Devolution Doom

Christopher Harvie

‘You don’t hate us in Scotland, Master?’ said Professor John Stuart Blackie, the Teuto-Gaelic classicist, to Jowett of Balliol. ‘We never think of you at all,’ came the lapidary reply.

Drafting a sketch for a BBC radio programme on devolution, I was rung by Professor Phil Williams, a colleague at Aberystwyth who is also Plaid Cymru’s spokesman on energy. ‘I’m on it with Jack McConnell,’ I said.

‘Who’s McConnell?’

‘Scottish First Minister.’

‘Well, I never . . .’

This was a benign version of the Jowett syndrome but serious enough: Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff have become places apart. As the days tick away before the Holyrood elections on 1 May 2003, Labour seems in better shape than the SNP: John Swinney lacks the lethal charm of his predecessor, Alex Salmond, and his members went out of control when selecting candidates for the regional list system, ditching the best and brightest. But the polls show that McConnell is far from being out of the woods.

Whoever wins, is Holyrood to be little more than a Glasgow-Council-writ-large, a magnificent shell housing a small, dim creature? Has transparency done its business, only to expose the morbidity of the Scottish body politic?

Scottish devolution reasserted itself in the 1980s as a by-product of Europeanisation. Technology, politics and culture would, it was hoped, mesh together in the new industrial city-region, transforming the ‘neotechnic’ epoch (of carbon-fired industry) into its ‘geotechnic’ successor (in which technology would enhance society and the environment). Patrick Geddes had predicted this in the 1890s, along with self-government. Which is why Geddes – a recurrent presence in the novels of Alasdair Gray – counts as a patron of devolution, and indeed of that peaceable civic Europe in which Gray’s ‘Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Republic’ would find its place.

The outcome has been rather different. The MSPs and the McConnell Executive face socio-economic crisis. There is now outright recession, following on from months when growth ran at a third of the UK level; most sectors are afflicted by structural malaise. Agriculture and fisheries, which have kept the place going since Skara Brae, are struggling with the aftermath of foot and mouth, the hopeless economics of the family farm and the consequences of overfishing. Tourism was in deep trouble even before 11 September, and manufacturing output has gone down by 14 per cent over the past two years. The remaining heavy industries are on a subsidy drip-feed and, reeling from the transatlantic recession in new technology, Silicon Glen faces the cyberclearances before its second generation of hi-tech firms has emerged.

Service-industry capitalism – which enjoyed only a brief career as a cash cow – radiates gloom. Scottish Media Group, which runs the Herald and STV, is threatened with takeover. Thins has gone bust, leaving Scottish bookselling to Anglo-America. Over-expansion has left huge dents in the valuations of Scottish Power and Stagecoach. The once-booming finance sector, centred on Charlotte Square in Edinburgh, now boils down to the Royal Bank of Scotland and Standard Life, the latter now landed with the pensions crisis. The prospect of a decent rail system is retreating to the 2020s, some of the necessary cash having been blown on five pointless, populist miles of motorway in Glasgow. The new, much-touted Rosyth-Zeebrugge ferry has had its economics undermined by haulage firms using East European drivers on minimal wages. Football, the warhorse of national identity, now sees the ‘Old Firm’ about to dismount, and seems ready for the vet, if not the knacker’s yard. As for health, Scots tend to be sick and old. It costs a lot to die.

Is a touch of the Private Frasers – ‘We’re all doomed, ah tell ye, doomed!’ – in order? The Enterprise/Transport/Lifelong-Learning minister Wendy Alexander fled in May, perhaps because McConnell crushed her under all those portfolios, but also, surely, because of the mismatch between her huge responsibilities and her limited powers. Holyrood has, it’s true, turned in good research and policy reports in fields neglected by Westminster, but new systems require time to run themselves in. Conflicts over priorities, lack of skilled personnel, deficient social engineering, friction between the new legislature and local authorities, threaten a chronic dysfunction that will swallow the cash needed for innovation. As if this were not enough, a report is awaited from Professor Iain McLean of Oxford, which will signal the end of the use of the Barnett Formula to calculate Scotland’s public finance. Launched in 1978 with the bounty of the North Sea in prospect, its very favourable treatment of Scotland bought the Union another couple of decades.

Gordon Brown’s numbers show ecoomic problems looming for the UK in general – and the Scottish statistics are even worse. A European survey found in September 2001 that the UK had a long-term absent-through-sickness quotient of 7 per cent against 2.1 per cent in Germany. The unemployed have been reclassifying themselves to avoid ever more rigorous exclusions, but British ‘non-employment’, at 12 per cent, was above the European average. ‘Growth’ has become similarly elusive: probably negative if we don’t count the high street and housing. Is a rise in GDP a good measurement, anyway? The quality of growth was a 1970s idea, worth resurrecting. German progress in solar power has brought the price of photo-voltaic cells tumbling and, by enabling houses to generate their own power, has cut demand for mains electricity. The result is a net fall in GDP. Mobile phones accounted for a third of British GDP growth in 1999-2000, and Brown made a mint out of licence fees. Teenagers can chat with their friends, and Dad can phone to say he’s on Virgin Rail and it’s late. But is this growth?

Statistical magic may also explain Britain’s good showing in the OECD’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) study of education, the results of which were released last December. While Germans are obsessive about their ‘failure’, British ministers are notably quiet about their ‘success’. Did what’s usually suspected to be a 20 per cent illiteracy rate vanish because countries with compulsory registration had their problem kids present in class, while Britain’s failures had patriotically bunked off?

There’s been another grim consequence of Scotland’s endless adjustments to economic change – the move from steel and ships to American consumer goods factories to oil to Silicon Glen to call centres. When I wrote No Gods and Precious Few Heroes: Scotland since 1914 in 1981, drugs didn’t cross my mind as a problem worth mentioning. Now the per capita level of addiction is running at three times that of Germany, with 56,000 heroin users – the official figure. In 1996 the Scottish Select Committee costed Glasgow’s drug losses at £633 million (counting theft, hospitalisation, policing, imprisonment costs, insurance etc). The city then had 10,000 addicts; now it has 15,000. The national bill could add up to 2 or 3 per cent of GDP.

Addiction is wearing away health and social services already overburdened by an ageing population, while the black economy grows, recycling its income via the minicab, pub, tanning-studio, sauna/ brothel, loan-shark, flat-letting and ‘security’ businesses. The Daily Record (‘two million readers in Scotland’), a nauseous tabloid, carries stories – written almost like company reports – which claim that Glasgow hard men are sitting on millions earned from drug-dealing. These guys don’t make the Sunday Times rich list, but their CVs suggest that the superhood Cafferty, Mephisto to Inspector Rebus, isn’t just someone Ian Rankin dreamed up.

The growth of the drug economy may be linked to terrorist ‘diversification’ in post-Peace Process Ulster, with paramilitaries on both sides moving on from protection rackets to dope-peddling. The South-West of Scotland has certainly been badly hit. In rural Dailly, near where John Buchan’s Gorbals Diehards took on the Bolsheviks in Huntingtower, crackhead gangs are fighting it out. Andrew O’Hagan’s threnody for Scots socialism, Our Fathers, has Hugh Bawn making his way to his dying grandfather’s Ayrshire flat through a mob of giggling, doped kids. O’Hagan himself has talked of the more general problem of reaching the chemical generation. If Irvine Welsh and his satanic kailyard alone seems to connect, that is the dimension of Scotland’s problem.

Drugs make an unhelpful demography worse. Ireland often figures as an SNP paragon. It has its own drug problem, sure, but it lives off the high birth-rate it enjoyed between 1960 and 1985: two-thirds of its population are under 35 and it has a young and well-qualified workforce, thirty years ahead of pension problems and ill-health. No such luck in Scotland.

These problems mean that Scotland has to develop links with other countries and with its own diaspora. The Executive has tried to tap the exiles, in an unco-ordinated and rather sentimental way. (Do expats really love their ain folk? Probably they remember them as the reason they left.) ‘Tartan Day’ in New York in April, for example, had McConnell, Sir Sean and bagpipes galore processing down Broadway.

The westward tilt of ‘Tartan Day’ may indicate that Holyrood has not thought much about how it could make use of the bourgeois regionalism of Europe. The acceptable face of the Centre-Right, Jacques Chirac’s Premier, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, is the author of We Are All Regionalists Now, which draws on Mitterrand’s 1981 decentralisation. Equally adept is Edmund Stoiber’s shadow economics minister, Lothar Späth, CDU Minister-President of Baden-Württemberg in the 1980s. Späth lost office in 1991 in sulphurous circumstances, but remade himself and the doomed town of Jena in Thüringen by transforming East German Zeiss from a lens-grinding company to specialists in digital and micro-technology, and by linking new technology with social development. His schemes have paid off spectacularly, from the revolutionary Mercedes A-class and Smart cars, to the supertrams of Karlsruhe and the biotechnology and microsurgical developments in university science parks.

Best practice in co-operation between business and politics is more likely to be learned from the European regions than from post-Enron Wall Street, but Scots efforts have been hampered by Brown’s indifference to industry, and Holyrood’s slow learning curve. In 2004 there will be an inter-governmental conference on subsidiarity, the subject of a painstaking report by Holyrood’s European committee, smothered under a dreich title. In the early 1990s ‘subsidiarity’ was supposed to favour the regions: Europe would provide financial, legal and infrastructural frameworks, the regions would do the economic and social business. But the drive to the Euro reactivated national governments as agents of financial and taxation control, and only now is their grip slackening.

In their provincial murk, Scots official bodies have ‘benchmarked’ – in other words, they have agglomerated data to show how competitive or not the place is. Start with this: Scots kids’ foreign language skills are two-thirds down on 1980. Scots technical competence – the Spanner Man factor – has fallen below the level needed to pump up recovery in manufacturing. Even in the 1970s and 1980s Scotland was losing out to the Far East in pipelaying and rig-building for North Sea oil. Things have got much worse, with a current shortfall of several thousand skilled workers in Glasgow alone. It’s clear what will happen when Scotland tries to pick up on a technology like electric trams, which its local authorities killed off half a century ago.

Holyrood could, of course, have the laggard’s advantage and cherry-pick state-of the-art equipment and know-how – as long as it has some sort of strategy. So far, Scotland’s European ventures have been fitful, divided between the Executive and the Scottish Office in London, and don’t seem any more productive than the old ‘cooncillors’ jollies’ which had Glasgow’s finest investigating the problems of port cities on the Hamburg Reeperbahn. A partnership with Tuscany has materialised. Nice to know, but what do the Scots partner Tuscany at? An agreement with Bavaria, ready for signature, is supposedly gathering dust in some pigeonhole in Edinburgh. A diplomatic folk-myth? Who knows?

The central problem seems to be the lack of a government culture along the lines sketched by Bagehot. Scots political commentators write about public opinion, Holyrood sense and nonsense, and themselves – often entertainingly. What they haven’t yet done is peek under the bonnet to see how the engine is running.

For example, some good could come out of McConnell’s well-meant line about ‘doing less, better’. What he meant was to emphasise the importance of delivery, but does he have an efficient government machine to secure overall support and compel the execution of policy? This is much more complex than it was in Bagehot’s day. The Executive needs competence in the civil service and also at local authority/quango level. Is either up to the mark? Even when bureaucrats, central and local, are of high-quality, the first are servants o’ twa maisters and can dodge mediocrity by fleeing south, while the second had only just managed to bed down the region/district split of 1974 when local government was reorganised again in Ian Lang’s gerrymandered ‘reform’ of 1995. The Scottish Qualifications Authority, the Tourist Board, the Prisons Service and now Scottish Water have all been involved in crises, and seemingly combine the characteristics of the jobsworth public sector with the fat cat private.

A prime reason for Holyrood’s creakiness is local government. In Germany the burgh (Gemeinde) and county (Landkreis) councils are the executors of Land policy, backed up by decentralised Land offices (Landratsamt). Something similar – once a fair electoral system has been introduced – could, by devolving the responsibility for implementation from Parliament and the Edinburgh mandarins, make for more rapid action and response, perhaps through joint boards of MSPs and local councillors. Instead there are grotesque one-party states like Glasgow, where a small majority of votes gives Labour 90 per cent of councillors, with no introduction of PR envisaged before 2007, and not guaranteed even then.

With an eye on the useful Irish Senate, the Constitutional Convention of 1988-90 envisaged Holyrood consulting a body (Civic Forum) representing those who had exper-ience and expertise, but weren’t professional politicians. This has never been properly carried through, and ought to be.

Again, there are useful European lessons – and even some possible players. Späth invented a Staatsministerium, or ‘Office of the First Minister’, which combined economic planning with responsibility for external relations. Scotland could have something similar, in co-operation with such bodies as the Scottish Council, with a remit to further regional partnerships within the EU. Even more relevantly, Späth had a predecessor. In the 1850s a Swabian civil servant, Ferdinand Steinbeis, persuaded rural Württemberg to set up a Bureau for Trade and Crafts to find out about technology in Lancashire, Clydeside, Philadelphia etc, and take rapid action on what it found. In the 1870s his Bureau bankrolled Gottleib Daimler to improve gas engines. The GlobalScot Network of expatriate experts (including yours truly) which Wendy Alexander left behind has similar potential, if linked to the Civic Forum, and to the half a million Europeans who visit Scotland every year, a large number of whom, if the popularity of Scots studies on the Continent is anything to go by, seem to identify with the place.

In the 1999 election Scotland was Gordon Brown’s fiefdom. The Chancellor came north, laid about the SNP with a baseball bat and installed Donald Dewar in power. Brown-McConnell relations are said to be more distant (McConnell claimed in my radio programme that he spent more time conferring with Brussels than with London: given the Barnett business, a less than tactful comment). Both men and their Scotlands stand poised awkwardly between Europe and America. Brown, a long way from his Red Paper on Scotland, has surfed the boom; now his neglect of infrastructure and manufacturing is making itself felt, just as Wall Street hypercapitalism is falling apart. McConnell is under pressure to come up with the goods: reliable transport links, technology transfer, regional partnerships. He has room for manoeuvre, but not much time.