10 years on: Devolution has largely failed
The tenth anniversary of devolution in Scotland was celebrated last week. Last month the Calman Commission on devolution in Scotland recommended a range of additional powers (including tax raising powers).
The foundation of its recommendations is the assertion that ‘devolution has been a remarkable success’. To be fair to the Commission, such was the tenor of many of the submissions the committee took. But whilst many of the recommendations are reasonable the basic assertion is cosy and self congratulating and needs to be challenged for the sad lack of ambition it reveals.
The report recalls the purpose of devolution: ‘Its purpose is to serve the people of Scotland and to make their lives better’.
Certainly it has provided a closer link between citizens and elected representatives. There have been a few useful pieces of legislation and it has enabled Scotland to set the pace in some areas such as anti-smoking policy (though it would have come to Scotland anyway) and Climate Change legislation (if you are one of the reducing band who think that is a good thing).
But here are three reasons (many more could be given) why devolution in Scotland has failed the test.
Devolution has fostered a burgeoning bureaucracy. Rather than freeing citizens for creative enterprise and achievement we have had more of the suffocating same. The characteristic faith in process rather than people to address issues has continued apace over the last 10 years. We now have an extra layer of government in the Parliament itself. Public sector employee numbers in general have gone up 10%. Some estimates calculate around a third of Scottish Government spend on auditing and verification rather than substantive services and projects. Bean counting!
Devolution has flunked key challenges of the day. Here are a few examples. Despite devolved control of education (38% of my council’s revenue budget) and despite having thrown money at the service like water, standards and achievements have barely improved. Education has particularly failed the poor and vulnerable. Scotland needs to remove the dead hand of central direction, using competition and a closer link to parental responsibility.
Poverty and addiction. Action has majored on the state supporting people in their poverty and addiction instead of the expectation of social mobility and personal reformation. Legislation has too often been worse than insipid and too often been part of the problem. As examples, the recent local government
pensions legislation failed totally to grasp the nettle of affordability and added new layers of complexity; the 2006 Planning Act is looking increasingly like it will fail to achieve its worthy objective of improving planning efficiency.
Devolution has failed to provide coherence or progress on social and ethical issues. Family breakdown has continued to increase and teenage pregnancy is now at record levels. Incremental legislation on fault lines of racial and sexual identity has reduced clarity and caused confusion. Although crime has fallen recently total recorded crimes and offences have ended up static over the decade. The average prison population has increased 22%. Penal policy remains shambolic .
The failure of devolution is fundamentally a failure of ambition and confidence and that failure presents opportunities. Here are three keys concepts which can now shape the future.
First, a shift from bureaucratic process to the entrepreneurial capabilities of people is a rich opportunity waiting to be exploited.
Second, an intelligent and determined assault on monolithic and failed policies will meet entrenched opposition but will be welcomed by many.
Thirdly, Scotland needs someone to articulate with confidence a social narrative which re-ignites Conservative values such as responsibility (fiscal and personal), the rule of law, minimal state intervention and care for the vulnerable.
The verdict ten years on: Could do much better.