Trevor Davies: Devolved powers work best when they percolate from the bottom up rather than the top down

Wester Hailes, Edinburgh
Wester Hailes, Edinburgh
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It’s in very tasteful green and red hand-painted tartan and it sits at the front of my kitchen shelf – my small 1997 ‘Yes, Yes” souvenir mug.

“Yes” to the question on whether there should be a Scottish Parliament and “yes” to it having powers to vary the rate of income tax up or down.

A view of the Wester Hailes Centre and houses seen from Wester Hailes police station in Edinburgh, July 1993.

A view of the Wester Hailes Centre and houses seen from Wester Hailes police station in Edinburgh, July 1993.

I’m still proud to see it there. Winning that referendum was a great achievement and, I remember, brought hope and excitement to me and to many people in Scotland.

But today, 15 years later, there’s a sense of disappointment that ordinary Scottish people have not seen those hopes fulfilled. There have not been the economic and social changes we hoped might start to flow.

The 1997 devolution settlement was a good one. Fundamentally it said that everything was devolved to the Scottish parliament except those things that were better dealt with together at a UK level – like our common security through defence and diplomacy and the social security we all share, or the policies to manage and develop our shared economy.

Otherwise a whole chunk of the apparatus of the state was taken and moved from London to Edinburgh. Still thinking of my kitchen, it was like breaking off a big piece of oatcake and putting it on another plate.

But that was not meant to be the end of the matter.

To my mind devolution was meant to trigger something more, a different and renewed form of government within Scotland that would bring benefit to Scottish people. That hasn’t happened. It’s just like we’re still operating the big old Westminster state – but from Edinburgh.

The first two Scottish parliaments had Labour and Liberal Democrat coalitions and there seemed neither the understanding nor the will to break out from that old Westminster mould. So much time was taken up with making coalition work; and coalition rarely does anything radical, always compromising downwards.

That only left room for small pet policies, trying to make the big bureaucratic Westminster ways work better. Perhaps if devolution’s godfather, Donald Dewar, had lived to lead those early parliaments for longer then things would have been different – but we’ll never know.

The second two parliaments have been dominated by the SNP who, of course, don’t want devolution to work and have done little with it, using and reinforcing people’s genuine sense of disappointment to press their case for independence and separation.

So it’s encouraging to see that Labour’s devolution commission, promised by Johann Lamont when she was elected leader a year ago, started meeting a few weeks back. It could be the beginning of some new thinking. But from reading what it is setting out to do and looking at its limited membership, my fear is that it will simply be trying to move a few more crumbs of the oatcake from one plate to another.

There’s a really good case for moving more power to Scotland and for making the boundaries between Westminster and Edinburgh clearer and that all needs to be worked out. But if that’s all, then it’s just nibbling at the edges of the issue: trying to make the old big bureaucratic Westminster ways work better in Edinburgh.

The opportunities are bigger and more exciting than that and it would serve Scotland, and Labour, better if it’s commission could show both imagination and courage to grasp hold of them.

Let us look at what we have now, 15 years after I bought my “Yes, Yes” mug. We have a government in Edinburgh which has taken powers away from our local democracy to itself. We have a parliament which mostly manages what we have, rather than legislating for the future. We have communities where people’s health is still the worst in Europe. Our dependence on alcohol is still wrecking lives.

We still build places to live which are mediocre at best. Even our education, once the envy of the world, is beginning to slip away. That wasn’t how it was meant to be. And nibbling at the edge of the oatcake isn’t going to address those things.

To my mind what is needed is to now take the radical idea of devolution seriously and take it to its next, deeper, more transforming stage – and that is devolving all that can be devolved to local communities, local organisations, local councils, local people. I say that simply because I believe it will achieve better results than trying to make the big bureaucratic Westminster model work better.

There’s a story I tell which shows why. Many years ago when I was first a Labour councillor in Edinburgh, Wester Hailes was being built to house people displaced from rotten homes in the city centre. At the time the Council thought, rightly, it would be good to have trees in the big open spaces between the housing blocks.

So workmen would come and plant saplings – but within days they’d all be uprooted, bashed or broken as local kids set about them for whatever reasons of resentment or distrust. Again the council workmen would plant the saplings and again they’d be destroyed. And again.

One day, by accident, a trailer load of saplings was left out overnight and next morning they’d all gone, to be found in the days that followed planted outside people’s homes, watched and watered. Those trees flourished and grew. A sense of personal ownership, care for what they could see, brought community benefit in a way the council on its own never could.

Radical downward devolution is something nationalists are unlikely to do. It’s not in their nature. They believe in putting power into the nation state. It’s happening in Scotland today. But there’s hope in a strand of Labour thought which is quite different – of co-operatives, self-education, trades unions and municipal enterprise – that says by doing things together at a local, workplace or community level we achieve more than either individuals or a big bureaucratic state can do. Trees planted in the care of local people grow.