Nick Pearce Responds on Scotland, Labour and Devolution

Nick Pearce

Open Democracy, February 15th 2011

Gerry Hassan has written an insightful critique of a blog I posted last week following a trip to Edinburgh. He generously credits the IPPR with being unique amongst think-tanks in taking an interest in the world beyond Westminster through our series of publications, Devolution in Practice, and the creation of IPPR North. But he takes me to task for some of my observations and conclusions on Scottish politics.

I defer to Gerry’s greater knowledge and experience of these issues; mine is a view informed by far less insight and commitment than he possesses. But he is wrong to interpret my contribution as one designed to “shore up a discredited Labour politics north of the border.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, the conservatism of contemporary Scottish politics, expressed in different ways by the SNP, Labour and Liberal Democrats, is my first point of departure and concern. It ranks as one of the most pressing challenges the country faces, and it helps account for why Scotland has not witnessed a more extensive, enriching national renewal since devolution.

To take just one example: Scotland should have much stronger, participatory and high performing public services than it does. You do not have to be an unreconstructed uber-Blairite to believe that Scotland’s public services should achieve far more, given the resources they have had in the last decade. Reform debate has too often been inhibited by the Dutch auction between the political parties as to who can provide more “free” services to citizens, whilst policymaking and public administration remains dominated by professionals, civil servants and insider groups. That must change if Scotland is not to face rapidly declining public services when spending cuts bite.

Unlike Hassan, however, I do not believe that devolution was a project expressly designed to institutionalise and legitimise the “Labour state and nomenklatura who run Scotland”, as he puts it. It was a unionist project, to be sure, just as the Scottish people remain unionist in their expressed preferences.  But devolution has hitherto been a story of a relative loss of Labour control, since the party has either shared power or lost it within the proportional electoral systems under which Holyrood and now Scottish local government elections take place. Labour politicians might not like these electoral systems (and I know from personal experience just how opposed the majority of Scottish Labour MPs are to any shift to the Alternative Vote for the House of Commons) but they are certainly no longer able to sit atop one-party fiefdoms.

That may be too formalist for Hassan, since it does not capture the style, political practices and personnel of the “payroll state” politics he describes. And it is certainly true that a big part of the story of democratic reform in the UK since 1997 has been the transfer of power from one set of governing elites to another, as Vernon Bogdanor has argued. But to locate the main problem as one of the “patronage, preferment and clientalism” of Scottish Labour, and to equate these with the devolution project itself, is to miss the point, in my view. There are deeper factors and bigger forces at work – some of which I tried to sketch towards the end of my blog and which Hassan himself refers to en passant – which account for the lack of democratic and civic renewal in Scottish politics. Simply dumping it all at the door of Scottish Labour (or people like Jim Gallagher, for that matter) will not do.

For all that, I share Hassan’s commitment to a more democratic, pluralist and open-minded Scottish politics. So far from wishing Scottish politics “tidily [to] fit Westminster machinations”, my hope is that the backwash from progressive change in Scotland might influence London’s politics for the better. True, I skate over Scottish nationalism and the electoral prospects of the SNP too readily; that is a lacuna in my brief blog. But as things stand, and unless Alex Salmond can pull something dramatic out of the hat, the choice in May will be between a minority Labour administration and a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition. My argument is that pluralism in the UK as a whole is better served by the latter.

Nick Pearce is Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research