Where will the new ideas for Scotland’s public services come from?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, June 19th 2019

Scotland seems to be at an uneasy, calm place at the moment. The storm clouds are gathering on the horizon yet still seem distant – from the threat of Brexit and even worse the car crash of a No Deal Brexit – to the expected arrival of Boris Johnson as Tory leader and UK PM, while alongside this the Scottish Government demands that the UK Government listens to it on Brexit, so far to no avail, and considers how to progress a second independence referendum.

At the same time the Scottish Parliament has turned twenty. This milestone offers the chance to assess where we are, and the impact of devolution over the past two decades. For one, Scotland has been blessed by an absence of the fragmented, divided public services which exist in large parts of England, and which have seen, for example, huge sections of the NHS given over to private providers such as Virgin Healthcare and US health care companies.

Yet much of Scotland’s policy journey over the past two decades has been by default: by choosing not to do what England has done. This is namely the road of corporate capture of public services, marketisation, outsourcing, and continual reorganisation: a pattern evident under New Labour in England and continued by the Tories. Significant sections of Scotland rightly take pride from the fact that we have mostly resisted this approach, but it still begs the question: what are the big achievements and landmarks of public services in Scotland these past two decades?

If we look across public services here – whether education, health, criminal justice, local government – we can increasingly see for all the undoubted commitment and good work serious shortcomings, services being strained, posts not being filled, and official targets not being met. Education standards have declined, Scotland has fallen down the PISA rankings, and across numerous measurements, from literacy and numeracy to social justice, we are going backwards. Similarly, across the NHS, we see increasing staff shortages, rising waiting lists, and services sometimes running out of monies. None of this is good, but it is mostly not nearly as bad as the situation in England – with some schools having ‘black Fridays’ electricity shut-offs and closing, and many running out of essentials.

One common explanation offered for our state of affairs is that we are now suffering from nearly a decade of austerity at the hands of Westminster, administered (and ameliorated to an extent) by the SNP at Holyrood. Yet, there is also a Scottish home-based contribution to this state of affairs. There is a lack of obvious dynamism, innovation and fresh ideas inside the system and public services. Indeed, even more, increasingly public services are falling short in keeping up with the demands and expectations of the public, and failing in relation to the official public discourse of government and public agencies that promotes Scotland’s social contract, sense of solidarity, and degree of universalism, compared to the British Government.

Why should this be so after twenty years of Scottish devolution, allowing for the damage that austerity has undoubtedly done? The usual reasons offered for this in public are familiar ones. There is firstly the argument that the independence referendum and grip of constitutional politics has crowded out the energy and motivation to look at politics beyond this. Secondly, some cite the predominance of Scotland’s centre-left consensus which has by its influence excluded other ideas coming to the fore. And thirdly, there is the size question: whether small countries have enough capacity to innovate and champion new ideas and pluralism?

All of these reasons are either wrong or symptoms not causes. Scotland’s constitutional debate has been underway for the past fifty years, since the mid-1960s, while the limitations of Scotland’s public policy debates have been self-evident for at least the entirety of the post-war era. Hence, any crowding out of ideas by constitutional politics or the independence question, has only at most reinforced a pre-existing trend.

Similarly, there are numerous different expressions of size and small nations in the modern world. Long gone is the age of Empire when big was good. Many of the world’s most successful nation states: Norway, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, are small in size of population if not in impact.

As for the notion that Scotland’s centre-left consensus has somehow been a major obstacle to change that flies in the face of any evidence. For a start, most of the successful countries cited above are centre-left, and it also true that this view emerged at the height of New Labour when the Blairite sensibility was to dish conventional notions of what it meant to be left and centre-left. Hence, Scotland was seen as a problem and a backwater because it was resistant to such change as the Blairites wishes to diagnose.

If we think there is a problem, or if we want to frame it in the softer language of the need to do better, we need to look deeper than the usual answers. The reasons for our aversion to change and absence of new ideas can be found in our historical experience. First, the professional, managerial classes have kept greater control of public policy and services in Scotland. Second, is the role of such stakeholders in public services as the EIS in education and BMA in health who have maintained more influence and even prestige than down south.

Third, large parts of our public services are actually closed systems – whether it is in the supply of teachers or health professionals – from which competition, innovation and accountability to the public are at the minimum desensitised.

Fourth, Scotland’s professed centre-left values come into play not because they are centre-left, but because of their conservatism, lack of radicalism, and defensive nature. They have tended historically pre-devolution and since the advent of the Parliament to focus on maintaining the gains already made, looking after those in the system, and preventing the advance of English style marketisation.

Fifth, traditionally pre-devolution Scottish policy was dominated by the need to have a Scottish lobby – composed of elected politicians, trade unions and business groups – which tried to present a united national front to Westminster either to get more monies or prevent cuts and closures. This approach was phenomenally successful in the period 1945-79 when UK Governments had a sensitivity to Scottish pressure, but was less effective in the cold climate of Thatcherism. It also came at a cost: of encouraged conformity, lack of diversity, and corporate groupthink, along with discouraging dissenting voices from the prevailing consensus and a dependency of mindset on Westminster and largesse sorting out any problem. It takes a long time to move away from such an approach – given historically that it produced results.

Finally, the small size of the policy community has meant that fresh inputs have been marginal and that instead of new ideas they have tended to focus on the maintenance of the status quo. Many thought pre-Parliament that devolution would change this fundamentally, but it hasn’t. There are more public affairs and policy officers generally and in NGOs and other organisations, but it hasn’t contributed to the creation of a new ecology of how we do policy and ideas. One issue here must be the decline of the print media, another, with honourable exceptions, the relatively poor quality of politicians elected to the Scottish Parliament.

Aiding this last point has been the lack of independent think tanks and centres of public policy expertise. There are currently only two conventional think tanks – Reform Scotland and IPPR Scotland – both of which are small Scottish operations and neither of which have had a major impact. Previously, Scottish Council Foundation, underwritten by the business body, SCDI, was the nearest we had to a properly funded think tank but it too struggled for influence, and closed in 2007 when SCDI pulled the financial plug.

Conventional wisdom poses that the answer to this is more think tanks and, while that might help, there is a bigger issue. It can be seen in the fact that other ideas agencies such as NESTA, the Royal Society of Arts and Common Weal have also struggled to ferment original ideas and influence government.

In large part, the issue here is as much about how government and public agencies do policy and practice as it is about external agencies. The Scottish Government in how it thinks of policy and ideas has increasingly become a self-sustaining system, listening to, talking to, and referencing itself, in how it sees the world and draws up policy. This has been aided by its increasing propensity to command and control centralisation. And it can be seen in the fact that the biggest responder to Scottish Government consultations is, unsurprisingly, the Scottish Government: the system being a virtual self-reproducing closed system, which other institutional groups such as the STUC, SCVO or individual NGOs input into.

All of this leads to the big question: given the state of stasis and managing the status quo isn’t in the long run viable how can the above change? It isn’t sustainable because of demographics, pressures on public spending and pressures and limitations on taxation, and also limits to redistribution. Equally, rising public expectations for public services, for example, for more individualised, tailored services, the decline in deference and trust, and increasing questioning of authority, all point to popular pressure leading to change coming.

The challenge for Scotland’s future is to continue to resist the disastrous road of the fragmentation of England’s public services, but to map out an approach which is both honest and bold about the state of the public realm here – honest about the cost of austerity and that we can choose a different path, and bold – recognising that the cautious conservatism of the last two decades isn’t enough.

Increasingly, Scotland’s public services – despite the enormous commitment, passion and belief in public duty from hundreds of thousands of workers and professionals – are falling short in their professed aims to support, protect and enhance the lives of citizens. And at the same time we have to encourage new ideas and thinking about public services which encourage a more diversified, decentralist and less top-down approach that puts the people at the heart of our public services; the oft-cited Campbell Christie Commission being in retrospect a much missed opportunity in this.

When we look back at the present we will see it as the calm before the storm which will change so much: Brexit, Boris Johnson, as well as the forthcoming Alex Salmond trial – all of which will contribute to a dispensation where the status quo in the UK and within Scotland is weakened. This will be both an opportunity as well as a set of threats, and leads us to ask who can seize the mantle of Scotland’s changemakers beyond the constitutional question?