Brian Monteith: The centralisation of the SNP can yet be undone - here's how
If you frame a particular problem in the terms of your own world view then any answers that fail to meet that context must never be acceptable to you. This has been one of the core methods used by Scottish nationalists to demonise decisions taken at Westminster through the years and it is high time it was exposed and repudiated as the self-serving and anti-democratic ploy it is.
It has been no mistake that all five SNP administrations over the last 16 years have sought at various stages to centralise public services, for it always had a political purpose.
Gone are the eight local police constabularies that were required to respond to local patterns of crime (more knife crime in Glasgow, more burglaries in Edinburgh) and be accountable to local politicians reflecting local residents’ concerns. I remarked at the time we risked having a politicised Police State Scotland and a number of events since the creation of a single force have done nothing to disabuse me of the potential for this outcome.
Gone too are the localised fire and ambulance services in the pursuit of centralised control rather than local responsiveness.
The promise of significant savings from these amalgamations (portrayed as rationalisations) never materialised, not least because, as ever, reorganisations come with costs, not least the need for higher salaries for the new management with “greater responsibilities” and the early severance arrangements of many that see a lucrative opportunity to get out. Then there was the folly that despite Treasury warnings that centralised services could lose their VAT immunity, the SNP ploughed on and found out there was indeed a huge VAT liability to pay.
The drive towards centralisation was not just to deliver a Holyrood-based power grab from local councils but to make as many of our institutions identifiably of Scottish rather than reflect their local loyalties to our towns, cities and regions. So it was that practically all organisations be they state institutions or merely charitable or private bodies in receipt of public funds went through rebranding exercises that saw the saltire appear like a dose of acne and Gaelic be applied to liveries, logotypes and signage wherever possible. Funding for such rebranding never appeared to be a difficulty.
The current SNP-Green administration is no different from those centralisers before it, wishing to progress it is its own Deposit Return Scheme in advance of one being designed jointly across the rest of the UK – and continuing with an unnecessary centrally regulated and managed National Care Service that has the potential to rip the heart out of localised provision.
Any opportunity to centralise provision while removing local accountability and responsiveness is not to be passed up by Holyrood-focussed politicians who can wish to grandstand, saying “whae’s like us?”
Unfortunately when the service delivery becomes worse than the rest of the UK – as it has done in sections of healthcare such as drug deaths, life expectancy and now long-term waiting lists – there’s no one wanting to shout out their scandalous record from the rooftops or take the blame.
How then should we respond to this antithesis of devolution? Should we abolish Holyrood or, as Gordon Brown is apparently advocating, should we give it more rope so it might hang itself? Surely the risk is that rope might just hang us out to dry first?
The answer, I believe, is more nuanced and complex than this mere column can answer in one go, but it comes by recognising that devolution across the whole of the UK is an evolutionary process – happening in different ways at different times in different parts of the country. We should all have the humility to take a step back and ask what has worked and what has not so that we can evaluate what might be improved.
Firstly, devolution should not be a tool that can be used to break up our unitary British state, its purpose is to make local provision of services locally accountable. In that respect there are undoubtedly areas of duplication – some of which, like spending on overseas “embassies” could be deemed ultra vires – that need to be redefined and rationalised.
Then, if our future politicians choose to break such limits they should be open to public petition and face the prospect of being held financially responsible for the costs they have incurred.
Secondly, devolution should not prevent Westminster and Whitehall from recognising the whole of the UK might require direct support – served by partnerships with local councils but emanating from London, our national capital. The establishing of city deals, regional growth funds and levelling up initiatives have established that process and it needs to be evaluated with a view to expanding it.
A new paper by former Scotland Office minister Iain Stewart and published by the think tank Onward advocates simplifying but expanding the various funding streams while also considering establishing directly elected provosts for better delivery and accountability of city and regional deals. It calls for a commission to review the progress thus far and make recommendations for improvements that results in maximising local autonomy. The outcome must mean less dependence on Holyrood if it is to mean true devolution.
One such example could be supporting cultural events that are recognised as a British national treasures and thus deserving of direct UK Government finance – such as Edinburgh’s International Festival of the Arts was supported by Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, this year. We should now look to broaden such partnerships by considering extending UK funds to other cultural treasures such as the National Eisteddfod and Royal National Mód with others to follow.
By creating new routes to support real devolution of services and outcomes the centralisation of the SNP can yet be undone.
Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and editor of ThinkScotland.org
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