The establishment of the Scottish Parliament owes more to Margaret Thatcher than anyone else. She was the true midwife of devolution.
She left Downing Street almost a decade before the establishment of the Scottish Parliament but she cast a long shadow over the politics of devolution. Support was mobilised around calls to stop Thatcherism at the border, prevent another poll tax and protect the NHS. The Parliament was built on defensive, oppositional politics rather than a coherent positive vision. Transformation and progress hung in the air but proved vapid and ephemeral once the Parliament was elected. Beyond the vague promise of a more progressive Scotland there was little serious preparation for a transformative programme of government.
Effort, energy and enthusiasm had gone into creating the new institution – no mean feat – but had left little time for much else. Creating a new body or increasing its powers were not enough in themselves to address inequalities and deep wicked problems. It would be a Parliament designed for the exigencies of another right-wing Tory Government in Westminster rather than to build a new Jerusalem.
Devolution’s early years coincided with benign times. Economic prosperity provided extraordinary growth in public spending. There were successes – government in Scotland became much more accountable, a range of policy initiatives were chalked up including care for the elderly and banning smoking in public places, – but full advantage of exceptional levels of public spending were not realized. Policy divergence tended to result from policy change pursued by government in London while Edinburgh stuck to what had gone before. An innate defensive (small ‘c’) conservatism, in keeping with devolution’s founding policy logic, operated. And it would not have made any difference had it been any other combination of parties that governed Scotland in those early years. The SNP’s offering differed little from Labour’s.
Generous levels of public spending did, however, allow for (very) occasional experimentation. Henry McLeish found support for his leadership evaporated amongst colleagues in London when he set out a bold and distinct care for the elderly policy. Even his opponents acknowledged that the misdemeanour that forced his resignation was the result of a ‘muddle not a fiddle’ but he had already lost support in Labour’s upper echelons. His mistake was his ambition to see devolution as more than a defensive mechanism designed to protect Scotland against the prospect of the return of the Tories returned to power in London. He tried to redefine the public policy logic of devolution by giving it more purpose.
Middle England – and Scotland
Westminster was, as we’ve suggested, the main source of progressive policies in the early years of devolution. The UK Government tackled poverty with more success than had been seen in a very long time, and never seen since. This partly reflected the devolved/retained split. The main redistributive policy tools – tax and welfare powers – still lay with Westminster though there was much that could be done under devolution. Devolved competences were based on the functions of the old Scottish Office which excluded redistributive tools but was largely a spending department. In 2007, John McLaren, former Treasury official turned Labour Special Adviser, provided one of the sharpest critiques of the early years of devolution. Devolved government had replaced a ‘secretive world dominated by unelected ageing patriarchs’ with ‘one which involves many more people’.
New Labour was wary of bragging about its redistributive policies, fearing this might alarm its new found support in what was called ‘middle England’. The very notion ‘middle England’ fed assumptions that Scotland was more progressive when in fact the Scottish middle classes had little to fear from the devolved Scottish Parliament. Holyrood has gained redistributive policy tools but has tended to prefer symbolic over substantive measures.
There have always been those who seek powers with a purpose and not as an end in itself. The STUC’s submission to the Smith Commission after the independence referendum is a good example, setting out areas of competence with a clear view of how these could be used. Recent demands for more powers to allow for bolder and innovative approaches to tackle Scotland’s appalling record in drug deaths is another. But all too often powers are sought with little thought as to how, or even whether, they would be used. Nowhere is this more evident than in fiscal matters. Demands for tax powers, fiscal autonomy, full fiscal autonomy and the likes were heard from the outset. The clamour for tax powers might have been thought to signal a willingness to redistribute wealth or to use these as economic levers. Perhaps ‘middle Scotland’ holds the Parliament back. It has taken a concerted and effective campaign to force the Scottish Government into doubling child payments, originally planned to meet electoral cycle needs rather than tackling child poverty.
Let’s get serious
Debate on more powers and independence has come full circle. Boris Johnson is today’s Margaret Thatcher. Brexit is today’s poll tax. Just as the case for devolution was largely negative so too is the case for independence. It is no coincidence that support for independence languished in the polls in the years when Labour was in office. There are differences. While Boris Johnson may be the best recruiting agent for Scottish independence, he is also likely to be a major problem in the event of it happening. Independence, if it happens, will be a process, not an event just as Brexit has been. And that process will involve negotiations that will not be completed for some years.
The prospect of someone like Lord Frost being tasked with negotiating Scottish independence rears its head. If the Government in London is hostile to Scottish interests now, we have the experience of Brexit to get a sense of attitudes after independence.
Membership of the EU would provide access to European markets while Brexit creates barriers to markets in rUK. Increasing trade with the EU makes sense but requires policies and will take time. And any notion that the EU would provide fiscal transfers to ease the process of independence in the event of Scottish independence is fanciful.
Devolution involved few risks and remarkably little disruption. A democratic element was added to distinct Scottish institutional arrangements. Independence would offer the opportunity to be different and more progressive but that will require radical, painful adjustments and taking on some powerful interests. The assertion that Scotland is not too poor to be independent is meaningless. There is no entry fee to becoming an independent state. The issues are whether and how an independent Scotland would make the transition, at what cost, paid for by whom, over how long and, crucially, what policies would be needed to get to a position where people are at least no worse off. These are not insurmountable but they are challenging. But the SNP, as the main advocates of independence, does not appear up to the challenge.
The SNP has simply not engaged seriously with these questions, preferring to base its case on opposition to Boris Johnson and the Tories. That is fine so far as it goes but it does not take us very far. It has produced prospectuses designed to speak to very different audiences. Few doubt the sincerity of Andrew Wilson, who chaired the SNP Growth Commission, or Shona Robison, who chaired the SNP’s Social Justice and Fairness Commission. The problem is that these reports are mutually incompatible. The Growth Commission offers some insight but is uncomfortable reading for anyone signed up to the Social Justice and Fairness Commission. The lack of any leadership addressing these inconsistencies is notable as is the lack of policies introduced in advance of independence that might mitigate these problems.
Make the choice(s)
What counts are revealed preferences, not rhetoric or competing visions, but actual policies that have been adopted. And what the SNP has revealed in office ought to be a cause for concern as it does not suggest that it is giving much thought to transition. Symbolic gestures designed to burnish a progressive image rather than seriously tackle inequalities might win votes, even win independence, but would leave Scotland’s most vulnerable dangerously exposed.
This reflects a fear common in the days of New Labour. The SNP does not want to upset middle-class Scotland. This is understandable as the SNP needs an overall majority to support independence. New Labour won a massive Commons’ majority with only 43% of the vote. Perhaps it might have been bolder with a smaller majority and without the need to maintain its broad church of support. The SNP has no such luxury. It needs more than that level of support for independence. The strategy to avoid difficult decisions and exaggerate symbolic gestures that suggest a progressive agenda and that there will be no losers is required. But what may win a referendum will undermine efforts to create a more progressive Scotland.
There was a time when progressive politics appeared to align well with the case for a Scottish Parliament. But it was a case based more on constitutional change to defend a socio-economic status quo. In Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, reflecting on Italian unification and social class, Tancredi famously remarks that ‘everything must change so that everything can stay the same’.
So too with devolution. Constitutional change was needed to retain the socio-economic status quo. But if an independent state is to protect or, as the rhetoric would have us believe, build on the foundations of the welfare state and improve outcomes then difficult questions need to be answered. But the need to win 50%+ support for independence is inhibiting the SNP from making a credible progressive case for independence.