Of all Scotland’s rotten burghs, none merits greater scrutiny than the quango system – a shameless closed shop of court favourites whose essential qualification for any position that happens to be going is a record of silent compliance in the previous ones.

Our arms-length public bodies used to be essential pillars of Scottish democracy. They were led by big people who did not fear to speak out in order to challenge any government of the day. This was particularly true of our two great development agencies – HIDB later HIE and SDA later Scottish Enterprise.

The chairs of these organisations were household names who had forged reputations in other aspects of Scottish life – such as Bob Grieve, Ken Alexander, Jim Hunter in the Highlands; Bill Gray, Donald MacKay, Ian Wood at the SDA. Big people, big organisations, big visions for the Scottish economy and these powerful agencies worked pretty well.

Sometimes there would be more controversial appointments like Bob Cowan, who was plucked from industry to become chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. “Tory placeman,” cried the critics. In fact, he became a huge champion for the region and the respect he won is reflected in HIE’s headquarters continuing to carry his name.

Who would name a bus shelter after any current Scottish quangoteer?

Scotland had far fewer politicians and a non-political civil service of intellect and integrity. However, it also had a range of high profile figures who represented geographical and sectoral constituencies and had a real stake in addressing the issues of the day.

They would take on ministers. They would use the levers of publicity. They would fight public battles to save or create jobs and if they were sacked as a result, then so be it. Now we have all power vested in the Scottish Government and a culture of silence, for fear of offending one of its many tentacles.

The last thing the SNP want are people of knowledge and stature who challenge anything that their own mediocre processes come up with. That is why their interminable Councils of Advisers on this and that invariably peter out in farce, leaving nothing behind but a few old headlines and still no strategies.

As part of the same ruthless, centralising agenda, the quangos have been reduced to administrative shells. If the Scottish Government had itself replaced them as dynamic fonts of ideas and implementation, then fair enough but who would recognise that description?

Any society needs competing points of power and challenge but Scotland is allowed none. England now has metro mayors to stand up to Whitehall and fight for their regions which they do very effectively. Scotland has a tired and demoralised local government network which has been drained of money and leadership.

Who is Glasgow’s champion in the run-up to COP26? Where is the Michael Kelly figure who used big events as platforms to change the city’s economy and psychology a generation ago? If such a person exists, then he or she has been kept well hidden. But would Ms Sturgeon and co be capable of tolerating a “Glasgow champion”? I see no sign.

If one looks at the roll call of Scotland’s quangoteers, the only conclusion is that we live in the smallest talent pool on earth. The same dreary names come up over and over again, but always with the same essential remit – don’t rock the boat or you won’t be on the circuit for long.

They are extraordinary polymaths to a man and woman. Whatever the vacancy, they’re up for it. Once you’re on the “appointable” list, you’re there for ever. The environment? Certainly. The police? Of course. Education qualifications? A dawdle. Whatever the quango, the same names keep appearing. Failure means nothing because it is in the interests of all to conceal it.

It seems obvious that anyone selected to head a major public body should have a track record of knowledge and commitment in that field. It is unlikely this expertise will replicate itself in some entirely unrelated discipline. Yet the Scottish quango system operates on entirely the opposite principle – if you can do one job, you can do any.

One Mike Cantlay is an interesting product of that mentality. Nobody has ever voted for him except the civil servants and ministers who repeatedly appoint him – Scottish Funding Council, Scottish Natural Heritage, Visit Scotland, Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd. The list is endless.

It’s nearly 25 years since I was a minister in the pre-devolution Scottish Office and even then the civil servants were punting Mr Cantlay for every quango that came up. On the basis of what, I have no idea. But he is still doing the rounds – living proof of just how incestuous Scotland’s quango-go-round continues to be.

I mention him out of others in the magic circle because I have been taking an interest in the workings of HIAL which is engaged in a bitter dispute with air traffic controllers. This has been going on since 2018 when Mr Cantlay was in charge. A decent chairman with loyalty to Highlands and Islands communities would have dealt with it years ago.

But just as Scotland’s quangoteers enter into a pact to be neither seen nor heard, the last thing expected of them is any commitment to people or communities or anything human like that. Serve the system. Keep your nose clean. And you can be a Scottish Quangoteer for life.

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