KENNY MacAskill has let the cat out of the bag. Asked a straight question at a police conference he did that rare thing in politics – he gave a straight answer.
The Cabinet Secretary agreed that the logic behind his reform of Scotland’s police forces – reducing them from eight to a single force – was equally applicable to other areas of Scottish public life. His comment came in response to a question about the number of local authorities and health boards, so there can be no doubt what MacAskill was referring to. The potential reorganisation of Scotland’s 32 local authorities into a far smaller and much more efficient number is now, therefore, a live political issue. Does Scotland really need 32 education departments and 32 directors of social work? Is the duplication of administration – 32 human resources departments, 32 payroll departments – an unforgivable waste of public money when times are extraordinarily tight? What is the logic of having one council for the 360,000 people who live in Fife, and one for the 48,000 people who live in Clackmannanshire?
The history of local government in Scotland in recent decades has been inextricably tied up with the bigger issue of Scotland’s political restlessness as a nation. John Major’s government decided to scrap the old regional councils in part because powerful Labour-dominated fiefdoms such as Strathclyde were often difficult to handle for a handful of Tory ministers in St Andrew’s House. Major’s government created 32 single-tier local authorities instead, in the hope that they would be less likely to play politics on the national stage.
In the late 20th century strong local government also played a historic role in providing Scots with a degree of self-determination, offsetting London rule and the absence of a directly-elected parliament. Now that Scotland has a fully-functioning legislature and executive, enjoying a popular mandate, shouldn’t decision-making on schooling and social work and other key aspects of Scottish life be decided by the national parliament at Holyrood, rather than the postcode lottery we currently have on a range of public services?
As our political editor Eddie Barnes explains in his analysis on Page 13, one of the drivers behind the thinking is the pressing need to get Scotland’s health and social care services working in tandem – a task made tricky by the fact that most of Scotland’s health boards contain a number of local authorities. Co-terminous boundaries would make for greater efficiency –and, importantly, greater accountability.
The logic seems inescapable, so when can we expect the Scottish Government to act? We should not hold our breath. Because like everything else in Scottish politics, this reform must play second fiddle to the SNP’s long campaign run-in to the autumn 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.
The referendum is, of course, a momentous event of historic proportions, albeit one made possible by a freak election result that gave the SNP a Holyrood majority with less than half the vote. It deserves our full attention. But does everything – all innovative thought, all difficult decisions, all necessary reform – have to be put on hold for the next two years to avoid antagonising the Scottish voters and making them less happy with the ruling Nationalists? With austerity cutting budgets to the bone and – as our front-page story today makes plain – having a very real effect on NHS provision in Scotland, administrative overlaps in any layer of government are unforgivable. Local authority reform is now essential.
YESTERDAY’S comments by former MSP Dennis Canavan highlight the continuing difficulty facing the Yes Scotland campaign group, of which he is the chairman. At a gathering in Glasgow of left-wing supporters of Scottish independence, Canavan expressed his opposition to the SNP’s plans to retain the Queen and her successors as heads of state in an independent Scotland. The gathering, for a conference called Radical Independence, highlighted a range of attitudes on the left of Scottish politics – anti-Nato, pro-nationalisation, high-tax – that are not shared by the main player in the independence campaign, namely the SNP.
How the Yes campaign can succeed with such stark divisions within its ranks is becoming increasingly difficult to see. The SNP’s entire strategy in recent years has been to soothe the fears of those many Scots who see independence as too much of a radical step. The last thing they need is a chorus of voices calling for the independence scenario to be made much more radical.
The SNP and Yes Scotland take the official position that there are many visions of independence, and what they all share is the desire to give Scots the opportunity to choose which of those visions they want for their country. As a holding position, that makes perfect sense. But can it win a referendum?