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Learning for our future

Yesterday was a day for which the phrase "blowing a hoolie" was coined.

It being blue bin day, that's recycling for Aberdeenshire Council, ours had been put out for emptying on Monday evening. But by the time I left the house and walked up the track to the road, the wind had knocked it over and distributed its contents in three directions. So there was a quarter-hour of litter pick up before I could start my walk. And a successful search for a place to leave the newly re-filled bin where it would not be re-emptied by the wind spirits.

I also got caught by Tom Peterkin of the Press and Journal and requested to send him a photo of myself wearing a mask. I had one to hand and could easily understand why Tom might want it.

The COVID-19 Committee ended with my having what could only be described as having a bit of a rant. Graham Simpson, who was a visitor at our meeting, opened his questioning with the subject of face-coverings, "Whatever someone thinks about mandating their use, doing so impinges upon people's civil liberties". And Tom has his story to keep the Editor happy.

It was quite clear that it was not my civil liberty that was being engaged. He seemed to be suggesting as his questioning developed, that my civil liberty not to be infected by others, played second fiddle to that minority who regarded it as intolerable to be legally mandated to protect me. And others more vulnerable than I am.

It wasn't that easy not to raise my voice when I opened my response by saying, "I am trying very hard not to be really outraged by the line of questioning". You can read the whole thing, if you are so minded, in the Parliament's Official Report of the meeting (

I had not realised in my naivety that not everyone was signed up to the principle of qualified, rather than absolute, individual freedom captured by, "One is allowed to damage oneself by one's own stupidity, but that doesn't mean you can visit the results of your stupidity on anyone else".

I was properly hauled up, and perfectly politely, by our Convenor for using time for questions for a political statement. The meeting finished immediately after my intervention. But because we had run out of questions, not of time.

The walk was six miles. But the associated exercise rather more. It was a couple of hundred feet of up the hill, and once over the top, it became challenging to remain upright without little-used muscles contributing.

There are plenty of trees around the route I was using. And a great of noise emanating therefrom. I was a bit surprised to see all the turbines still turning. Unusually the quiet whoosh one may hear from these big masts was modified to a hum I could hear a couple of hundred metres away.

The main noise from a propellor or turbine comes from the tip of the blade. It's the bit travelling fastest through the air. Many years ago the propellors on aircraft were very noisy indeed. On some, they whirred round so fast that the tips were breaking the sound barrier. Hence the noise.

Now, aircraft propellers and the blades of wind turbines are travelling at much more leisurely speeds. That makes the noise from a big turbine very modest indeed and has the added bonus of being substantially more efficient.

Our tertiary education sector, colleges and universities, are a reservoir of knowledge and research capability that has been one source of these improvements. But they are also a sector that is being hit hard by the pandemic. Many parts of it have derived significant income from teaching students from other countries.

My intern, who was with us at the start of the year, had to cut short her time with us and return to California. It had been the plan that her work in Holyrood would contribute directly to her completing her degree. I am delighted to have just heard that her University provided an alternative path to completion. She can now graduate and move on with the next phase of her life. Good luck Airin!

My alma mater, the University of Aberdeen, was established in 1495 and has survived many ups and downs. Our oldest institutions have the resources to ride out the pandemic storm. But with the number of students cut, I guess it may be painful.

I am all too aquaint with a single wrong move being capable of bringing down the oldest of institutions.

It was a great year when my employer, Bank of Scotland, celebrated its 300th anniversary in 1995. It was rather different from the occasion of the 250th which took place as the war was ending in 1945. The then board of the Bank decided that the staff should present the Bank with a silver casket suitably engraved. The employees were not consulted. But did have their pay docked to pay for it!

Thankfully in 1995, the Bank provided a gift, you chose from a catalogue, for each of us. There were a number of dinners as well. At least in 1945 they got one thing right. They laid down a supply of fine port for the 300th. Each year until then, a bottle would be withdrawn from the cellar to check the maturation process. A small group would join the Secretary of the Bank to undertake this onerous task. I was not invited, despite many timely hints on my part.

The long history of the Bank did not protect us from deeply flawed decision-making by an imported Chief Executive when we were taken over by Halifax Building Society. Yes, it was formally a merger, but almost all the top posts went to people from the Society, people without a day's banking experience.

Why did that happen? What follows is my view. I know that others have their own explanations.

There were three bits that contributed to the move from an intensely careful, but still leadingly innovative, institution to a free-wheeling, I would say cowboy, company that sowed the seeds of its own destruction.

(Disclosure: I stuffed my modest annual bonuses over the years, into Bank shares each year and lost almost all of it in the crash)

Firstly, we had never valued our investors (the Scots word was Adventurers) as much as we should. One company owned about a third of us and we only "courted" them. For many years it was Barclays and then it was Standard Life.

Secondly, we made some errors which backed us into a corner and reduced our options. We didn't manage a putative deal with a homophobic US preacher, Pat Robertson, in a proper way. And then played double or quits, by trying to buy Nat West. Ultimately losing out the Royal Bank. We now looked vulnerable and the only credible partner seemed to be a large building society. Our shareholders were disconnected and not very supportive.

Thirdly, we had failed to educate our workforce, and especially the next generation of senior management, in a systematic way. When the takeover, merger if you wish, took place, we had simply run out of people to run the organisation.

For me personally, I served thirty years without ever managing to get a place on any of the Bank's management courses. Even though I managed hundreds of staff. I had been promised such, every year at my annual review for fifteen consecutive years. There was no mechanism to be proactive. The first one knew of there being a course, there was no regularity of their being delivered, was when one heard who was going on it. And there seemed to be no "waiting list" held centrally that one could apply to join or check.

It was an issue for me, I remain very grumpy about it, but more critically it hurt the whole organisation.

So it is important that we hold the ability to educate our citizens dear.

It's not about losing a long-established company or two.

The future of our country depends on education.

So the return to school in a couple of weeks is the most important step in building the post-pandemic world.

Youngsters enjoy some steps forward.

For you.

For us all.


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