Devolution promised so much, including an end to the independence debate and harsh nationalist rhetoric, along with a newly energised, dynamic and more democratic Scotland.
The vision of the two dominant parties -The SNP and Labour - was even more ambitious. Scotland would become a Scandinavian-style utopia, with first class healthcare, infrastructure, education and social services. Our climate and geography are similar so why not?
But after nearly 25 years, that vision has turned sour. The rhetoric between the Scottish and Westminster governments has become ever more toxic. Voters on both sides of the debate are frustrated. Devolution just hasn’t worked. Something needs to change.
While a second Independence referendum now seems unlikely, there are other options.
Devolution could be expanded into ‘Dev-max’ as Gordon Brown has suggested. Alternatively, it could be rolled back with a more muscular unionism imposed. Perhaps the most exciting alternative would be to abolish the overly political Scottish Parliament and replace it with direct democracy, similar to Switzerland’s Canton system.
But before we can get there, we need to reconcile ourselves with the mess we are in.
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the only answer. In recent years, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have become popular, after the success of South Africa’s TRC. It was set up to help the country move on from its Apartheid past. The core mission of a TRC is transparency and candour. South Africa’s commission involved open public participation that included granting amnesty or protection to many of those testifying. Only then could South Africa begin to unite its population, accept its past, and move in a new direction.
While Scotland’s morass is by no means comparable to Apartheid, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission must be the first step to reform. That would allow us to work out what has gone wrong, and let everyone vent their frustrations.
Fundamentally, a TRC needs to ask why Devolution has deviated so far from its optimistic vision.
In doing so, there are myriad sub-questions that need to be addressed. Many of these will be uncomfortable for all sides of the debate. But that is exactly the point of a TRC.
- Has the Scottish Government abused its power?
There are endless stories of public sector workers and businesses with government contracts being threatened if they do not toe the Nationalist line. Has this really been going on and to what extent?
- Why has the Nordic Dream Died?
Thanks to UK fiscal transfers, Scottish public spending is running at over 56% of GDP (This is using the GERS figures, which understate spending as they exclude some UK-wide budgets). By contrast, Nordic nations spend 48-53% of GDP. Yet in spite of spending more, Scotland still does not enjoy the world class healthcare or education, pristine infrastructure or free childcare that are staples of these countries. Indeed, standards seem to be falling rather than converging. Why are we paying Ritz prices for Travelodge services?
- What do we do about Scotland’s unsustainable borrowing? Even before the pandemic, Scotland was running budget deficits of c. 10% of GDP. This is totally unsustainable for a mature and ageing economy. Hitherto, Scotland has funded this as part of UK-wide borrowing, but with Britain’s financial credibility now stretched and borrowing costs rising, Scotland’s profligacy is threatening the entire UK financial system.
- Why has Devolution not delivered the economic dynamism it promised? Scotland’s Economy has been growing even more slowly than the rest of the UK in spite of higher borrowing. This is exactly what devolution was supposed to fix, so why hasn’t it?
- Why have standards in Education and Healthcare collapsed?
People can still remember when Scottish schools were a source of national pride. But those days are long gone. Scotland’s latest PISA scores were the lowest on the record. Instead of engaging with the problem the government has simply pulled out of international assessments.
Healthcare is faring no better. Last year Scotland made the news after the army were drafted in to help with 40 hour ambulance waits. From cancer treatments to A&E, NHS Scotland has never looked in such bad health. Indeed, a leaked report from its executive board has reported that the system is so close to falling over, they are considering withdrawing publicly funded treatment for the wealthy.
- Why is Devolution failing Scotland’s Environment?
Scotland’s stunning environment has always been one of its USPs. Yet on almost every measure Scotland is not just falling behind the rest of the UK, but the whole of Europe. For example, Scotland has consistently missed its emissions targets by a country mile. Its recycling record is atrocious, cycling provision is the worst in the UK, and its waterways are in the worst state on record.
- Is it time to change the Barnett Formula?
With Scotland’s population ageing faster and growing slower than the rest of the UK, the Barnett formula is leading to bigger and bigger subsidies. Are these justifiable? And if so, why are so many Scots still resentful in spite of annual fiscal transfers of over £2200 per person? And if the rest of the UK is going to subsidise Scotland with increasing generosity, what can Scotland offer in return?
- What is the plan for Scotland’s Oil & Gas Wealth?
The Scottish government seems to swing almost daily between opposing all fossil fuel development and dreaming about the pet projects it is going spend all the oil and gas revenues on. Independence or not, the Scottish and UK governments need to sit down and tell us the long-term plan for these reserves.
- How can Devolution avoid doing the same work twice and doing it badly?
During the pandemic Scotland had its own response and its own scientific advisers. Scotland’s subtly different Covid lockdowns cost more money and created confusion. Yet the outcomes were no better than the rest of the UK, and for nursing homes they were far worse. How do we avoid farces like this in future?
- How can we encourage constructive co-operation?
The relationship between Westminster and Holyrood seems to involve a constant battle to undermine each other. That means opportunities to cooperate on issues such as Covid are missed. While politicians may enjoy the spectacle, it is voters who lose out. How can we change the political system to reward working together?
- Can we unite to defeat the deaths of despair?
Devolved Scots do not seem to value their lives much. Life expectancy is the lowest in Western Europe. Deaths from drugs, alcohol and suicide in Scotland have reached all time highs, and are by far the biggest killer of young Scottish men. It is hard to feel any sense of national pride when drug deaths are four times higher than any other European country.
Look at the above and it is no exaggeration to say that there is a human tragedy playing out north of the border. It is not down to lack of resources: If Scotland were an independent country, as a share of GDP its public sector would be the biggest in the world!
Before we can move forward with any new settlement for Scotland, these discomfiting questions need answering. If we cannot understand what has gone wrong, then any reforms or referenda are just as likely to make things worse as they are to make things better.