Has the fire gone out of the nation?

In Agnes Owens's hard, bright little black comedy set in Glasgow, Bad Attitudes, the anti-hero Mrs Webb enlivens her dull life by complaining to the council about her nuisance neighbours. ''Fancy him calling you a cow,'' another character remarks to her. But, more concerned with regulating her neighbours' bad behaviour than dealing with her own
problems, killjoy Mrs Webb seems emblematic of the new Scotland.

This country sometimes seems in danger of becoming a pettifogging, intolerant place where every aspect of life is under state control. The media at the weekend referred sanctimoniously to unnamed ”yobs” who jeered at firefighters as they attempted to extinguish conflagrations on common ground.

Little mention was made of the fact that November 5 is traditionally known as ”Bonfire Night”. It marks a time of year when for centuries, if not millennia, Scots have welcomed the coming of the dark months by building great roaring fires that throw up vivid sparks against the night. Who doesn’t have childhood memories of standing round the crackling flames with hot faces and cold bums, gloved fingers holding charred potatoes or waving sparklers?

No more. This was deemed a risky way to carry on and so the Scottish Executive’s new community wardens, set up at a cost of (pounds) 10m a year to tackle anti-social behaviour, made sure most bonfires were stopped before they began. The Scottish Executive’s website records proudly the surveillance that was mounted across the country to report unauthorised bonfires being built, ranging from mapping sites where bonfires have happened in the past to ”mobile patrols in bonfire hotspots”. Other regulations mean that authorised bonfires are so rare nowadays that they are also in danger of extinction.

The trouble is that if there are few community bonfires to attend, kids may try to start their own. Near where I live, youths dragged a few branches into a pile and lit them shortly before the fire brigade arrived to reduce it to a sodden mess.

No doubt some of those ”yobs” who started fires were just kids who felt they were missing out, but some may receive Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and if don’t obey them, they will go to jail. What, too, did education minister Peter Peacock mean earlier in the week
when he said that school boards dated from a different political era and he wanted to review their role in the selection of head teachers? Later he tried to obfuscate his earlier remarks with pious claptrap about involving parents in a less rigid way, but the impression he gave was that he was uncomfortable with them wielding actual power and he thought removing power from state officials and giving it to parents was a Tory idea. (Tell that to the Hungarians.)

School boards in Scotland have almost no authority, anyway. In England, real power was actually wrested away from state bureaucrats and given to parents and communities. Elected parent representatives south of the border have a real say in the running of the school. They and teachers need support and training to make that work but it is empowering for communities to take responsibility for their own destinies, and parent
governors often pour huge amounts of energy and creativity into schools.

In Scotland, enthusiastic heads can involve school boards in the running of the school but it is at their behest and boards are often merely rubber-stamping units. However, boards do have the right to send a representative to the panel that selects heads and in doing that, they bring in the expertise and feedback of parents. Why would Peacock object
to that? I I also find depressing the number of people who have written into The
Herald condemning the rather grudging support the state gives to the schools run by the Catholic Church, alleging that the separation between church and state is being threatened. It is hardly as if Scotland’s leaders are in danger of falling under the sway of Rome, after all. They wouldn’t even let Cardinal Keith O’Brien open his mouth at the opening of the shared campus in Dalkeith in case the hegemony of the state was

Then there is the likely smoking ban in public places. Smoking is bad and I am not about to take it up again solely in order to incense the authorities, although I have considered it. But it seems to me that the law is a blunt instrument with which to effect social change. What’s next? A crisp ban? Surely we should be looking for a compromise that allows some
bars to apply for a licence to allow smoking. The fracas over hunting with dogs down south illustrates that where people feel strongly about something, simply banning it may not work.

We now have more elected representatives and state officials than ever before. After decades of silence when it was hard to get bills with the word ”Scotland” in them discussed at Westminster, the legislature is cranking up. New laws are hitting the statute book with fearful speed. But good laws require careful framing and, frankly, a further rolling out of
the state is the last thing Scotland needs. While anti-social behaviour may be a problem, as Agnes Owens’s Mrs Webb illustrates, intolerance is not a virtue.

The Scottish Herald
November 10th 2004