My initial hope for devolution, as it would be for a state of independence, was for a Scotland that diﬀered from the UK primarily in its more ‘enlightened’ governance.
By which I mean greater emphasis on evidence-based policies and the collection of information to allow for proper critical appraisal. In other words – less subjective, more objective, regardless of whether the underlying wider goals for government concern wealth, equality, education, health or the environment.
Such ‘good governance’ also derives from a high degree of scrutiny of those who make the policies. Unfortunately, while a much wider range of people are now potentially involved in policy making, this democratisation of governance has not led to an improvement in decision making and there is a distinct lack of close scrutiny.
My own attempts at helping address this situation have included two articles for Sceptical Scot on Scotland’s relative standing.
The first was ‘How Scotland Ranks’, which looked at diﬀerent ways of measuring Scotland’s economic performance and its relative international standing in terms of wealth.The second took a wider view of success, going beyond GDP per capita to include a crude attempt at measuring wellbeing through adding in longevity, education and inclusivity.
Together the articles illustrated (i) the need to be careful, and honest, about how we measure things, and (ii) the need to place your performance in as wide a setting as possible.
Beyond our ken
Such eﬀorts, and the eﬀorts of others, have had little impact. Poor practice remains and proper scrutiny is sorely lacking. The following discussion highlights, to my mind, some of the worst examples.
On the economy, there remains a dearth of political, and indeed wider, interest in economic matters (here I speak from some personal experience). With the exceptions of Alex Salmond and Wendy Alexander it is diﬃcult to think of a senior Scottish politician who has had a deep interest in economics. In eﬀect, it has largely, and with some sense of relief, been left to London to continue as before. Window dressing, from the likes of a flawed Council of Economic Advisers, has been provided but little in the way of real substance and engagement.
On school education, the great debate for many years was over ‘class sizes’, with political parties competing on lowering them. There is a kernel of truth in this but it largely avoids the diﬃcult questions on how to improve standards and how to narrow inequalities.
The situation in education was also worsened by the Scottish Government pulling out of the TIMMS and PIRLS international surveys. These surveys aren’t perfect but when you have a very small number of longstanding, international, surveys available then they should command paid attention.
Meanwhile, internally, the rise of Scottish qualification pass rates tells us little about the real standing of our education system and there are no outside bodies available to provide an independent assessment.
On health, the situation is, if anything, worse. The English health system is critically addressed by: the IFS, the Kings Fund, the Nuﬃeld Trust, and the Health Foundation, with others chipping in on an occasional basis. In contrast, I am not aware of any systematic, independent, analysis of the Scottish health system. Nor am I aware of any Scottish expert who can comment on it both in general and interms of the funding levels necessary. As a result, there is no real debate over the performance of the Scottish NHS or of future funding plans. And yet this lack of analysis elicits little in the way of outspoken concerns from many in Scotland.
(Note: one partial solution to this shortfall would be for the public or private sector in Scotland to pay UK think tanks to include Scotland in their analysis. Perhaps, the model of emerging co-operation between the IFS and the Fraser of Allander Institute over public finance issues is one that can be expanded.)
What are some of the practical outcomes of these shortcomings?
With regards to the lack of interest economic matters, there have been knock on eﬀects on the Scottish Government’s finances. Taking on income tax powers – linked to the success of the Scottish economy – has eﬀectively deprived it of £500 million (or, equivalently, resulted in a rise in taxes to compensate). This situation might have been avoided if the desire to simply enhance powers had not trumped all other considerations.
On education, the schools system is widely seen as under performing, witness its relative decline using the OECD’s PISA survey results. The potential perils of the new ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ were well documented prior to its implementation but largely ignored. Talk of ‘following the science’ on the new system was disingenuous. You can pay lip service to good practice, OECD or otherwise, but it is the ‘on the ground’ changes that will determine the success of the system. Quality of teachers and clarity of purpose should have been key objectives. Such naivety over what would emerge from such an ill-judged policy is a classic example of what happens when rhetoric and prejudice reign over objective investigation.
On health, Scotland’s life expectancy continues to lag that of all other western European countries, including all of the constituent UK nations. In over twenty years we have failed to see anything byway of catch up in this, admittedly crude but vital, measure. While the NHS has more to do with treatment than prevention, and so its link to a low life expectancy is not the strongest, nevertheless the lack of analysis of Scottish healthsystems in general cannot help in wider eﬀorts to improve lifestyles and longevity.
I believe that if the same poor life expectancy ranking held true in England then a combination of Parliamentary, academic, media and, ultimately, public pressure, would have led to a much sharper focus on helping remedy the situation than has been seen over the last 20 years in Scotland.
This was true in English education, where London successfully turned around its poor schools performance, across a series of UK governments, as scrutiny led to pressure for change which led to a plethora of new initiatives.
In Scotland such scrutiny is largely missing, as too is the zeal and energy to come up with theimaginative initiatives. (Would independence change any of this? I don’t see why. The same underlying problems would exist and having a few more macroeconomic powers wont solve them.)
What are the key weaknesses that have been sustained, or worsened, over the past 20 years?
I would argue they comprise:
• A supine Parliament – including very weak opposition parties and a Committee system that lacksindependence and, too often, quality.
• A disengaged private sector – with next to no interest in the funding of think tanks, research work or engagement with the government.
• An under involved higher education sector – with little crossover into government and little active engagement in government policy analysis.
• A diminished media – initially healthy (anyone remember Business AM, the short lived Scottish Financial Times?) but falling income has severely curtailed the media’s ability to perform more in depth analysis (honourable exceptions aside).
Added together, these factors mean that a dominant political party (initially Scottish Labour, then the SNP) has little in the way of challenge and being held to account. If anything things have got worse over time as the media’s influence declined as too did eﬀective political opposition.
In other words, instead of an expansion in contributions and involvement that complement and enhance the work of the new Parliament, the political landscape remains underpopulated. It is devoid of key institutions that would be considered normal, indeed essential, elsewhere.
What to do?
It’s not easy to resolve such issues, particularly as the dominant political party has little to gain from such an exercise and potentially much to lose. Change will therefore have to come from outside the existing political structure.
That means a wider public acknowledgement that the existing political system does not work well.
A number of other commentators (here, here and here) have commented on the need for change within the Parliament, including a complete overhaul of the Committee system and the introduction of some form of second, less party political, chamber. But such a new power base needs the expertise and knowledge to open up and inform the debate, not just some form of People’s Forum that cannot be expected to have the means, on its own, to do this complicated work. But that is just for starters.
There are a lot of talented people in Scotland, as the wider response to COVID has proven, but they are not being sought out and utilised properly. Too often it is the same names put forward, in a merry-go-round of political postings, and who are seen as known and ‘safe’ quantities. Small countries cannot aﬀord this. We need better structures to harness the experience of a wider pool of talent, as well as tapping into the existing strengths available elsewhere in the UK (regardless of whether Scotland is independent or not).
As Donald Dewar intimated at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, devolution should be seen as a journey rather than a destination. The feeling now is that the pace of that journey has slowed to a crawl.
Rejuvenation is needed, which requires the ambition to keep moving forward by way of imaginative, as well as proven, policies that in turn lead to practical benefits for the individual and for society as a whole.
At present we remain caught in the COVID moment, but as we re-emerge from this period of social upheaval, now would be a good time to shake things up even further. Who will make that happen? I expect little from the Government or the Parliament, it’ll be for others to push for change, although that is a big ask and it’s diﬃcult to see where enough pressure is going to emerge from at present. However, Scotland has seen some dramatic shifts in politics in recent years, so maybe a tipping point can yet be reached.
Further reading: John Crabb, Brexit all over again? Scottish independence, ILFR