ONCE upon a long time ago, sameness and consistency were consistent. Public policy’s job was simple: to deliver service and improvement to common standards. Politics followed suit.
Generations, classes and geographies followed hymn sheets written with “one nation” in mind. Some even made a virtue of the very thought.
We supported the parties our parents did and theirs before them. Constituencies weighed the votes of one side or the other. The pendulum swung but little altered and the rhythm was constant. No more.
It is increasingly striking that almost everywhere you look in the world, countries are characterised by difference. Good. But the implications for how we govern ourselves, the role of government and how public services are managed and led are profound. Democracy needs to catch up with reality.
In economic performance the UK regional showing is starkly different. In fact the economic output of the best and worst is wider than at any point in history and, by a country mile, the largest of any in Europe; five times larger than the gap in countries like Denmark, Ireland and Finland.
It is startlingly so. The gap in income per person between inner west London and Anglesey, west Wales is 1095 per cent, or £124,520 per person.
Fail to fix the performance gap of the regions and the UK government won’t bridge the debt or deficit gap anytime soon.
In Scotland the gap exists too, although the quantum is much more in line with European averages. Between East and North Ayrshire and Edinburgh, it is more than 300 per cent or just under £26,000 per head.
Attitudes vary too. Look at voting habits from the last election and the same point is clear. England, Scotland Northern Ireland and Wales all backed different majority parties.
On Europe, the picture is fascinating. The latest on EU membership by YouGov for Cardiff University is a striking case in point.
Of Scots, 55 per cent will vote Yes to Europe, with 30 per cent for out and 15 per cent not knowing or not voting. In England the view is very different; 43 per cent for out, 40 per cent for in, 17 per cent in the air. Wales mirrors England but marginally for Yes.
London is strongly pro-Europe while everywhere else is not. It’s just one poll at one moment in time. But the difference is what seems most telling. The chances of England being kept in Europe against its will by the combined vote of London, Scotland and Wales look greater than the chances of the UK leaving the EU. But it is all very close. Very close.
Within society too the differences are even more stark. The gap between “stay” and “leave” among Scottish 18 to 24-year-olds is a colossal 54 points. For the over-sixties it narrows to only 10 points. In England the pattern is replicated although the quantum is different.
Different geographies think differently; different age groups do too.
This presents a fundamental challenge to the democratic cohesion of society when big inter-generational choices have to be faced. If you look at the spread of cost and contribution in tax and public spending across our life-cycle, it points to other pressures.
It’s a very obvious point of course, but in later life society effectively spends more than twice the resource caring for our most elderly than we do preparing our young for life. Throw into that mix public indebtedness and debt servicing costs, and the cost of getting on to the housing ladder, and we are putting colossal pressure on to the shoulders of the middle-aged and the middle class.
We haven’t begun to come close to figuring our way through any of this at a UK or Scottish level.
The dilemmas are obvious and needn’t be rehearsed. The risk of division and rancour is in all directions. Any politics that looks to pass the blame for cynical purposes, that doesn’t tell the full and honest story to all of society, could win in the short term and destroy the fabric of our economy and society in the long term.
This is an era for big people, thoughtful politics, policy challenge and a culture of serious, respectful debate. The stakes are high and only getting higher.
What we must all be certain of is that the way things are done now must change. Centralised control at all levels needs to be let go. If localism means anything, critics of the “postcode lottery” of provision that is not one-size-fits-all must be defeated.
The entire fabric of government, services, funding and taxation needs reformed to reflect the reality of now and the pressures we face for decades to come.
Arguments about robbing an ever smaller number of Peters to pay an ever growing number of Pauls is hardly an answer, and we should all give them short shrift. Now, more than ever, the way things were yesterday is the worst possible guide to what we need to do tomorrow.