Scottish devolution's 25th anniversary: Can anyone name a public service that's improved? – Brian Wilson

Public services, from education to health and the police, seem to be getting worse, not better

I was invited the other day to take part in an event marking 25 years of devolution which served as a reminder that this landmark is coming down the tracks. So allow me to make a pre-emptive strike and suggest the questions such an anniversary should raise. Otherwise, I fear we can look forward to an orgy of self-congratulation accompanied by much caterwauling from certain quarters about “if only…”

Historical revisionism will be rampant and introspection in short supply. We will hear much about the enhancement of Scottish democracy, as represented by Holyrood, and little about the erosion of local democracy in every part of Scotland. None of this will impact on the actual constitutional settlement. The existence of the Scottish Parliament is a given. Those who wish to shut it down are in dreamland while there is no majority for demanding a separate state.

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So the status quo will prevail and the focus should be on making the best of what we’ve got. The challenge in May should be to face up to such questions as: “What has got better during 25 years of devolution? And why has so much got worse?”

This year marks 25 years of devolution. Photo: PAThis year marks 25 years of devolution. Photo: PA
This year marks 25 years of devolution. Photo: PA

Education, health, homes

Comparisons are inevitably inexact and devolution arrived off the back of 18 years of Tory governments, of which there are few rosy memories. Even then, it is fair to ask which public services have actually improved with the benefit of oversight from 129 MSPs at Holyrood?

Education? Certainly not. The National Health Service? Not according to widespread public perception. Homes for all? Quite the contrary and getting worse. Cleaner streets? You must be joking. And then we come to policing, which is the hot subject of the day.

If people had been asked 25 years ago to endorse the centralisation of Scottish policing under an unelected board, with all local accountability removed, hundreds of police stations closed and a policy of not investigating large swathes of offences because there’s no money, would many of us have said, “go for it”?

It is not exactly a secret that increasing numbers of minor crimes and observable offences are already overlooked due to lack of police resources or personnel. However, to have that approach codified as a policy opens up a new frontier which will do little for public confidence.

The suspicion will be that the threshold for investigation, once established, will keep edging up. The crime figures, if not the reality, will improve to the satisfaction of government. “Why bother reporting it?” will be the widespread response and, in some cases, a dangerous one.

Cherry-picked comparisons with ‘England’

The Justice Secretary, Angela Constance, tells us proudly that “Scotland continues to have more police officers per head of population than England”. Doubtless this will be a source of consolation to some poor soul sitting forlornly in a Glasgow housing scheme waiting for the cops to arrive.

Someone might whisper in Ms Constance’s ear that Scotland has always had more police officers, and many other forms of public employee, than England for reasons of geography and demography. Having more to spend is not an achievement of devolution.

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Cherry-picked comparisons with “England” are irrelevant. The pertinent questions are whether this long-established additional money is reflected in the quality of services and if 25 years of Holyrood have resulted in it being used effectively to deliver better services and a fairer society?

It is reasonably well known that Scotland had, in 2022-23, £2,229 per head of population more to spend on public services than England, taken as a whole. If London is excluded from that comparison, the figure soars to over £3,000 per head, compared to, say, the south-west of England.

There are good historic reasons for this but we are still entitled to ask whether the differential is reflected in the services we receive, taking account of factors which justified it in the first place. Again, policing is a very good example. We get more money because there is a vast geographical area to police.

Yet centralisation under the Scottish Police Authority has seen a disproportionate erosion of the police presence in rural areas. As the divisional commander for the Highlands and Islands, Rob Shepherd, said recently: “Organisationally, there is the challenge – and my colleagues in the NHS, local authorities and fire brigade face the same – that all of our decision-making nationally sits in the Central Belt. Things that work there don’t necessarily work here.”

Lack of big ideas

Predictably, there is no voice on the Scottish Police Authority to represent that perspective. On policing, as with much else, democratic accountability at regional or local levels has been a casualty of devolution. Sticking saltires on everything does not conceal that reality. (Any more, in passing, than sticking Poileas Alba on cars in Fife compensates for brutal new cuts for useful Gaelic funding in communities.)

Recognise Holyrood’s achievements by all means, from the smoking ban to baby boxes. But let’s also set a more challenging set of questions to mark 25 years of Holyrood. Why has devolution led to so much centralisation? Why are our towns and cities in such a mess? Why is the previously affordable now unaffordable? Where are the big ideas on how to use Holyrood’s powers more creatively?

One answer would certainly lie in having two governments eager to work in harmony, rather than in constant friction – an essential asset that devolution has not benefited from for most of its existence. Radical change in a society needs money, of course – but it also needs ideas and insights acquired through lived experience to drive policy. Where are these to come from?

At its opening, Donald Dewar described the Scottish Parliament as “not an end: a means to greater ends”. Let’s hear which “greater ends” are claimed for it and then have an honest debate about how the balance sheet might improve in years to come.