Negotiating the corridors of power

Negotiating the corridors of power

RECENTLY I got involved in a Twitter debate, one of the joys of social media.

Kevin Williamson, doyen of Leith socialists, asked, not unreasonably in my view: “What do SNP loyalists have to say about ScotGovt decision to allow foreign tax dodgers & shadowy offshore corporations to own Scottish land?”

I tweeted agreement with his sentiments and then mountain man Cameron McNeish offered a counter-view, saying: “It’s a lost opportunity but don’t necessarily blame #ScotGov Blame the lawyers and civil servants?”

At which point I weighed in: “That’s a wee bit of a cop-out. Ministers heading for a 3rd term ought to have learned to stand up to them.”

All good natured stuff, but as the debate continued, with some saying it was wrong to blame the Sir Humphreys and others indicating hope that a long game was being played by Ministers, I got a private message.

This led to a chat over coffee which I admit gave me pause for thought. How did any of us know, across the whole field of Scottish Government activity, the level of interaction between Ministers and civil servants?

If, for example, a Minister decided to reject legal advice and proceed with a course of action, we might never know. If Government lawyers were sent away and told to come up with alternative advice, we might never hear of it.

In short there will be be all manner of negotiation going on in the corridors of power between civil servants and politicians, of which we remain unaware. Sure, at times the former may be more cautious than the latter, but it certainly isn’t as simplistic as wily Sir Humphreys pulling the wool over the eyes of naive Jim Hackers.

Of course if this is true, the buck really does stop with the Ministers.

A successful search for Willie McIllvanney

A successful search for Willie McIllvanney

I RETURNED from my regular morning walk with an added spring in my step today, thanks to the recently departed Willie McIllvanney.
He was a regular visitor to The Scotsman features department when I worked there in the eighties and always the most fantastic company. He was generous, broad-minded, full of anecdotes that didn’t centre on himself. What is the opposite of bumptious? Not just unbumptious but actively anti-bumptious. That was Willie, holding court, but modestly. That cliche of the thriller blurbs was apposite: “Women want him. Men want to be him.”
I didn’t have that much contact with Willie over the next decades, brushing briefly during the occasional literary/political interface. But to know him and his wonderful, smooth malt voice — even through broadcasts such as the re-run of a beautiful  Janice Forsyth interview this week — was to think you were close, a tangible link with the word on the page.
His politics — non-partisan socialist and supportive of independence — were mine too, but the beauty of Willie and evident in his passing was that you did not have to share his views to admire him as a writer and a man.
The evidence was there in the wake of his death at the weekend, when writers as diverse as Alex Massie and Kevin McKenna united in magnificent tribute.
So why the spring in my step mentioned above? His passing made me realise that while I had read all of his novels I had never read his poetry, an omission I thought to put right. On my morning walk I dropped into the Oxfam bookshop in Stockbridge and there was In Through the Head, his 1988 collection of new and collected verse.
I open my new purchase, read: Love’s counterfeits are endless and a bore. I’m in.