In the same week as a woeful assessment of Scotland’s educational progress appears, we have the latest act of Ruritarian self-aggrandisement in the form of Mr Salmond’s draft Scottish Constitution.
That sums up the priorities of St Andrew’s House. How many civil service hours were wasted on this presumptuous folie de grandeur? How many millions are being squandered on an interminable independence campaign that might more usefully be spent on giving kids a chance in life?
Scotland’s poorer communities have become pawns in the Nationalist game. If only we had the powers, they plead, everything would be different. But they have the powers over education and many other levers which could and should be used to make that difference. So why don’t they use them?
According to this week’s Audit Scotland report, there has not been an inch of movement over the past decade towards narrowing the attainment gap between schools in the best-off and least well-off communities. Indeed, in 19 out of 32 local authority areas, the gap has widened during that period.
Under Salmond’s constitution, all our children would be guaranteed a free education. Big deal, they might reasonably say, since they have that already, and it isn’t doing a lot of them much good. It is political will, creative policy-making and a clear sense of priorities that might make the difference. You can’t write any of these into a constitution.
The extent to which the civil servants are being used as office-boys and girls for a purely political exercise is a well-documented scandal. It is almost 18 months since the “constitution” wheeze was first announced, so presumably poor souls have been labouring at it since then. Yet it is dealing with a hypothesis that will disintegrate if the voters say so on 18 September. So why do we need a constitution in the absence of a state? None of that will change in the next three months, so there is limited point in complaining. The damage is done and effrontery has prevailed. The debasement of the Scottish civil service into an extension of the SNP’s political machine is now deep-rooted and, as in many other facets of government, the question will be how to address this after the referendum.
Now the three opposition parties have come together to adopt a shared position on post-referendum powers for the Scottish Parliament, so they also should be considering how to unite around shared principles on the way in which government is conducted in Scotland. I have three suggested areas for reform.
Holyrood was established with a view to creating a consensual parliament in which power would be shared and all points of view heard. At present, it has evolved into a far more docile institution than Westminster, with one-party rule ruthlessly enforced, opposition marginalised and the checks and balances of accountability virtually non-existent.
The result of this is not only an air of arrogance but also a dismal quality of legislation. There is no revising chamber and the committee system is in the hands of leadership trusties. In the chamber, the calibre of debate is poor, not least because rules prevent the development of an argument, as opposed to tiny set speeches. The exception, of course, is First Minister’s Questions, where the annointed one can bluster on for as long as he likes.
It is worth recalling that, when the Tories came to power at Westminster in 1979, an old toff named Norman St John Stevas saw the dangers of one-party dominance and, as Leader of the House, introduced the system of select committees, generally chaired by Opposition MPs and with teeth that are totally unmatched at Holyrood.
There could be a shared commitment to procedural reforms which would ensure that Holyrood would act as a genuine parliament and forum for debate, rather than a mere tub-thumping platform for a First Minister of any persuasion and rubber-stamp for legislation as incompetent as, let’s say, the abolition of corroboration or criminalisation of football supporters.
The whole issue of civil service rules is another that the parties currently in opposition could surely unite around. It is essential that the independence of the civil service is re-established and the boundaries between working for party – any party – and government restored. I would also slash the number of special advisers – ie, party apparatchiks on the public payroll – who hold a status that is both invidious and insidious.
I have no wish to see what has happened to the civil service under Salmond replicated under any other Holyrood administration on the grounds that it would be “the way things are”. Everyone in Scottish politics who believes that far too many lines have been crossed and that civil servants must not be treated as political dogsbodies should call for an immediate review of these relationships.
Thirdly, there could be agreement on the need to reverse the ruthless process of centralisation which has developed under this administration. Their constant objective is to bring all significant decision-making and funding as close to political control in Edinburgh as possible. This is reflected in their approach to public services, quangos and local authorities. Everything is being pulled towards the centre.
To take one current example close to my own interests, the seven local authorities in the Highlands and Islands have been told that, for the first time in 20 years, there will not be an EU-funded structural programme for the region on the grounds that “it is not felt to add value” to the “national strategic approaches” being deployed. This in spite of the fact that £170 million is specifically earmarked by Brussels for the Highlands and Islands. Whereas in the past priorities were set locally and the EU money clearly earmarked as such, the whole thing has now been pulled under Edinburgh control and distinctions between Scottish Government and EU funding obliterated. The needs of the periphery do not play a big part in “national strategic approaches” determined in Edinburgh for political advantage.
There are many such examples and, increasingly, people around Scotland realise that Nationalism and devolution are most definitely not the same thing. Centralisation in Edinburgh is a very different proposition, and that is the reality of what is going on.
So the opposition parties should unite around a reform programme of their own that does not require the overblown rhetoric of a constitution. It should now be possible to agree on the broad principles of how Scotland could be governed more openly, accountably and democratically than at present.
Then we might get back to talking about education and the things that matter.