Joyce McMillan is one of the elite, whether she likes it or not


by Kenneth Roy

A remarkable article by Joyce McMillan, critic and social commentator, appeared in the Scotsman last week. I agreed with most of it. There is rarely much in her work with which any right-thinking (or left-thinking) person could reasonably disagree. And yet it was remarkable, this particular piece. It resonated, as they say. She was writing about the impossibility of ‘moving on’.

We cannot ‘move on’ from the phone-hacking scandal (she said) because the British people are left wondering ‘just who is really making the decisions’. She quoted a report from Reuters portraying ‘an all-too-recognisable picture’ of a nation that has become subject to ‘elite capture’ across government, business and the media. At the same time, the voices of ‘ordinary people’ are ‘increasingly unheard’. Well, there’s a surprise.

Professor McMillan went on to cite the ‘opportunistic friendships’ between such individuals as Cameron and Brooks or the retiring commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and the owner of Champneys health spa or ‘the talented and sensible’ Sarah Brown and Rupert Murdoch’s wife. She said that this ruling elite was becoming ‘a kind of Bourbon aristocracy’ deaf to reality and at home only with each other. The political questions that faced us were therefore ‘of the deepest kind’.

She added: ‘In Scotland, some will see independence as the obvious answer; and it might indeed provide us, north of the Border, with a kind of fresh start’.

The bloggers who follow such pieces seized on this qualified acknowledgement that, up here, we have the potential to do things differently or perhaps do so already. ‘An independent Scotland,’ wrote one of the more literate of her supporters, ‘would at least have a chance to get away from this clique style of government’.

At this point, after several hundred words not a comma of which I would dispute, Professor McMillan and I parted company. There is not the slightest evidence that Scotland is, or will be, less dominated by elite captures and clique styles than the body politic as a whole. The elite exists in any society and it is likely to be more pronounced in a small society than in a large one.

SR has devoted a lot of space in the last two years to pointing out the overlapping interests of the elite in Scottish public life, the scandalously small pool from which that elite is drawn, and the often unfortunate results. Thus, for example, we find a prominent member of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, one of the supporters of the disastrous Southern Cross deal in Glasgow, also cast as one of two independent directors of Audit Scotland, the body which audits, er, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

I looked forward eagerly to a Herald investigation into who the un-named prominent figures were, where they met and how often, and what on earth this self-appointed clique talked about or decided. Alas, I looked forward in vain.

At the highest end of the Scottish elite – the utterly incorruptible extreme – there is Joyce McMillan herself. There she is, or rather was, convening the Independent Commission on devolution, following which she was appointed by the Secretary of State for Scotland to a devolution group ‘comprising 11 eminent Scots’ to advise on the workings of the Scottish Parliament. The names of the eminent are to be found in the service of body after body. Why, it is only days since I had reason to point out that Esther Roberton, one of them, had found her way onto the Press Complaints Commission; the hot dinners I have enjoyed would not exceed in number the appointments of another of the eminent, the one and only Deirdre Hutton; no self-respecting inquiry into modern Scotland is complete without the opinion of Campbell Christie and no committee quite sound without the reassuring presence of Dr Joan Stringer of Queen Margaret something or other.

Elite capture? You got it. Or rather we got it. I assume, however, that they are talking to the ordinary people on the buses. There is a greater reliance on public transport up here, particularly since the coming of that wonderful plastic which, over a certain age, makes contact with ordinary people more or less unavoidable.

Joyce McMillan is now in the happy position of commenting weekly, sometimes more, on the administration of the new Scotland which she and her eminent colleagues helped to facilitate, for better or worse. If she does not consider herself a leading player in the Scottish elite, she is not in full possession of the facts – about herself.

So much for the top end of our elite. There is also a lower end, the rump of which we observed all too plainly in the spring of last year.

Perhaps I am the only person who remembers one of the great newspaper editorials of our time, concerning the case of one Steven Purcell, recently fallen leader of Glasgow City Council. ‘Speculation has grown ever more fevered,’ said the Sunday Herald, ‘encompassing suggestions of a network of powerful figures working behind the scenes to influence the workings of the city. The suggestion that this so-called network includes leading figures from the media is now threatening to undermine public confidence in the integrity of the Scottish press. There have been hints that some Scottish newspapers have pulled their punches on the controversy because editors have been too close to Mr Purcell…’

The network ‘working behind the scenes to influence the workings of the city’ turned out to be an informal outfit known as Team Glasgow, among whose members were the then editor-in-chief of the Herald group, the then leader of Glasgow City Council and un-named ‘prominent figures in the business community’. I looked forward eagerly to a Herald investigation into who the un-named prominent figures were, where they met and how often, and what on earth this self-appointed clique talked about or decided. Alas, I looked forward in vain. There was no investigation. The matter was conveniently dropped. In this case it proved only too possible to ‘move on’ – or out.

It is surprising that, in a piece headed ‘The cosying up together has to end’, Joyce McMillan could not spare even a sentence to deal with so outstanding an example of cosying up together in the supposedly purer atmosphere of Scotland.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.