|Someone has to do it, I suppose|
A very long time ago, I moved to the Morningside area of Edinburgh with my young family. I lived there for a good many years, and throughout that time my neighbours were Richard and his wife, Liz. Two more upstanding members of the local community, or people better equipped to represent its traditional values, it would be impossible to imagine. Richard was flawlessly respectable, always polite and smartly turned-out, and was an elder of the Kirk of Scotland. He was a lawyer by profession, and he was a remarkable individual. He had undoubted gifts, but overlying everything were the personal qualities which placed these gifts into context - he was, to be blunt about it, the most nit-picking, over-fussy, infuriatingly pedantic man I ever met (and I have met a few, take my word for this).
The overwhelming impression of Richard which a stranger would pick up on immediately was disapproval - often straying into actual contempt; nothing was ever good enough for Richard. In a way this was a blessing; it was a blessing to everyone else, because it meant that we could all benefit from his unique abilities (and he certainly worked very hard), and it was a blessing to Richard because it meant that he could get on with his job without losing focus, and without risking his sanity in ways which might have troubled lesser beings.
A couple of examples from our neighbourhood might offer some insight into how this came across socially, and I'll discuss his job in a moment.
(Case Study 1) One winter's afternoon it snowed - briefly but fairly heavily. We lived in a quiet street, on a fairly steep hill, and the pavements were quite narrow, with a pronounced camber. Since the council would make no contribution to the amenity of such a backwater, and since we had a lot of elderly people living in the area, there was always some urgency to get snow cleared up before it froze or became impassable. At this time sons nos 2 and 3 from my first family must have been 6 and 5 years old - when I got home from work that day we put on our mittens and scarves and woolly hats, found the snow scrapers and a couple of brooms, and made pretty short work of the fresh, fluffy snow. We even took the spade down the gutter, and cleared a 9" wide channel next to the kerb, in the approved manner, so that the meltwater would have a clear run. This went so well that my sons wanted to carry on for a while, so I commissioned them to clear the sidewalk in front of Richard's house, with a little gentle supervision. Richard was always home late from work, so it would be a practical and, I suppose, neighbourly thing to do. It didn't take long, and we went inside to warm up and put the winter togs away.
I'd forgotten all about this, about 2 hours later, when the doorbell rang and there was Richard, obviously just arrived home. He was correct and polite enough, of course, but it was clear that he was simmering - he was furious that my little sons had cleared his pathway for him. Why? Was it because he had wanted to do it himself ?- had spent the afternoon, maybe, looking forward to it? No - don't think so.
Was it because he had difficulty, socially, with accepting kindness from others, in some way? No - probably not; elders of the Kirk, of course, are expected to be very strong on kindness.
It was, undoubtedly, because my sons had not done the job properly, as he would have done it. Like me, you might think that this is a possibility, though it would require some work of definition and inspection to put dimensions on it, and you might think that it was a small matter about which to get irritated. In his place, if it had mattered at all, I might have got out my own broom and spent a minute and a half putting things right. But not Richard. Richard was special.
(Case Study 2) For a while, I had the privilege of serving on the neighbourhood Garages Committee, which looked after maintenance and other communal issues connected with the area of lock-ups at the rear of the houses (the area was ancient enough for these lock-ups to have been stables in their day, I guess). I was the secretary. Richard, naturally, was the Chairman. I say naturally because Richard would expect to be Chairman - he would have failed to realise that he was tailor-made for the role of Secretary. He would have made a wonderful secretary, though someone might have killed him after a while.
There were many examples of things not being good enough. At one point we had to get the tarmac area surveyed and some estimates for repair work. I had to draft a letter to get this done. My letter could not be sent out until Richard had checked my spelling and grammar - and you just know that he changed it. I think it had to go back to him twice before it could go out. When the survey report arrived, Richard wanted me to go back to them and get some of the wording changed, since there were ambiguities (or Richard saw some) and it might become important later. After some huffing, the surveyor sent a corrected version, but Richard had thought of more changes he wanted. I refused to chase this any further, and things started moving again, but it confirmed my status as someone who was prepared to settle for imperfection, and my card was duly marked.
Richard, you see, was a lawyer who worked for the Scottish Office. His team (which I think probably meant Richard himself, since he worked such long hours that I can't believe he trusted anyone else to do any part of the job properly) was to prepare Government papers relating to Scottish Law (and this was long before the level of devolution Scotland has now, so we are exclusively talking of Westminster at that time). If someone wanted to introduce new legislation, or amend existing legislation, or put a Bill before Parliament, or a "green paper" (as I think statements of policy or future intent were termed) then Richard had to prepare it. If someone proposed a modest change to the use of ancient footpaths in Scotland (for example) then Richard (and his people, to whatever extent this was relevant) would have to research the existing laws and byelaws, going back to the Middle Ages, check the precedents, check the correctness of the language and legal terminology, the punctuation, the grammar, the cross-references, the footnotes etc etc. When it was right, it might go before Parliament, depending on the business schedules. If it were passed, or rejected, or - worst of all - required amendment, then Richard would get it back and the amount of rework was almost always horrifying. Well, I thought it was horrifying - Richard was confident that he was doing an essential job, and I'm sure he was correct. In matters of law, you have to be exact - I almost wrote "as exact as possible", but I could imagine Richard's face at the mere whiff of oxymoron.
So the one important thing that I learned from Richard was that nothing is as straightforward as you think it is going to be. As soon as you get close to the functions of government, especially the legal bits thereof, you are entering a world of mind-numbing complexity, and any change - even the consideration of the possibility of change - is going to require an awful lot of expensive work from a lot of unusual people. Richard and his chums, of course, would know nothing at all about ancient footpaths (or anything else, really), but anyone who came up with some original thought on the matter would have to feed that thought into the legal grinder. That's where the lights grow dim. That's where so many ideas disappear without trace. You may call it bureaucracy - maybe you're right - but Richard would have called it doing the job correctly, and - you know what? - when it comes to the law, he would have been right, too.
Don't, for goodness sake, get me started on Brexit, but that is what brings this back into the light for me. When we had the Scottish Referendum, any ideas anyone might have had about the attractions (or even the viability) of Scottish independence were dwarfed for me by the vision of the immensity of the amount of work required to accomplish it. This was a lot worse than new tarmac around the garages.
Whole armies of Richards. Immeasurable numbers of hours of checking, researching, getting input from experts and stakeholders, re-punctuating, agreeing, redrafting. I'm exhausted even thinking about it. Given the fact that no-one even had a half-decent idea of what they were voting for, or what would have to be delivered if the YES brigade scraped in, the whole thing becomes a farce. At the time of the Scottish Referendum, even if we had had some understandable vision of what was on the agenda, there just wasn't enough time to do it - and I mean do it properly. To Richard's standards. Given the arguments and the political spin and the uncertainty, it wasn't even worth starting to think about it. As it happens, of course, the Scottish Referendum decided NO, though it was a near thing. Making no change is a doddle - the only jobs needing to be done are clearing up the waste paper and the coffee cups and trying to get all the friends and relatives who fell out over the question to make it up in some way.
Cameron the Weasel, of course, was an unusually slow learner, and after he just about got away with the Scottish Referendum he decided he would push his luck with another Referendum on Britain's membership of the EU. Apart from the fact that we still can't get any agreement on what it was people thought they were voting for, there never was even the slightest chance that all the disentangling and redrafting work could be done in the time available. The whole idea is laughable, in a tragic, unfunny way - Richard could have told them. It can't be done. If your MP pretends it can, then either he is a moron (possible) or else he hopes to get some measure of personal gain out of the attempt (also possible).
It seems there is now some concern that it will be impossible to sort out adequate terms for Britain leaving, in time for the scheduled exit date. Now there's a surprise. Good heavens. Let's find someone to blame - that's always a useful distraction, I think.