Where does real political power sit in Scotland? And where do we want it?

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, September 6th 2015

The Scottish Parliament is one of the central pillars of public life.

It has become the unquestioned landmark and focus of domestic politics in the country. People look to it, want it to have more powers, and generally trust it much more to look after their interests than Westminster.

That is all good and well. Yet, when people think of the Scottish Parliament what they tend to have a vision of is not the reality, but the broad idea.

The idea of the Scottish Parliament is an unqualified positive. It has changed Scotland, how we think of ourselves and how we want to be governed. But because people follow little of the debates at Parliament they don’t know much about what it actually does.

The reality of the Scottish Parliament’s actions is that it hasn’t directly done that much to change Scotland – in its decisions or debates. And nor is it where political power can be found.   

Not one debate in the Scottish Parliament’s existence has changed major policy. Sometimes the parliamentary arithmetic has moved things such as student tuition fees and free care for the elderly. And the Iraq war debate of 2003 was a considered, thoughtful debate.

This shows us that political power isn’t in the Parliament, but instead mostly sits with the Scottish Government in the areas in which it is competent. And so that we can understand how this came about, we have to look beyond the SNP’s actions in office.

The Scottish Parliament was the new institution grafted onto the public life of our nation in 1999. The old administrative centre, the Scottish Office, morphed into first, the Scottish Executive, then, the Scottish Government.

This meant that the new democratic body had to assert itself, find its feet, and make its voice heard, winning reputation, friends and influence. It had to try to do so while all its main participants – Labour, Lib Dems, Tories and SNP – wanted to use it as a platform for maneouvres, to show up opponents, and for a bit of grandstanding.

Real decision making remained outwith the Parliament in the dense array of networks, alliances and connections which had administered Scotland pre-devolution around the Scottish Office and now became the activities of the Executive.

The Parliament as the new kid in the block had to challenge this state of affairs, and it was never in the interest of first the Labour-Lib Dem administration, then the SNP to do so.

This situation has got markedly worse under SNP majority government since 2011, but its origins can be found much earlier.

Now it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Parliament is an empty talking shop, devoid of power, purpose, or even the theatre and drama which livens up Westminster.

A new wave of centralisation and standardisation is occurring across public life which is being driven by the need for significant cost savings as future Tory cuts come down the line. This will increase the hold and reach of the Scottish Government and its assorted agencies.

Is this really a future we are content with and have trust in, and shouldn’t we at least debate this? Already the problems of centralisation and lack of local control have become evident in the creation of Police Scotland and various decisions made about policing which haven’t been given adequate parliamentary or public scrutiny.

Scotland is already one of the most centralised countries in Western Europe – with 32 local councils and a population of 5.3 million. If we adopted the EU average number of councils per head, Scotland would have over between 800-900 councils – small, community focused, accessible units of governance.

That shift won’t happen, but we have to be aware of the increasing concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands, and in the Scottish Government.

Do we really want a future Scotland with a powerful Scottish Government which has sucked up lots of power and responsibility from public life, with very little else, Parliament included, acting as a counter-weight?

That is not a very attractive or dynamic picture of Scotland, or one that is very democratic. If the SNP’s vision of independence as ‘the full powers of the Parliament’ were realised that would mean that in practice a large part of it would be about more power and reach for the Scottish Government.

Democracy, and even, independence, should be about more about than that. Shouldn’t Scotland wake up from its slumber and realise that the Parliament which excited so many hopes and dreams, which made people campaign for a ‘new politics’, has fallen asleep and atrophied? This might even aid our politicians, democracy and the decisions made in our name.