I am not expecting too much change following what appears fairly lacklustre campaigns. It would be encouraging if there were, for Scotland badly needs its politics to change if we are to see the economy expand and provide the wherewithal for supporting those in need of help.
We also need to see the divisions that opened up in 2014 and have never really gone away be healed, but I don’t hold out much hope there either. No, while there is a great deal at stake in regard to repairing our overstretched and underfunded local services I expect apathy to dominate the council elections.
The outcomes are most likely to be determined by which parties are best able to get their core votes out and, given that the electoral system is a transferable vote, those that do vote determining which party they dislike the most and ordering their preferences to support any other party, but that bête noir.
There was a time when our local politics was not just keenly fought, but also made extremely powerful. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) bestrode Scottish politics like a colossus and its views had to be taken seriously by Scottish Office ministers. Not anymore. Devolution has seen to that, just as it has neutralised so many other local influences in our lives such as the police and other first responder services by centralising power in Edinburgh.
I remember those of us who campaigned against a Scottish Parliament warning that local government would be significantly emasculated, but I have to admit I don’t think any of us thought it would become quite as bad as it has. Indeed, while we made other warnings about the consequences of devolution such as tax rises and over-regulation (both of which have happened) I don’t think any could have predicted the state of Scotland to deteriorate as badly as it has.
The idea ministerial meetings would happen without minutes being taken, or that instructions for contracts worth tens of millions of taxpayers pounds would simply disappear, was beyond our imagination.
Did any of us expect our once universally admired education system be administered so badly that schools would go uninspected for ten years, that English education, and even London schools that had a poor reputation under the Inner London Education Authority, would be achieving better outcomes in more challenging circumstances?
Few Scots realise that over the past 20 years the English population has changed and grown significantly (up 15 per cent from 49 million in 2001 to 56m in 2021). That growth in England is like adding a country the size of Bulgaria (7m) with all the consequential demands on public services. Over the same period Scotland’s population increased less than 7 per cent from 5.06m to 5.4m and is expected to decline after 2028. We really need to grow our economy to improve our public services
When we look at the record of devolution we see sluggish economic growth, repeatedly poorer outcomes on social welfare issues such as drug deaths, homelessness deaths and life expectancy. The uncertainty surrounding independence is a huge drag on our economy.
Last week I wrote a report on the good news of investments by European companies in the UK – huge investments worth billions, new factories sprouting like Buddleia, thousands of jobs. All were in England.
Devolution was meant to bring greater democratic accountability for our public services, but can we really claim it has achieved that? For all we have 129 MSPs sitting in Holyrood do they hold the First Minister, her ministerial team, and the massive entourage of advisers and communication staff to account?
The struggle to find out who is responsible for what with the administration of the CalMac ferry contracts is a case in point, and it would not surprise me were similar difficulties to emerge with the even bigger contract with Sanjeev Gupta for the Lochaber smelter.
All the foregoing is not to say devolution could not work. In the right circumstances – namely having a political class who truly believe in it – devolution might have been able to improve most of what it has responsibility for. But that’s just it, for the past 15 years it has been run by politicians committed to destroy it.
There is no benefit to nationalists of making devolution work for Scotland because it undermines their core message that breaking up the United Kingdom trumps everything, even if it means dire poverty.
Secession from the United Kingdom, obtained by a referendum, has become the sole purpose of our ruling political class. We must therefore be grateful to this newspaper and its political reporter Connor Matchett for convincing Scotland’s Information Commissioner the legal advice given to our nationalist government on its ability to hold a second referendum to be put in the public domain. Until it is released we have no idea what that advice says, and it may yet be heavily redacted. Nevertheless it will hopefully bring to a head the pantomime of us having a referendum or not, hopefully ending the uncertainty this brings to the Scottish economy. Imagine, the nationalist government would have to do the day job.
Such has been the unwillingness of the SNP to use additional funds Boris Johnson’s Westminster Government would provide to improve the A75 that logistic companies now use ferry routes from Northern Ireland to Heysham and Liverpool to avoid travelling through Scotland. Businesses now literally avoid Scotland. It is time we woke up to the reality of how Scotland is declining.
- Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and is editor of ThinkScotland.org