Michael Marra: Decisions must be local

IT DOES feel that at long last we have reached the real debate. Tough questions abound. The sofa squirmers. The blunt question asked ten times with no in­telligible answer. Such as, what is the Plan B on the currency? You get the idea.

Picture: Ian Rutherford
Picture: Ian Rutherford

Scottish Labour’s own big question looms large. What further powers will you devolve? Well, the committee will report in due course. Forget the committee, madam, what do you think? So if a Labour MSP or MP is under pressure as to the outcome of the Devolution Commission due to report at the end of March, they may well try this: “I want to see further devolution of power to our communities. What matters is where power is best used to greatest effect not the institutions that wield it.”

Now this is a good pivot. Because it is self-evidently true. What kind of dolt would contest it? Power in Scotland needs to be wielded where it can best combat our nation’s problems.

But surely there is a credibility challenge? Labour is not seen to believe in, nor have any great history of localism. From post-war nationalisation to Blair’s strategic delivery unit; the statist socialist tendency long ago trumped the local friendly societies and co-operatives. In 2011, the defeated Scottish Labour Party’s manifesto had promised to create a National Care Service and a Scottish Police Force. Devolution itself was the exception rather than the rule, a deal done with the electorate in the long years of opposition and delivered in good faith.

But centralisation is not a sole failing of the Left. The Tories in Scotland have given us arbitrary targets for numbers of police officers resulting in backfilling of civilian jobs with expensive uniformed recruits. The Tories demanded a cancer drugs fund that now puts political pressures on a par with clinical decisions. Both centralising policies were delivered in coalition with the SNP.

Has this been the most centralising government in British history? Police, fire, justice, health and education. We hear little nowadays of the ­“historic concordat” between Scottish Government and local authorities. Goodwill has been replaced by an ­enforced council tax freeze as an effective cash transfer to the voting middle class and an ever tighter stranglehold on the actions of local policy makers.

So what if we set those councils free to pursue new opportunities? A basket of taxes to be set locally. Community banking underwritten by the new Scotland Act’s borrowing powers and charged with growing businesses out of universities and skilled citizens out of colleges. Curricula in schools tailored locally to help young people into local jobs and industries. Budgets set in communities so citizens can take ownership of the place around them and responsibility for making it better.

We need this broad story, the sweep of narrative that brings people with us. Apathy matters more to Labour because those we seek to serve and benefit are those who disengage, those who lose out and those whose faintly drawn hopes are too often and quickly dashed. Localism may help with engagement in social change but for us it is not enough. And the solution cannot just be further tiers of local government trickling down decisions from above or pushing up against national bureaucracy.

A change towards the local would have to be genuine and profound. Our politics would have to change, out of current recognition. The cadences and rhythms of the political prose would be written by many more authors, with plots we do not foresee and with twists we shall surely find scary. There is a big exciting challenge in letting go.

So this could actually be a good answer to a tough question. Perhaps it could become part of the bigger greater vision for the whole of Scotland. One that begins to see our future not as a great problem to be solved but as a huge opportunity to be taken.

Hold on though. It’s not really an answer to the question of “what more powers would you devolve to Scotland”, is it? How annoying. Surely the same test stands though, what works and what can be achieved. When it comes to the Dutch auction and hopeless expectation game on further powers, the committee will report in due course.

Michael Marra was adviser to the Scottish Labour Leader 2009 –2011. He now runs a major economic development project at the University of Dundee. He writes here in a personal capacity