Brian Monteith: The real enemy of devolution remains the SNP

This year in June marks the 20th anniversary of the referendum that confirmed that Scotland would have its own parliament with 129 members elected to decide upon the responsibilities that had been managed by the Scottish Office.

It's 20 years since the vote to establish the Scottish Parliament.
It's 20 years since the vote to establish the Scottish Parliament.

No longer would governments elected by the UK electorate determine the local policies and administration of education, health, justice, local government and economic development. The Scottish Parliament opened its doors on the Mound in Edinburgh two years later to much expectation about what it might achieve. The ability to follow a different path on devolved issues created a tangible atmosphere of hope and expectation about what might be achieved and to some extent those expectations were met with policies such as free personal care and a smoking ban in all enclosed public places.

There was, however, always a substantial disconnect between what the Scottish Executive, later to be renamed the Scottish Government, spent on public services and what it raised. This lack of financial and fiscal reality meant that politicians could vote freely to give away benefits so long as the Westminster government underwrote the expenditure, but they never felt the pain of raising taxes or facing the electorate with such a high risk proposition.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

During the years of Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling Holyrood expenditure rose considerably, but come the financial crash in 2008, made worse in the UK by Brown and Darling’s expansion of public debt, Holyrood faced the inevitable austerity that was required to correct government financial laxity.

With tighter budgets passed down from Westminster and an inability to raise additional income other than by increasing business rates, the only tax directly at their disposal, the Scottish Government has sought to find savings using the standard bean-counting approach of politicians who are unwilling to let go of control; centralising services at the cost of local democracy.

Instead of looking to reduce the scope of the state and its call upon overstretched resources, either by admitting that some policies are an expensive luxury – such as free university tuition – or by privatising services that demand hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ support but are elsewhere in the world managed by the private sector – such as water and sewerage – the Scottish Government has carried on regardless.

No matter that evidence shows some policies do not achieve their stated aims – more pupils from underprivileged backgrounds attend university in England where they have to pay fees than in Scotland where they do not – the SNP has instead sought to centralise services such as the police, fire brigades and ambulance control. Where it could not centralise it has instead sought to rationalise, and of course it has passed down to local councils much of the financial squeeze whilst blackmailing them into resisting a council tax rise.

To counterbalance this unrealistic disconnect and also meet demands that Scottish politicians should be able to counteract austerity policies by varying taxes so as to raise revenues that might alleviate expenditure cuts more powers have been passed over to Holyrood.

Indeed, over these last 20 years every UK government has increased the tax raising scope of SNP Governments. It was happening before the unnecessary “vow” and it has happened since and yet when these tax-varying powers have been granted they have not been used to any significant degree or have been a calamitous failure. Where they have been used, such as in the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax, the punitive hike in rates has resulted in revenues falling far behind predictions, throwing budgets into turmoil. The same will happen with the failure to raise the top rate tax threshold.

All of this public sector dominance, the centralising and rationalising of services, and the punishing of the moderately-off through higher property and personal taxes is delivering a Scottish economy that is lagging behind the rest of the UK and gives all the appearance of being in structural decline. Strip out inflation from GDP growth and Scotland is heading for recession while the rest of the UK pulls away.

How is this decline to be arrested if not reversed? Put simply, it requires Scotland’s public sector to be run by politicians who understand the problems and have the insight and courage to deal with them.

Scottish independence would not be the answer to these problems; quite the contrary, it would be putting the foot down on the accelerator whilst driving towards the precipice of the Grand Canyon.

At the weekend the Conservative leader Ruth Davidson announced she was proposing to extend devolution so that more powers for economic development and the ability to improve public finances would be given to local councils. While we await the detail this is good politics, not only does it make eminent sense to help drive economic growth, it also helps build a constituency of interest so that she may yet find friends to build coalitions of power that she will need if she is to become First Minister.

The SNP is no friend of devolution for its politicians have never espoused it. Devolution is a unionist concept designed to transfer power away from the metropolis in an over-centralised Britain. Not only has power been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland it is also being offered to the great cities of Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield.

While the UK has been devolving the EU has been centralising, no surprise then that the SNP supports remaining in the EU. It goes further, for any powers we gain from the EU over farming, fisheries, economic development and employment law it would immediately give back, at the expense of the Scottish Parliament.

The answer for the Scottish economy is greater devolution of political power and responsibility, and the Tories are the people who are proposing it. Who would have thought that 20 years ago?

Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org