The State of Devolution

An interesting article in the Telegraph has put forward the view that Scotland is worse served, at least in terms of public services, under devolution. Despite remarkably increased spending, indeed increased above inflation every year, the Scotland has in fact slipped further behind England.

This seems to me like nothing new. Professor Iain Mclean of Nuffield College, Oxford made the point unequivocally in his 2007 article on The National Question in Anthony Sheldon’s Blair’s Britain. A quick reviewing of it yields a few choice conclusions, most notably that:

“Devolution has provided a natural experiment in public service delivery. It has tended to show how that the unpopular reforms of the second Blair term to public services in England has worked – at least when compared to the unreformed public services of Scotland and Wales.”

In essence, billions of pounds have been thrown into a black hole of unreformed public services by devolved Scottish institutions. The obvious question is why the examples in England have not been emulated. To simply identify reforms as unpopular misses the essential point; after all, they were equally unpopular when the UK government managed them in England.

Most significantly, this is an unhappy consequence of proportional representation – an electoral system I am still unsure of whether to support or oppose. Unpopularity is not a luxury which could as easily have been afforded in Scotland, where no governing party has ever held a majority and there is considerably less difference between the shares in power of the main parties.

There is also the other possibility: that the calibre of politicians in Holyrood, particularly in the larger parties, is just not equivalent to those governing in Westminster. Rather than a great transfer of politicians from London to Edinburgh, devolution rather saw the elevation of local councillors to a level of unprecedented power. A third complaint, the lack of fiscal responsibility of the Scottish Parliament to the electorate also arises: it certainly explains the constant demands for more money, but not the unwillingness to actually do anything with what they have. Perhaps blank cheques simply breed idleness.

Drawing a conclusion that devolution has failed and that there are too many politicians out there will hardly surprise anyone, but unfortunately it is inevitable. When identity politics are put before good government, as happened in 1998/99, it is the people who suffer most.

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