Devolution was a plodding term for an exhilarating idea: 300 years since the Scots Parliament closed its doors, Scotland would again have its own legislature — without having to leave the Union that had brought it prosperity and security.
Powers over health, education, justice and finance would be transferred from Westminster to Holyrood and, advocates of devolution prophesied, public policy would be bolder, progressive and more reflective of people’s needs.
As the 20th anniversary of devolution approaches, how has the reality measured up to the rhetoric? The new parliament’s early years were dominated by the building project scandal, in which the bill for designing and erecting an assembly shot from £40 million to £414 million. The Labour-Liberal Democrat Executive of the time was energetic, if not always competent, but after two terms was ousted by the SNP.
The Nationalists reversed the formula, projecting an image of competence while showing signs of sluggishness on the policy front. By their second term, Holyrood began to resemble the very ‘talking shop’ its early critics had lambasted, and the only issue it seemed interested in talking about was the constitution.
A parliament intended to move Scotland on from enervating debates about powers and processes was instead entrenching a discourse of deliberation. There is scarcely an ill bedevilling Scotland that can’t be remedies, it would seem, by devolving another power to Edinburgh. This system does not serve the people but rather those who rule over them. It is a devocracy — government of, by and for the devocrats, the political class that nurtured and depends on the devolution industry for its position and power.
A scandalous query occurs: Might Scotland be better off today if the Scottish Parliament had not reconvened? This is an intellectual exercise, not a practical proposal. Legislative devolution is the will of the people as expressed in a legally-constituted referendum. Ignoring such things is never wise. Besides, even though a 2017 poll showed one in five Scots want to shutter Holyrood, there is no mainstream party advocating a return to administrative devolution. Politically, it is a non-starter.
Assessing Holyrood’s record requires holding it to the promises of its proponents. Broadly speaking, these are: 1) devolution would strengthen the Union, 2) a Scottish Parliament would be more accountable to the people, 3) devolution would better represent the interests of Scots, 4) devolution would improve the delivery and efficacy of public services, and 5) devolution would see only modest tax powers at Holyrood.
Devolution was sold by its New Labour architects as a roadblock to independence. The party’s 1997 manifesto pledged: ‘The Union will be strengthened and the threat of separatism removed.’ Shadow Scottish Secretary George Robertson crowed that devolution would ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. That separatism could be routed by building it a parliament with a vast array of powers over Scottish life was dubious even in theory but it was a commonly-held view at the time.
Barely eight years after being rendered stone dead, the SNP was running the country and has never been out of power since. Devolution took a fringe party committed to the destruction of the British state and gave it a platform, legitimacy and power.
And has the Union been ‘strengthened’? Being brought to the brink in 2014 might well have toughened the old girl up but outwardly she still appears frail. Westminster meekly accepted Alex Salmond’s assertion of a mandate for a referendum, despite Holyrood having no constitutional powers and no Holyrood manifesto being capable of obtaining a mandate for such a plebiscite. A precedent has now been set.
In the 1980s, devocrats were particularly affronted that Scotland ‘didn’t get the governments it voted for’. Of course, ‘Scotland’ didn’t vote for or against governments, individual electors did and some saw their preferred MP (and party) elected while others did not. This system, known as democracy, had been widely understood until then. Devocrats claimed there was a ‘democratic deficit’, by which they meant parties they favoured failed to win elections. By the same logic, Ayr has suffered a ‘democratic deficit’ for the last four elections, returning a Tory MSP each time but being ruled over by Labour, Lib Dem or SNP ministers they didn’t vote for.
The Scottish Constitutional Convention, which reported in 1995, promised that a Scottish Parliament ‘will be directly accountable to the people of Scotland’. Last year, the Information Commissioner issued a damning report into ‘unjustifiable, significant delays’ in handling freedom of information queries and ordered the Scottish Government to change its secretive ways. The year before, a report by anti-poverty tsar Naomi Eisenstadt was watered down after the First Minister was given a draft and officials requested changes.
When international surveys exposed major failings on literacy and numeracy attainment in schools, the surveys were dropped in favour of less scientific impressions. During the independence referendum, the Scottish Government spent almost £20,000 fighting in court to keep secret EU legal advice which it later transpired didn’t exist. Far from making the governance of Scotland more accountable and transparent, devolution has simply created new fiefdoms of furtiveness — additional layers of government that see their role as keeping the public suitably underinformed about what is done in their name with their money.
Intimately linked to lofty talk of accountability were assurances that devolution would mean politics more faithfully reflected the interests of ordinary Scots. The 1989 Claim of Right, a glorified press release which devocrats have elevated to the grandeur of a constitutional document, extolled ‘the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs’ and ‘declare[d] and pledge[d] that in all our actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount’.
Needs and interests are subjective but the Scottish Parliament has more often been a workshop for the faddish fancies of the leftish (but by no means socialist) and small-n nationalist establishment that brought devolution into being and dominates the political scene to this day. There is precious little time on the Holyrood legislative agenda for issues that most voters care about but the designs of various right-on, statist lobbies get a good showing. Hence the inordinate time devoted to banning (everything from Irish republican songs to smacking) and to imposing minority preferences on the mainstream culture, not least the current fixation with ‘gender identity’ and teaching children about LGBT relationships in school.
With the possible exception of the Union, nothing underscores the gulf between pre-devolution rhetoric and reality quite like public service delivery. Unsurprisingly for a movement with one foot in the nationalist camp, devocrats spun the myth that the mere existence of a parliament in Edinburgh with a Saltire flying above it would prompt meaningful improvements in core services.
The Convention described an assembly that would ‘work with local government to create better public services which are effective and efficient’. In particular, ‘the creation of a Scottish parliament will bring education back fully within Scottish democratic control’ and return ‘the power to restore the unique Scottish education system to its position as a world leader’.
Reading those words today, they ring like the punchline of a cruel joke. The devolution age has coincided with a sputtering out of the engine of social progress in Scotland. One million Scots (one-fifth of the population) live in poverty, part of a growing trend of families trapped in deprivation. Nationalists pin the blame on the austerity policies of the current UK Government, and while they are not wrong, they are only half right.
The first decade of Holyrood saw no use of the parliament’s tax-raising powers; until the 2017-18 budget, the SNP era was defined by business tax cuts, a council tax freeze and, even after 2016, income tax parity with Tory-run England. On welfare specifically, while railing against Tory benefit cuts, the Scottish Government does not propose to alleviate the impact by using its income top-up powers until 2022, coincidentally the year after the next Holyrood election. On health, waiting times targets on everything from A&E to cancer to mental health continue to be missed. There is a shortage of consultants, of GPs, of nurses, of midwives, and of radiologists in the NHS.
But it is on education, the ‘number one priority’ of devolved government for the last four-and-a-half years, that devolution stands indicted for its most grievous failures. It begins with a recruitment crisis in teaching, carries through to a Curriculum for Excellence which has enshrined confusion, is met by stalled progress (and even some backsliding) on literacy and numeracy, explodes into a chasmic attainment gap between the children of the least and most deprived, and culminates in a university funding system that is rigged against those who need help the most.
An obvious risk of a localised legislature, elected through a more proportional voting system, was creating a platform for populism and demagoguery. The Scottish Government’s policy on tuition fees is a particularly glum example: wildly popular, hugely expensive, and it is the poorest who pick up the tab.
Back in those spring days of devolution optimism, one thing devocrats were eager to assure voters was that, as the Convention stated, they did not ‘propose that a Scottish Parliament should have any power to levy additional tax on business or indeed vary existing tax levels which would be decided by the Westminster Parliament’.
Those assurances amounted to naught when Holyrood arrived, complete with tax-raising powers. Now, after years of electorally savvy equivocation from the SNP, devolution is very much in the business of levying different — i.e. higher — tax levels than the Westminster parliament. Middle Scotland resents being the highest-taxed region of the UK but, then, they did vote for this set-up and for the parties that negotiated and delivered the 2016 Scotland Act’s expansive new revenue powers.
This is an acute frustration: unless you are one of the 614,400 wise souls who voted against it in 1997, devolution is unfortunately a self-inflicted wound. The refuseniks were mocked at the time as backwards-looking but, in seeing a Scottish Parliament for what it was and what it would mean, they were positively visionaries.
The 26 per cent of Scots who voted No, often older and cautious about radical change, saw much of it coming. They foretold of a new nomenklatura of legislators and lobbyists, pontificators academic and popular, third-sector cash-hunters and ban-seekers. They warned that Holyrood would be home to second-raters and also-rans and, while the House of Commons at present is hardly a glossy advertisement for the quality of MPs, it still outshines its Caledonian counterpart in calibre of members and quality of contribution. A quarter of MPs are graduates of Oxford or Cambridge; as best as I can tell, only three MSPs have studied at either.
Devosceptics warned above all that Holyrood would function as a ratchet, taking Scotland progressively closer to independence. How acrid must vindication taste on the tongue of these critics, for a one-way conveyor belt to separation is exactly what devolution has turned out to be. An Executive became a Government and Ministers Cabinet Secretaries; powers over schools and hospitals begat ministers jetting across the globe pretending to represent a sovereign state.
Devolution has not made us healthier, smarter, richer, freer or better governed. It has simply created an additional stratum of government whose failures using the powers they have will always be blamed on the absence of the powers they still want. Holyrood was the repository of progressive hopes but its achievements have been modest and its impact on the great social evils at best neutral. It has some decent legislation on its books — the smoking ban, same-sex marriage, abolition of warrant sales — but the overall effect has not been transformational.
The Scottish Grand Committee and patrician civil servants were not perfect but the administrative devolution they represented got the job done. If only Tony Blair, who had reservations about devolution, had held his ground instead of caving to devocrats around him like Donald Dewar. Nicola Sturgeon would be a middling solicitor on the south side of Glasgow and Scottish schoolchildren might be able to read and write when they leave primary school.
Others who fear devolution isn’t working counsel a shift to federalism, with central government running national policy and regional states responsible for most other matters, but that is a constitutional chimera. The UK’s structure would make federalism no less asymmetric than devolution and it would do nothing to quench the appetite for grievance. Scotland would always be done down, no matter what. Besides, Scottish federalists have never been able to answer the West Midlands Question: Is the average resident of Birmingham (or anywhere else in England) interested in becoming a federation?
The optimism of 1999 proved to be misplaced and, in the reckoning between ideals and reality, devolution evolved from unionist stop-gap to nationalist handmaiden. It is too late to do anything about it now, though. The Scottish Parliament is here to stay and might yet be the legislature of an independent Scotland. On that day, if it ever comes, we will know this for sure: Devolution killed the Union stone dead.