Has devolution lived up to its promise?

Michael Keating makes a balance sheet of the good, the bad and the not so beautiful.

Devolution in 1999 was the culmination of over a hundred years of debate and some twenty years of campaigning after the false start of the 1970s. Initially conceived as a way of bringing power back from London, home rule had expanded to an ambition to do things differently. The ‘new politics’ that was promised would be liberating, participative and representative. Repudiating the hidebound traditions of Westminster, Scotland would have a Parliament for the twenty-first century. There was always something a bit naïve about ‘new politics’ though. It was to inclusive and consensual but also to promote progressive policies and equality. It put great faith in procedures and ignored deeper questions of power and social inequality.   Logo of the Scottish Parliament

There have, nevertheless, been advances. Holyrood has family-friendly working hours, shedding the gentlemen’s club ethos of Westminster. The gender balance among SNPs was initially much better than in Westminster, although the proportion of women has subsequently stagnated at around a third. On the other hand, the social class balance has moved towards the Westminster model of university-educated, middle-class people, often coming from jobs associated with politics.

Much faith was invested in the committee system, which was intended to hold government better to account and to play a strong role in scrutiny and policy development. The record here is decidedly mixed. Committees, like the Parliament as a whole, are dominated by the political parties and discipline is tight. At a time when Westminster committees have started to exert manifest influence, especially where they have strong leadership, Holyrood committees have not progressed. Incredibly, they have not even taken the step of electing convenors, a reform on which Westminster MPs insisted some years ago; appointment here remains in the hands of the party leaderships.

Proportional representation has opened up politics, with minor parties gaining representation and, occasionally, independents using the list system to get in. There has only been one single-party majority government in five parliaments. Yet this has not encouraged much inter-party cooperation, as opposed to the annual haggling over budget details. The experience of coalition government in the early years, indeed, was to close down much effective debate, as the policy programme was hammered out in advance by the party leaderships. Party whipping is strict and majority governments have hardly ever lost votes. Westminster, meanwhile, was becoming more rebellious even before the collapse of party discipline over Brexit.

Outside Parliament, political parties have apparently had a revival: the SNP and Greens following the independence referendum and Labour since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. Yet the SNP, Labour and the revived Conservatives are centralised and tightly controlled. Party conferences are not allowed to debate freely or take meaningful decisions on the great issues of the day. Party members elect the leaders but, thereafter, are meant to support the party line.

Preparations for devolution gave a lot of attention to the Parliament as the focus of new politics. Much less attention was given to the executive although, in a parliamentary system, this is where actual power lies. Initially, the Scottish Executive was based on the old Scottish Office, which itself had been eviscerated of much of its policy capacity since 1979. Policy in the early years was cautious and rather timid, as though ministers were conscious of the fragility of the new institutions which did, indeed, face a fierce backlash from sections of the press that never accepted the change.

The arrival of the SNP in the renamed Scottish Government in 2007 brought a new sense of self-confidence, without the need to look over their shoulder to London. There was also a change in structures, with the abolition of the old departments and a flatter hierarchy, enabling more fluid communication between ministers and officials. There was to be a focus on strategic objectives and performance. Related reforms were intended to focus on the long-term and on preventive spending to stop social problems emerging rather than fixing them afterwards. Much of this impetus, however, was later lost in the eagerness (reminiscent of ‘new’ Labour) to embrace the latest public management fads and jargon. There is much naïve talk of ‘joined up’ government and ‘holistic’ approaches, of partnership and co-production, which avoid important issues of power and genuine political differences.

Government in Scotland is certainly more accessible than in the past. There is a great deal of consultation and discussion with ‘stakeholders’. This has not, however, developed into the broader social partnership or dialogue found in other small nations and regions, devolved or independent. Concertation and partnership in Scotland tend to take place within sectoral policy communities around, for example, economic development, or inequality, or the environment. Too rarely do these come together to strike the necessary social compromises and trade-offs. Instead, there is an assumption of a natural consensus, just waiting to be organised.

Illustration of Membership of the Scottish Parliament
The 2016-2021 Scottish Parliament by party MSPs

Devolution has occurred at a time when the scope and scale of government are undergoing massive change. Social welfare is being transformed away from the old male-breadwinner model. Old, invidious distinctions between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor have remerged as politicians and commentators on the right talk of ‘strivers and skivers’. The focus of economic development has moved from attracting mobile multinational investment towards local capacities. The relationship between labour market policy and welfare has become crucial in getting people into work at a time of precarious employment. Westminster policy has been more focused on punishment than empowerment. Government rhetoric in Scotland has been more enlightened, as in the recuperation of the old term ‘social security’ around the newly-devolved benefits. An opportunity was lost, however, at the time of the Smith Commission, for a serious review about the right balance of powers in taxation, welfare and employment that could have allowed Scotland to design a system that is both economically more effective and socially more inclusive.

The initial devolution settlement gave Scotland almost no taxation powers. This has been changed in the Scotland Acts of 2012 and 2016. The new powers are still limited. Unearned income is taxed at Westminster, the tax base is reserved, as is the tax-free allowance. Nonetheless, there are the beginnings of a serious debate about taxation. Having gained new tax powers, the Scottish Government could not allow them to atrophy as had the 3p power in the original Scotland Act. Recent changes in income tax are small but politically significant as they show that change in a progressive direction is possible. Claims that thousands of middle-class people would decamp to the south (to face higher housing costs and university fees for their children) if they had to pay a little more have been confronted. Council tax, on the other hand, was frozen for years and is still based on valuations set in the 1990s as successive governments, seared by the experience of the Poll Tax, have failed in the courage to do anything about it. Millions of people who are paying too much are ignorant of the fact that they could win. There is a similar timidity on issues like the tourist tax when lobbies implausibly claim that a couple of pounds a day would drive the tourists away from Edinburgh.

Some of the most important effects of devolution concern things that did not happen. Scotland did not get the wasteful, ideologically-driven experiments in marketization of the National Health Service, from which England is trying to recover. There is not the frenetic competition among schools (taking a toll on parents and pupils) found in England, in spite of the efforts of some newspapers to create league tables. Universities still play the game of meaningless rankings but we have been spared the bureaucratic nightmare of a Teaching Excellence Framework; instead performance is rated in a more sensitive and qualitative way. There is still a certain ethos of public service, as educators, health professionals and people in the social services are treated as responsible professionals rather than target-driven drones working by numbers – although there is a certain amount of all that in Scotland. The scandalous Private Finance Initiative (renamed Public Private Partnership by ‘new’ Labour) was rolled out in Scotland, leaving the next generation with massive liabilities. Partly this was because the original devolution scheme did not allow the Scottish Government borrowing powers, even to invest; the incoming SNP Government did not have much scope to do anything about it.

Scotland in the last twenty years has become a more open and tolerant society and devolution and the debates it provoked has a role here. The early debate about the repeal of Section 28 put the new institutions to a severe test but they held their nerve. The debate about sectarianism might have appeared to be turning the clock back to the old agenda, but it probably had to be held and most people agreed that the problem, while much less pervasive than in the past, had to be faced. The cross-party consensus in favour of immigration shows how economic needs and social liberalism can be combined and that leadership does matter – there is no evidence that Scots are naturally more enlightened on these matters.

Those of us old enough to remember the old days might look back in wonder at the fact that our domestic politics was conducted in a Parliament four hundred miles away by commuting MPs – even in matters concerning only Scotland. We could vote for one government and get another. Scrutiny of government was scanty and politicians, while hard-working, were scarcely accessible. Devolution has made Scotland into a vibrant political community but there is the feeling that, whatever its constitutional future, it could make more of itself.

Michael Keating is Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen and University of Edinburgh and Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change.