Joyce McMillan: Time for true reform in politics

The new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary building at Little France, opened in 2003, was built under a PFI contract. Picture: TSPL
The new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary building at Little France, opened in 2003, was built under a PFI contract. Picture: TSPL
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SCHOOLS scandal shows a return to a more progressive politics is overdue, writes Joyce McMillan

Another week, another broadside or two bemoaning the entrenched small-c conservatism of the Scottish people. For all our left-leaning and social democratic talk, runs the argument, we tend to hate reform, or any kind of change, and to resist it with all our might.

Yet before we dismiss Scottish voters – or most of them – as a bunch of myth-making hypocrites clinging to the past, we should at least pause to consider the precise character of the 40-year political cycle through which we have just lived; and in particular – in the light of the current crisis in Edinburgh’s schools, 17 of which have been closed or partly closed following the discovery of serious structural faults – we should recall just how severely the terms “change” and “reform” have been abused throughout that period.

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Once or twice during my life as a journalist, I have had occasion to visit the Reform Club in London, a very grand building in Pall Mall, lined with portraits of great 19th century leaders of progressive politics in the UK. The club itself was founded in the aftermath of the Great Reform Act of 1832 – the first act of the British parliament to begin the process of widening the right to vote beyond a tiny group of landowners and grandees. And for a century and a half after 1832, this was what the word “reform” meant in British politics; it referred to movements and policies which tended to distribute power, including economic power, more widely among the people, and to advance the idea that all citizens should be regarded as equal in rights and dignity.

So it came as something of a shock, around the beginning of the 1980s, to see the word “reform” suddenly being confidently applied to changes which could not possibly, on any common-sense analysis, have any such progressive effect.

Taking the corrupt communist states of Eastern Europe as a model for states in general, a whole generation of economic pundits and politicians began to talk authoritatively, and almost with a single voice, about “market reforms”; they referred to the brisk winds of commercial enterprise and competition which should, they said, be allowed to blow through the murky structures of the public sector. They applied this theory to everything from gas and telecoms to the railway system and the pensions industry – never pausing to ask whether there might have been good reasons why those provisions ended up in the public sector in the first place.

And then, in the early 1990s, the British government conceived another brilliant privatising wheeze, designed to keep the cost of new capital projects off the national books. They would invite private companies to build new bridges, hospitals and schools under sweetheart deals which would land the relevant public authorities with a colossal 30-year schedule of mortgage payments to meet, at the end of which they would not even own the buildings.

And if the Tories invented the “private finance initiative”, New Labour loved it even more; so that in the late 1990s, local authorities and health boards in Scotland found themselves under extreme pressure to build new generations of schools and health facilities using PPI, the new public-private partnership initiative.

And now, of course, some of the consequences of that bizarre period of uncritical group-think in British politics are becoming all too obvious; in essence, Scotland’s capital – the city that once called itself the Athens of the North – ended up building a generation of schools that are apparently at risk of falling down after less than 20 years, because of what seem to have been elementary failures in the mechanics and ethics of safe ­construction.

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Yet it was this kind of flawed process – overpriced, unfair, unaccountable, regressive, and arguably unethical – that was sold to the British people, day after day for several decades, as the kind of “reform” and “change” that any forward-looking person should embrace. In that context, it’s hardly surprising that Scottish voters cast a cold eye over those claims, and decided that they would rather – if they could – stay with something more like the traditional British post-war relationship between the public and private sectors.

It is not nostalgia but simple civic sense, after all, to suggest that if we want public goods, we should pay for them out of our taxes, and have them built under the direction of public authorities which are accountable to us, the taxpayers. It is not nostalgia, but civic sense, to suggest that those who construct buildings which are potentially dangerous should be deprived of the income they might have earned from those buildings. It is not nostalgia, but civic sense, to hope that we might have public authorities free of any revolving-door relationships with the companies they are supposed to be commissioning and regulating.

And it is also neither nostalgic nor ridiculous to hope for an electoral politics which enables us to vote for a world in which the word “reform” once again reclaims its progressive meaning. At the moment, of course, we have to look to the margins of Scottish and UK politics, to the Greens and other smaller parties, if we want a clear commitment to the kinds of structural changes that would fully protect us from a repetition of the Edinburgh schools scandal.

Yet history shows us, too, just how quickly what is marginal can become mainstream; when a long cycle of reaction finally comes to an end, and is replaced by a new age of progress, and true reform.