Devolution: The invisible disaster

Over the weekend I thought of starting a podcast in the style of Alistair Cooke’s Letter from AmericaA Letter from Edinburgh. To explore the possibility I wrote a pilot episode. And the conclusion of that pilot? I won’t do it. Producing a five minute recording each week would wipe me out and I’m not sure I’d be any good at it in the long run. But just for the record here is the text of that pilot episode.

Good evening.

I can’t remember actually casting my vote in the referendum on Scottish Devolution. At the time I was a relatively recent immigrant to Edinburgh – having arrived from England just three years earlier, in 1994.

I’m sure I did vote and, along with 75% of the electorate voted for the establishment of a Scottish Parliament. I recall sitting in my rented room reading the debates in the Scotsman – a newspaper that, even then, wasn’t what it used to be.

A lot has happened in the intervening decades. I found work and a wife, made a home and raised a family. I’m sure there are many Scots for whom the last two decades have been much tougher. The financial crash of 2008 being a major setback for many – but that had little to do with Scottish politics and a lot to do with financial regulation over which Scotland has little sway.

In this context UK PM Boris Johnson’s recent remark that “devolution North of the Border had been a disaster” was met with much bemusement not only by your correspondent but probably the majority of the Scots – if they were even paying attention.

That the leaked comments were a political gaff is not in contention. Both the PM and a phalanx of spokesmen sought to clarify his remarks saying he had meant the Scottish National Party administration was the actual disaster not the democratic principle of devolved powers. 

There are Scottish Parliamentary elections in less than six months time and the Scottish Conservatives are very keen to prevent the SNP doing well yet again. Having their UK leader imply the very institution they are asking to be elected to is a disaster is a gift to their opponents in all parties.

The new leader of the Conservatives in Scotland, Douglas Ross, was interviewed by Garry Gibbon for Channel 4 News sitting on the banks of the Thames in London. From the Scottish perspective the symbolism of the setting is powerful. Although leader of the Conservatives IN Scotland Ross clearly is not in Scotland but in London. He’s London’s man. A neutral venue for the interview would have been wiser.

Being keen to distance himself from Johnson’s remarks whilst simultaneously not being disloyal to his party leader put Ross on a sticky wicket. His opening didn’t go well. He said that devolution was not the problem but the people who held the power at the moment were the problem. 

This makes sense from an Westminster point of view where the government effectively holds all the power, but it is long held in Scotland that the parliament and people hold the power. This Claim of Right goes back to 1689 but was invoked as recently as September last year, 2019, to contest PM Johnson’s prorogation (or suspension) of parliament. In a more prosaic way for 17 of the last 21 years the Scottish government has been a minority in parliament and had to govern with the consent of other parties. A situation that is very different from Westminster. Ross’s interview won’t have won him any new voters in Scotland and it is more voters in Scotland that he needs.

Johnson’s disaster comments spawned many articles in the predominantly pro-union press largely agreeing that the succession of very popular SNP governments have been a disaster even if devolution has not.

One of the prime facts quoted is that in 2018 Scotland scored worse in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) than it did 20 years ago and most notably slightly worse than England.

Having put two children through the state education system during this precise time period and been left with the impression that education in Scotland was rather good I thought I’d look into those figures.

The PISA scores have dropped but Scotland is over all average for OECD countries. If education is a disaster in Scotland it is a disaster in Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and other such countries. 

England is chosen as a comparator because Wales and Northern Ireland fare about average too. Wales is run by a Labour administration whilst Northern Ireland is run by a mandatory coalition that is dominated by allies of the Conservatives in England.

The school system in Scotland is based on the “Curriculum for Excellence” framework that was introduced in 2010 with the support of all political parties and teaching unions as well as the majority of parent groups. It, and its results, are therefore very widely owned. An attack on it can be felt as an attack on educators in general rather than on the SNP.

The disaster the pro-union politicians are talking about is invisible to most people in Scotland and just feels like an attack on the way things are done here. If they are to change the direction of public opinion here they are going to have to talk about things people can actually see or they will become increasingly irrelevant. The perceived irrelevance of the UK in day to day life is the true force moving the country closer to independence.


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