Bill Jamieson: Governments don't live in real world

Having inherited his late father's scepticism, Bill Jamieson wonders how the First Minister will fund her new programme for government

For Bill Jamieson, life is a boomerang, as he finds himself sharing his late fathers sceptical views 40 years on.

Life is never a straight line, or a progression, or even a progressive progression. Life really is a boomerang.

Over the years I have been heartened and perturbed by how much we come to grow like our parents. I would have been mortified by such a thought when young. In some respects I still am. But it is broadly true.

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I was musing on this when listening to the First Minister’s Programme for Government this week. My father, a pawky wee country lawyer of Ayrshire, would have expressed a bemused but deep scepticism – a view underpinned by a conviction, strengthened by the passing of the years, that while we mortals live in the real world, government seems to live in quite another.

My father’s view was not a total nihilism about politicians and their utterances. But it was edging close.

My father had a strong belief, or rather, disbelief, that much government ambition rarely comes to fruition. When young, I did not at all share this view. In fact, I disagreed strongly. For, like most of the baby boom generation, we were idealists. And we looked to government to effect transformation and achieve great things.

Now it is true that improvements have been achieved. We can list many particular and specific acts and legislation for betterment. But the scale and reach fell far short of the lofty rhetoric and visions claimed by political leaders.

I listened with wonder to the First Minister’s programme; bearing down on climate change; building 50,000 affordable homes (budget: £3 billion); eradication of rough sleeping; the end of petrol and diesel cars by 2032 - eight years ahead of the UK; a “Citizen’s Basic Income” and every home in the country assessed for “need”; pushing on with a new social security agency and continuing to recruit at least 1,500 staff; a £2 billion increase in the NHS budget; free sanitary products in schools and universities; ending the public sector pay cap; a new Scottish Strategic Board for the enterprise and skills agencies; a further push on land reform, and, of course, a Scottish Investment Bank, coming round the track for the third (or is it the fourth?) time. Above all, the First Minister has pledged to make improving the country’s education system her “number one priority”.

And all this is to be provided by a government with a budget deficit of £13.3 billion. It is 8.3 per cent of GDP, a ratio more than three times that of the UK. Last month the First Minister dismissed this figure as “notional”. But that’s a major difference between the real world and the world of government: for those of us in reality-land, debt is anything but. And tax rates here at the top end are already higher than the UK before the First Minister’s further “progressive” ambitions take hold.

I found myself trying to count on my fingers all the measures – the full document runs to 160 pages - where my father would have uttered a guffaw and retreated to his garden. His generation lived through the years of the hyped-up Harold Wilson transformation, the oft-proclaimed In Place of Strife by Barbara Castle and her jangly bracelets, and the Tony Barber boom – followed by the Barber bust, the four-day week, unemptied bins - and a sterling crisis.

How did my parents cope? There was a steady, palpable detachment. They never gave in to despair though there was much to despair about. And their lives did improve through the years and the tears, though largely by their own devices.

A similar distance from the world of politics prevailed across friends and relatives who came round for tea: government was seldom, if ever, seen as the engine of uplift it claimed to be – and certainly not the transformative colossus it claims to be now.

There was reading, and long walks through the woods. And over the years my mother nursed wonderful roses. In the late summer the best of these were cut and brought in for display on the dining table. Their fragrance filled the room. I never thought I would inherit my parents’ political scepticism. But the fondness for roses I did, and passionately so.

The improvement for my parents over their years – the excitement over a new car, their first exotic holiday abroad to the Canary Islands - was mottled with darker spots. There was migration from the valley, the decline of lace, and the presses of our local newspaper just over the garden wall that wheezed and sputtered to a mighty noise each week have long fallen silent. Devolution was not even a twinkle in the eye back then. In our little town there was a long-neglected, barely legible dwarf milestone in the main street. If you looked closely it read “Edinburgh, 71 miles”. But who much bothered how far Edinburgh was?

It is still there today, more grimy than ever. And who cares any more now about the distance to Edinburgh as the relentless ebb tide has continued, the population has thinned, more shops are boarded up, the cinema gone and tumbleweed sprouts out of a once handsome sandstone Co-Operative store? As with so many of our little Scottish towns, what has changed in the years since devolution to staunch this slow, grinding decline?

Wider afield, my father had relations who lived near Tarbolton, an Ayrshire farming village that could have come straight out of John Galt’s Annals of the Parish. As he drove past, he would gently press on the accelerator and speed by. Not until he was well past did he remind us of his distant cousins. For there was always so much depressing news in Tarbolton – ailing animals, a poor harvest, rising prices – and farmer debt.

I think we should make a conscious effort not to despair now, and not to succumb to fatalism, though it is not easy to say this when incomes are showing their slowest growth since the 1860s.

But living standards have hugely improved. We live longer. Housing is of a higher standard. Count our blessings. Government may not deliver everything. But Amazon does.

And we still wrestle with the demons of poor lifestyle choices that are still – as they always were – largely in our own gift to rectify. We have record numbers in work, though more than one in five of the working age population “economically inactive”. And school literacy and numeracy levels are a disgrace. But who knows? The promised new Education Bill may work a transformation in standards – back to the world-renowned level they once were in my parent’s time.

As the years have passed, I cannot but have inherited my father’s pawky scepticism in so many things. The boomerang has flown, sliced in a true and unswerving arc through time, and finds me after more than 40 years since my father’s passing eerily close to where he left off. Life truly is a boomerang, however you look.