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Towards a modern rural economy:
enterprise or regulation

Part 5: Session 4b

SCA conference "Getting the balance right: rural Scotland 2005"
12th April, Edinburgh.

Ian Mitchell

Author and a Founder of People

This paper is a transcript of the presentation he made at the above conference
and was provided courtesy of the speaker and Scottish Countryside Alliance.
Photography is by Kimpton Graphics

Filed 02 Apr 05

Bibliography - see below

Transcript of paper - Click Here


The following information was provided in the conference press pack:

Ian was born in Scotland but raised in South Africa. He is the author of three books, two of which relate to the governance of rural Scotland: Isles of the West: a Hebridean Voyage, and Isles of the North: a Voyage to the Realms of the Norse.

He has published articles in most of the national press, and is one of the founders of People Too, an organisation which tries to assert the legitimacy of ordinary human presence in the country areas of a smart, bureacratic Scotland.

Ian Mitchell
author and founder of People Too
delivering his paper at the SCA conference
(©Kimpton Graphics)

Transcript of Ian Mitchell's paper

Thank you ladies and gentlemen, I didn't know Murdo was going to talk about crap but I'm going to continue the theme of crap and I'll change the order of what I'm going to say as a result of it - but I'm going to hand it out right now.

I gave a talk to the People Too organisation a while ago about the way in which the bureaucracy is seeking to defeat the democratically elected parliament by using terms in public discourse which tends to distance the public from the centres of decision making, in other words - because there is now supposed to be a pretence of open government - they've devised a whole series of terms for the policy choices that we have to discuss, which most people don't understand, or if they do understand they think of in slightly different terms.

And I quoted an example of an Argyll and Bute Council housing strategy document which talked about the most far-fetched, incredible range of things. It was a document produced for public discussion, but nobody could understand it and that is exactly the way they wanted it. And the guy who actually composed the document, I had a conversation with him on the phone, he was a very nice bloke called McKenzie in Dunoon, and he said, "it's rubbish - we just have to do it because we're told to", that sort of thing.

And he said to me, in other words the bureaucrat who wrote this document sent me a game that you can play, which I've got here. I'm going to hand out copies of it - it's called "bullshit bingo". Since James [Irvine] is a publisher maybe you could hand that out. The point is, on that thing is all the terms that get used in conferences that send you to sleep and really don't mean anything. And by some incredible freak of chance in the top left hand corner is "holistic management".

But on the question of terms that people use differently, I'm just going to tell you a true story on Islay, just recently. I've a friend called Donald Williams who comes sailing with me from time to time and I've written these two books, which you've got to buy 'cos I'm broke and the details are upstairs on the tables, "Isles of the North" and "Isles of the West", and when I was busy writing "Isles of the North" which concerns Orkney, Shetland and Norway which is really what I'm going to come on to in terms of entrepreneurial management of rural areas. I went down to the pub one day and he said, "What are you at Ian?" and I just said "I'm just writing about Egilsay about the fantastic corncrake holocaust there since the RSPB bought the island, or most of the island" and he said "Egilsay, what's that?" and I said "it's an island in Orkne", and he said "Oh, I thought it was a testicular disease". Anyway this guy, talking of words, one of the main words, which unfortunately isn't in that bingo document is "the precautionary principle".

I used this example to try and illustrate ambiguity with words, because Donald has unfortunately got a lady in Islay into trouble recently and his mother was saying to him, "No, Donald, you must take precautions." And he said "Of course I take precautions mother, I told her my name was Angus".

So, precautions mean different things to different people and of the words in the title here of the talk I think the thing "modern" is the one that interests me, because I did a little analysis of the words - enterprise and regulation and so on and they have all got different possible meanings, so you really have to concentrate on what you really mean. And one thing I've been completely opposed to all through my brief career of trying to provide some kind of insight into what I think of as the reality of the conservation bureaucracy that rural Scotland's struggling to live in the face of, is this business of the misuse of words and how words like sustainable development and so on are used in a whole series of different ways which, apart from the fact that nobody really understands what it means, apart from "don't break the planet," which everybody agrees with anyway, and is completely obvious. It's one of these words, like a lot of things can have different meanings and I'd like to give you a little example of this from today's events.

I asked a question this morning of Roger Wheater sitting over there about Claire Scott who I've written about, in Fair Isle, who manufactures jewellery, a very high quality jewellery which she is seeking to sell because she lives in a Fair Isle National Trust owned property, through the National Trust main outlets, around Scotland and she's had the most terrific difficulty doing that and Dr Wheater told us that he'd seen her. I made my trip in 2002, but he'd been there last year which is 2004 and the problem had been sorted. So I went up, like Spike Milligan with the weather forecast, I have to have a rope outside my window and if the forecast says fog I go and see if I can see this rope, or if the rope's wet then I know it's raining sort of thing, so I went and phoned Claire just now and I said "What is the actual situation with the sale of your jewellery? Dr Wheater has told us that he has sorted your problem". And she said, "Well I wouldn't say that, we certainly did meet and discuss it - the only National Trust outlet I've got is Glencoe but that started before last year and what was discussed was maybe selling it through the larger outlets." And I said "Well, as I understood it from the words that had been used that had in broad terms been sorted" and her response was "Put it this way, I'm still waiting for the order".

So you can judge it for yourself whether she thinks it is sorted or not, and that is what I have made my main campaign about - on looking behind the words to find the exact meaning because in most of the stuff that you'll see put out by these bodies there will be one apparent meaning and when you push behind it and you'll find the reality is quite different from what in real terms they call the actual ordinary meaning of the word.

So of all the words in the title of the thing today the one I really took was the one "modern" and you know, I'm going to have to truncate this drastically but in "Isles of the West" I went around the Hebrides and looked at the problems of conservation in the world of the Hebrides. In "Isles of the North", which is Orkney, Shetland, where I have, on my mother's side, quite a lot of relatives anyway and in Norway which has always interested me and which I'd been to once before. So we sailed to Norway and encountered a completely different situation. Murdo says "How do we unleash the potential of modern Scotland?" And correctly points to the fact that in the nineteenth century the Scottish economy was, per capita, one of the wealthiest in the world. Now it's no accident that the Scottish economy started going downhill from 1919 and at the same time it was in the first world war that the bureaucracy in Britain really took off. If you read the beginning of - I've quoted this before but it's worth repeating - if you read the beginning of A J P Taylor's Oxford History of England, the entire first page is devoted to saying that an ordinary law abiding citizen who didn't have to go to jury service and wasn't in the armed forces could go through his entire life without meeting any manifestation of state. If he wanted to build a house he just bought land, buy the bricks, hire a builder and off he went. If he wanted to go abroad he just left, he didn't need a passport, if he wanted to carry his money about the place, he could do what he liked. And it started due to the war, and that's perfectly understandable and obviously a massive military machine had to be built up and there's an eleven volume history of
munitions. There's a monument to this bureaucracy and the problem is it doesn't go away in peacetime. Truth is the first casualty in the war. The problem is in peacetime it isn't the first beneficiary, it's exactly the same as bureaucracy so you can almost trace Scotland's decline and this would be going beyond the evidence, but there's an aspect of truth in this, you can trace Scotland's economic decline with the rise of the British state bureaucracy.

And in Norway, to cut an awfully long story and a very interesting story very short, they have just about as much bureaucracy as we do here, the difference is they have a very, very effective democracy and it is based on local government, very small units. The average rural local authority in Norway has 5000 inhabitants and therefore probably only about 3000 electors. There is about 30 members in the commune so that's one for every 100 people, so everybody knows half the people on the thing - they can't get away with very much. The elected commune members elect themselves a mayor, and that mayor is given an office, he's given a full time job and an office even though bureaucracy is building, and he spends his entire time monitoring that bureaucracy to ensure it's doing what the democracy wants.

That in the modern world we can't get away from bureaucracy, what we have to do is tame it, and housetrain it, and civilise it, and make sure it is doing what we want, that they are our civil servants - rather than our civil masters. And in this bureaucracy I include all the conservation bodies, the quangos , all the outriders of this great state apparatus, and really I suppose if I were to answer Murdo's question straight, I would very simply say, a complete revamp of the parliamentary and electoral local government system in Scotland is the real answer.

Because, although there is far too much bureaucracy there is a limit to what you can get rid of. And as I say in Norway things work reasonably well, they have their problems too, but things work reasonably well in the situation in which there's an awful lot of bureaucracy but it's much more flexible and the main thing it is governed by, I mean who has the upper hand is the whole question. The upper hand there is held by the elected bodies rather than the appointed bodies.

And I was going to talk about language and another great trick of the bureaucracy is to filibuster. As you may notice they produce massive amounts of paperwork and when you haven't read it all they say "Ah, but in page 27 of the fifth report we say such and such" but of course you haven't read it, you can't be bothered, life's too short, there's far more interesting things to do, so they've got you. And I would suggest that one of the most important pressures that people should put on the bureaucracy apart from using language which isn't in this "bullshit bingo", in other words language that the ordinary people understand, is to have all those statements reasonably short.

And I'm gong to end just by quoting a very quick example, because in the days before, in the days when Scotland was a flourishing economy and before this great bureaucratic apparatus had appointed itself into positions of power, the British bureaucracy was very , very small and one particular example which I've always remembered is that Lord Palmerston, who was the Foreign Secretary for much of the middle of the 19th century, presided over a Foreign Office which had a total of 45 people working in it. Now, I haven't the faintest idea how many people the Foreign Office employs today - if it's less than 100 times that I'd be surprised. But it was 45 people and Palmerston himself used to read every single dispatch that went out or telegram that came in, and he would write corrections on them - sometimes it would say, you know "rewrite this in blacker ink" was one. But he wrote on one particularly verbose, kind-of bureaucratic style message "sentences should begin with a nominative, go on with a verb and end with the accusative." So brevity in all things and on that note I shall stop.

This paper was delivered at the Scottish Countryside Alliance Conference in Edinburgh on 12 April 2005. It is made available as part of the Conference proceedings and should not be reproduced without the permission of the author or the Scottish Countryside Alliance

The views expressed in this presentation are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect those of the Scottish Countryside Alliance. The Scottish Countryside Alliance and conference organisers Playfair Walker cannot accept responsibility for any errors where this presentation has been transcribed from audiotape.

Any reproduction or publication of this material should credit both the speaker and the Scottish Countryside Alliance.