of true city fathers and mothers could be etched into the history of our times, rather than small people forgotten in the clippings of juvenile feuds.
Solomon would have been a great elected Mayor for Aberdeen, at least until he lost his hope. But there is wisdom to be found elsewhere if we can find and incentivise great people to serve and give them the tools to do so.
As Ecclesiastes goes on to ask, “Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new’?”
All of us deserve the answer to that question to become an emphatic “Yes”. Just as Scotland can lead the UK in reform, so too could Aberdeen become a true northern light for the rest of our country.