The Edinburgh parliament was supposed to create a better Scotland. That went well then, writes Brian Monteith
Twenty years ago today in a great mood of optimism following Tony Blair’s landslide general election victory, Scotland voted Yes, Yes for a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers. Now, if it were to be judged against the goals that were set for it, there can be little argument it has failed.
There is, however no going back. The challenge today is for the Scottish Parliament to mature and deliver a more prosperous Scotland for all. Unfortunately Nicola Sturgeon’s latest policies means we shall need to endure more pain before Holyrood has the humility to learn from its mistakes.
There was always a hard core of political activists in Scotland that wanted Home Rule, but what converted a divided Labour Party to supporting and then delivering devolution was the success of Margaret Thatcher and then John Major in defeating Labour in four successive general elections.
Labour lost its nerve and gradually became convinced it should stop Conservative governments applying their domestic policies in Scotland through the Secretary of State and fellow ministers by creating a legislature in Edinburgh that would have its own Scottish Executive. The Liberal Democrats were always in favour but a divided SNP was reluctant and Donald Dewar had to sweet talk Alex Salmond into joining the Yes, Yes campaign.
We were then told how, having control of public finances and the creation of laws, Scotland could avoid unpopular policies like the Poll Tax and, as Donald Dewar put it, find “Scottish solutions for Scottish problems”. Labour also believed that tactically, delivering a parliament could head-off any growth in support for Alex Salmond’s nationalists. Throughout the campaign we were assailed by union bosses, religious leaders and civic society figures telling us how Scottish Office responsibilities including education, housing, culture, and the health service would be improved.
By contrast the No, No campaign, Think Twice, warned that higher taxes were very likely and with the Conservatives wiped out, the SNP would become the main opposition waiting in the wings with the prospect of independence becoming real, if not inevitable. Rather than bringing government closer to the people it raised the threat to local government from a new powerbase in Edinburgh looking to justify itself – with all the additional cost of the new bureaucracy. Such fears were denied and Donald Dewar assured us the parliament should only cost £40 million.
Now, 20 years later we can see the results. Scotland has indeed become the highest taxed part of the UK, with both business and personal taxes rising higher than the rest of the country – disastrously causing revenues to fall.
Education, once Scotland’s jewel in the crown both at home and abroad, has fallen behind that of England and dropped down international league tables for English, maths and science. Even our best performing pupils preform less well than their peers in other countries.
The role of parents in our schools – a genuine achievement of Conservative reforms in the 90s – was reversed as a matter of spite, while we have seen our police and emergency services centralised and local authorities have their budgets cut by not passing on block grant funding from Westminster. Tens of thousands have lost their jobs.
Cultural policy has become a laughing stock; Scottish Screen was dissolved, there have been countless abandoned strategic reviews, nine ministers for Culture and a revolving door for administrators. Achievements such as the National Theatre could have been delivered without devolution, just as Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet and the Scottish Arts Council were all created before it.
Economic policy has been sclerotic at best. The Scottish Parliament has never effectively embraced business and shown more concern for issues such as equality than entrepreneurialism. The Universal Business Rate was abolished as business rate poundage increased and now a rates revaluation continues to disadvantage businesses that create jobs and wealth for the nation.
When Motorola abandoned its Bathgate plant and Diageo closed in Kilmarnock, Holyrood was shown to be just as impotent as any Tory government in the past. Prestwick required to be nationalised to survive and the bill is now over £40 million and rising with no end in sight.
In finance the Scottish Parliament has approved borrowing up to its highest limit but the commitments to spend more just keeps being made. GERS figures – produced to international statistical standards and used by all political parties – show that in the last 19 years there has only been one nominal Scottish surplus and that the cumulative debt now stands at £150 billion, of which £120 billion is during the SNP’s term in office. Meanwhile the fiscal transfers – the UK funding that pays for the Scottish Government’s own shortfall between spending and revenues – continues to grow year on year.
If the Scottish Parliament was a business it would be put into administration, it would be restructured, it would have to change, and the policies that were not working would need to be halted. Parliaments are not businesses, however, in a democracy they are the political representation of a nation’s soul. Unfortunately our politicians are floating with their heads in the clouds, detached from the reality of ordinary people, and they need to plant their feet firmly back on terra firma.
There should be hope that the provision of new powers to raise a far greater share of the money Holyrood spends will make it more accountable and its members more responsible. Indeed there are already signs that a genuine debate about the negative effects of gratuitously high taxation is beginning to take root.
Unfortunately, I fear we will have to go through the pain other over-taxed countries have experienced before the parliament shows it understands the damage it can cause. It has passed laws creating additional burdens that put Scottish businesses and employers at a competitive disadvantage – and failed to reform public services to the benefit of its citizens.
Yet no substantive legislation enacted since its birth has ever been repealed. And of course it did not kill nationalism stone dead, but gave it succour and the opportunity to break Scotland from the UK, a threat that remains.
The Scottish Parliament will not go away, it is now too much of our national psyche and identity, but until it learns to recognise its failures by repealing its worst legislation and cutting its most damaging taxes it will remain an immature institution that we will all pay a heavy price for.
Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org