It is time for a change. The First Min­is­ter and her gov­ern­ment need to let go


Allpol­i­tics is about power – who holds it, who doesn’t, who wants it, what they want it for, and what they do with it when they get it. The story of hu­man­ity is, for good and ill, the story of power. Mod­ern Scot­land has a neu­rotic re­la­tion­ship with power. For decades, the na­tional po­lit­i­cal de­bate has been dom­i­nated by ar­gu­ments not so much about what should be done, but about who should be do­ing it. Over the sec­ond half of the 20th Cen­tury the view grad­u­ally came to dom­i­nate that West­min­ster and even the old Scot­tish Of­fice were no longer cred­i­ble or de­sir­able fo­rums for run­ning schools and hos­pi­tals and other ser­vices north of the Bor­der. Those de­ci­sions would be bet­ter made closer to the pub­lic that used them, by politi­cians fo­cused on Scot­land as their day job, through the mech­a­nism of a de­volved, demo­crat­i­cally elected par­lia­ment. Since its ad­vent in 1999 – and even though Scots voted to stay within the UK in the 2014

ref­er­en­dum – there has been broad ac­cep­tance that Holy­rood will steadily ac­crete more re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as time passes. Of all the par­ties, the SNP has the most fraught re­la­tion­ship with power. It has been in gov­ern­ment in Ed­in­burgh since 2007, over which pe­riod it has had con­trol of the levers, but­tons and ped­als that shape the con­tours of the Scot­tish state. A decade or so on, we have a pic­ture of how the party prefers to use that kit. To be harsh, although its heart is usu­ally in the right place it is nev­er­the­less too of­ten cau­tious and war­ily in­cre­men­tal­ist, and al­most al­ways al­ler­gic to con­fronta­tion. It is no fan of the hard call. Its bolder in­stincts are cowed by the noisy and con­ser­va­tive vested in­ter­ests in the pub­lic sec­tor. And, of course, at all times it has one eye fixed on how to reach its over­rid­ing goal of Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence. The SNP is also – and do not miss the irony here – a hy­per­ac­tive and un­apolo­getic cen­traliser. Ni­cola Stur­geon is a much bet­ter First Min­is­ter than Alex Sal­mond was, much more en­gaged in the de­tail and driven by out­comes, but she likes to hoard power more than her pre­de­ces­sor did. She freely ad­mits del­e­ga­tion is not one of her strong points. For the SNP, then, the an­swer to the ques­tion “who should hold power?” ap­pears to be “us, here, in Ed­in­burgh”. The idea that Holy­rood might use­fully de­volve con­trols fur­ther down the chain to coun­cils and com­mu­ni­ties seems to have lit­tle pur­chase on the Na­tion­al­ist imag­i­na­tion. Here are some ex­am­ples of this mind­set in prac­tice. School au­ton­omy: The Gov­ern­ment re­cently with­drew a pro­posed Bill that would have given head­teach­ers more say over how schools are run. This avoided a bruis­ing clash with the teach­ing unions and ed­u­ca­tion au­thor­i­ties – or­gan­i­sa­tions, known to crit­ics as the McBlob, that have frus­trated ef­forts to mod­ernise Scot­tish ed­u­ca­tion in ways be­ing suc­cess­fully im­ple­mented else­where in the world. Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary John Swin­ney in­stead an­nounced an “agree­ment” that would see coun­cils in­tro­duce some of the Bill’s poli­cies on a vol­un­tary ba­sis. Polic­ing: Five years ago the SNP re­placed Scot­land’s eight re­gional po­lice forces with a sin­gle, uni­fied body called Po­lice Scot­land. The new cen­tralised force has had hor­ren­dous birthing pains, los­ing its first two chief con­sta­bles in quick suc­ces­sion and be­ing ac­cused of be­ing un­able to re­spond ef­fec­tively to lo­cal crimes and con­cerns. Last week, David Belfall, a former Home Of­fice civil ser­vant and ex-head of the Scot­tish Of­fice Po­lice and Emer­gency Ser­vices Group, pointed out the change has also led to a sig­nif­i­cant shift in po­lice over­sight in an ar­ti­cle for the Re­form Scot­land think tank, where I am di­rec­tor. Where the old forces were ac­count­able to elected coun­cil­lors, Po­lice Scot­land is man­aged by “an ap­pointed po­lice au­thor­ity, all of whose mem­bers are ap­pointed by Scot­tish Min­is­ters”. A re­view of po­lice gov­er­nance by An­drew Flana­gan, former chair of the Scot­tish Po­lice Au­thor­ity (who has also since re­signed), found that “the over­rid­ing per­cep­tion has been that lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties are not be­ing lis­tened to and that com­man­ders do not have enough au­ton­omy to make de­ci­sions.” A de­ci­sion to cre­ate a sin­gle Scot­tish Fire and Res­cue Ser­vice has proved equally con­tro­ver­sial. Lo­cal tax­a­tion: This sum­mer, Ed­in­burgh’s SNP coun­cil leader Adam McVey an­nounced the cap­i­tal wanted to levy a tourist tax, al­low­ing it to take ad­van­tage of its global des­ti­na­tion sta­tus and raise rev­enue for ser­vices. As­ton­ish­ingly, McVey was shot down in pub­lic by SNP Cul­ture and Tourism Sec­re­tary Fiona Hys­lop. SNP on SNP ac­tion is van­ish­ingly rare, which sug­gests real ten­sions are emerg­ing at na­tional and lo­cal lev­els. This ten­dency to­wards cen­tral “com­mand and con­trol” was noted in a report by Cosla, pub­lished in 2014. “Scot­land is one of the most cen­tralised coun­tries in Europe,” it said. “It is no co­in­ci­dence that our Euro­pean neigh­bours are of­ten more suc­cess­ful at im­prov­ing out­comes, and have much greater turnout at elec­tions.” It went on: “Se­cur­ing all the ben­e­fits of lo­cal­ism means en­hanc­ing the pow­ers and flex­i­bil­i­ties of lo­cal gov­ern­ment. It can­not mean that Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment uses its pub­lic-sec­tor fund­ing, leg­is­la­tion or pow­ers to reg­u­late in ways which co­erce lo­cal gov­ern­ment into work­ing only in ways in which na­tional gov­ern­ment wants.” This is the nub of the is­sue. Should Holy­rood seek to limit and con­trol the be­hav­iour of coun­cils in or­der to avoid flaky ad­min­is­tra­tions adopt­ing ir­re­spon­si­ble or wacky poli­cies? Or should it em­power lo­cal democ­racy so that coun­cils are free to re­spond to their dis­crete com­mu­nity needs and then ro­bustly be held ac­count­able at the bal­lot box? I favour the lat­ter. At the mo­ment, coun­cils have lit­tle con­trol over how much money they can raise. Last week, Re­form Scot­land, sub­mit­ted our thoughts to the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment’s con­sul­ta­tion on re­form of non­do­mes­tic rates (per­haps more known as busi­ness rates). We point out that if it’s ac­cepted, there is no sin­gle UK econ­omy, but a se­ries of re­gional ones, the same is true within Scot­land. To give just a few ex­am­ples: be­tween 2011 and 2016 Ed­in­burgh’s mean pop­u­la­tion growth was 1.2% while Greenock’s was -0.5%; the three-year sur­vival rate for busi­nesses in Aberdeen­shire was 71% but only 57% in Renfrewshire; the unem­ploy­ment rate for adults over 16 in 2016 was 6.5% in Kilmarnock and Irvine and 3.4% in Dun­fermline and Kirk­caldy. To ad­dress th­ese vari­a­tions in eco­nomic cir­cum­stances, coun­cils should have greater con­trol over lo­cal tax­a­tion, rather than be­ing sub­ject to a one-size-fits-all de­cree from the cen­tre. Let a thou­sand flow­ers bloom. It is time for change – and for Holy­rood and Ni­cola Stur­geon to learn to let go.

FM Ni­cola Stur­geon

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