Thursday, July 2, 2015

Question Devolution

     In recent times, it has become in vogue in British politics to talk about the need for political and constitutional reform. This particularly means the devolution of political power from the UK Parliament at Westminster to other governing administrations within the UK – namely the devolved governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, as well as local council areas and regions within those areas and England, the largest part of the Union.

     With regard to Scotland in particular, politicians both nationalist and pro-union from all parties are of the opinion that more powers need to be exercised by the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood in isolation from the rest of the UK. For nationalists, they see devolution as another stage towards their ultimate goal of breaking up Britain, but both they and some pro-union politicians use similar language about how Scotland needs more powers to provide Scottish solutions to Scottish problems, and improve outcomes in critical areas such as health and education. Indeed, one of the sentiments expressed here is that policies in Scotland are better made by the people of Scotland.

     This is a fair sentiment to hold, but it ignores the reality that issues that affect Scots are issues that affect all Britons throughout the United Kingdom. As much as there may be issues better decided by the people of Scotland through their elected representatives in Edinburgh alone, there are also matters that may be better decided on a UK-wide basis by the British people as a whole (including Scots) through their elected representatives in London.

     Some politicians and commentators – particularly the nationalist sort – will go on to say that “left-wing” Scotland and “right-wing” England are so different (and drifting apart) politically and culturally that Scotland must be able to decisions for itself in isolation from the rest of the UK in order to reflect the values and aspirations of the Scottish people.

     Not only are such claims of vast Anglo-Scottish differences questionable to say the least, but it must be said that the MP’s elected to the UK Parliament are there to represent the interests of the UK as a whole in conjunction with the interests of their local constituents. Attempting to break British MP’s down to being English or Scottish (with regard to how they vote on issues or their political philosophies) and to say that the Scots and English are monolithically and irreconcilably different in their socio-economic outlook risks pitting the constituent parts of the UK against each other. This ought to be avoided – especially by those who want the UK to stay together – lest it lead to unhelpful perceptions and stereotypes that put the Union at risk.

     There is no problem in acknowledging and celebrating the differences amongst the peoples in the United Kingdom, for there is strength in diversity that can actually lead to bringing the British people together, just as has been done for over 230 years in the United States with 50 states and various nationalities and ethnicities. These differences however, need not be politicized and over-hyped to the extent of driving wedges and dividing people against each other, which gnaws away at the fabric of the Union.

     There are no differences amongst the peoples of the UK that cannot be overcome by the bonds – political, social, cultural, and economic – which bind them together as one. Indeed, there are such things as British values and British aspirations which are derived from the UK’s constituent parts and reflected by its people.

     This does not necessarily mean that there should not be devolution at all, but it certainly should not be done in a way that shreds the critical relationships and structures that allow for all parts of the UK to have an active part in the governing of the country and its political system, or indeed, the ability of the UK Government to govern the UK in its entirety.

     You see, so long as Scotland remains part of the UK, the UK Government must be able to have the tools at its disposal to make the Union work, which means that it must continue to have substantial responsibility over matters such as trade and commerce, fiscal and monetary policy, and lawmaking and law enforcement within the UK. Some of these responsibilities can be shared with the devolved administrations and even local councils, so that each level of government within the United Kingdom has its own ability to set taxes, make laws, and do other things within certain parameters that respect the authority and competence of each level.

     Piecemeal and ad hoc devolution based on what is thought to be “necessary” for one part of the country at a particular time may have been well-intended, but to some degree, it has proven detrimental to the strength of the Union and has not necessarily led to better or more efficient outcomes for those particular areas.

     For example, university tuition fees have been abolished in Scotland on the basis that it helps those with the fewest resources, who come from the lower strata of society. However, in terms of university entry rate amongst such people, Scotland lags behind England, Northern Ireland, and Wales. According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), England – with tuition fees – has an entry rate nearly two times greater than that of Scotland for those in the poorest quintile of the population. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that according to the Scottish Funding Council, only 6.7% of poor Scots attain the average exam grades required to earn a university place.

     Furthermore, the Scottish Government’s own survey on literacy amongst Scotland’s students (which was taken in May 2014 and released in April 2015) have revealed that literacy rates have fallen, and this is especially pronounced amongst pupils in the second year of secondary education (S2) from the most deprived backgrounds, where only 41% were performing well or very well in writing and 55% in reading.

     Given that education has been completely devolved to Holyrood since 1999 and that the SNP has been in government since 2007, it is an indictment against how education has been handled in Scotland in recent years. For some of the people I have come to know, the Scottish education system has not been served well under an SNP government that needs to do more (after eight years in office) to get more young people into higher education, but appears more interested in showing how different it is to the English system, even if the English system may produce better results, and therefore can provide at least some food for thought for what can be done in Scotland.

     In health – another critical area where Holyrood (not Westminster) has control, and where the SNP has been in charge of for eight years – real-term spending on the NHS rose by only one percent between 2009-2010 and 2015-2016, in contrast to the budget-cutting in Westminster that has seen a real-term rise in health spending in England to the tune of 6% in the same period, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

     Given that the mechanisms of the Barnett formula (which mean that whenever spending changes in England (for any department), it changes by a proportionate amount for the devolved administrations in the rest of the UK), it would stand that health spending would also go up in Scotland as well. But Holyrood is under no obligation to following in tandem with the spending decisions south of the Tweed when it receives the block grant from the UK Treasury. It could have spent an additional 5% on the NHS, but appear to have chosen not do to so, and instead spent the money elsewhere, like the “free” university tuition, “free” prescriptions, and the council tax freeze – all of which arguably and disproportionately benefit those who have the means to pay for them, while doing little for those most in need.

     Several of my friends and acquaintance in Scotland have spoken about long waiting times at the NHS, run-arounds with various doctors, and delays with getting treatments and surgeries. Now to be fair, it would be a mistake to continuously blame the SNP for all of these things. For example, it may well be as the BBC's Nick Robinson pointed out that spending for the Scottish NHS may be historically higher than in England (including before devolution), and that England is merely catching up. Nevertheless, it does appear that any budget cutting is due to the actions of the Scottish Government, and it is therefore disingenuous to blame the UK Government for their own problems with the NHS in Scotland, particularly with regard to missing their own targets for improving A&E waiting times.

     Again, this is not to say that powers should not be devolved absolutely, but rather that it should not happen so hastily, carelessly, and without thinking if it is really necessary or otherwise good for Scotland, for if the constitutional debates are about what is best for Scotland, should there not be a vigorous debate on the merits on the devolution of power – especially with regard to how devolved power has already been used (or not)? If it is natural to question the very existence of the UK, or at least the its constitutional structures, then there should also be questions about the devolution of political power, for it may not always lead to better results. (It is probably for this reason that Scottish Green Party co-convener Patrick Harvie, a supporter of independence, has spoken out against the SNP's policy of achieving Full Fiscal Autonomy for Holyrood.)

     It is for this reason that devolution must be questioned at every stage, as opposed to being meekly accepted as an all-around good thing, and also why changing fundamental constitutional and political structures within the UK must be decided upon by all of the UK, for changing the machinery of the constitution in one part of the UK will have effects on the rest of the UK. This is why myself and others have been advocating for a constitutional convention to settle these matters of British governance, for the current model of piecemeal and ad hoc devolution results in a never-ending merry-go-round, in which one part of the UK receives a devolved power, and another part wonders why it doesn’t receive the same treatment. Such a constant rearranging of the constitutional jigsaw puzzle – almost living in a crisis by crisis scenario – does not bode well for good governance, and threatens to upset the stability of the Union.

     A convention would help to establish the powers and competencies of each level of government in the UK, as well as parameters that allow for the mutual respect of such competencies. Some responsibilities may be exclusive and reserved to a certain level of government, and others jointly shared. This points to federalism, which preserves a strong central government to handle matters and issues that require government action for the whole of the country – something which tends to get forgotten in the drive for devolution while also featuring significant powers for the federated entities to do their own thing within a federal framework.

     But even if federalism is not the result of such a convention, the aim should be to at least provide a forum on what the British people as a whole want and expect in terms of their governing arraignments. It would be up to the people, with due and careful consideration and debate, to decide on the matter of which powers are better handled by, or otherwise require the action of, the central government. From here, there would be decisions on the powers of the devolved administrations and local government.

     Not everyone will agree – the members of the US Constitutional Convention certainly did not – but an effort ought to be made to forge some kind of settlement for the United Kingdom going forward that promotes stability, fairness, and the idea that the Union can be made more perfect.

     That would be a hell of a lot better than the seemingly constant and almost unquestioned flow of devolution, which as Tam Dalyell observed, runs the hazard of leading to the breakup of Britain. The people living there – from the most powerful politician to the postman – can and must do better, if for nothing else than the greater good and general welfare of all.

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