Sunday, 9 September 2012

Avant?

Tomorrow is my birthday and on that day I will reach an age denied to either of my parents.

Whether for that reason or others, I have been a rather melancholy and reflective mood all week.

Such a milestone would of course cause anybody to do a bit of looking back. At what they are happy has happened in their life and what, given the opportunity again, they would have done differently.

At a personal level, that's hardly the subject matter for a public airing but of course, for me, to dig out a slogan from my distant past, the personal is also political.

Last Saturday, the Parliament Channel ran again the BBC Coverage of the February 1974 General Election. That was the last election which I observed without actually being a member of the Labour Party. Even then, and certainly since then, politics, and particularly Labour Party politics, has been my life.

From the perspective of personal ambition I would certainly have done some things differently, not least in heeding the advice of those more predisposed to my own best interests than I, in the heat of battle, perceived them to be at the time. But in terms of the causes I have fought for, I have few regrets. Yet, in terms of the battle with which I am most associated, the struggle for a Scottish Parliament, I am increasingly coming round to the view that, in terms of the hope I, and many others had for it, it has been little short of an unconditional failure.

I want to examine, in turn, each of the arguments that I myself made from 1979 to 1997.

Firstly, there was the lawyers argument, that it was absurd that Scotland was the only place in the world with its own legal system without its own legislature. Of course what we have now is an improvement in theory but as you see the blundering about within that system, at the behest of special interest, by those who start and appear willing throughout the process to remain, in possession of only the most tenuous grasp of the issues they are meant to be considering, you really do wonder whether that theoretical improvement justifies the cost involved.

We saw this, for example, in the bizarre episode where warrant sales were abolished, leaving Scotland, for eighteen months as the only advanced democracy where there was no diligence against corporeal moveable assets. The consequence was of course that those with no other assets, the poor, couldn't get any (legal) credit. As the Parliamentarians were warned at the time. Far from helping the most disadvantaged, the only gainers were those who did not rely on legal process to recover their debts. The outcome?  Warrant sales were quietly brought back by a different title and all those involved in this lamentable episode sworn to a pact of silence. We're now seeing the same with mortgage repossessions.  It's all very well sympathising with those unable to pay their mortgage but if you make it almost impossible for the lenders to get their money back, as has been done by the Home Owner and Debtor Protection (Scotland) Act 2010, is it any wonder they'll be reluctant to lend to any "risky" cases in future? Who gains from that. Certainly not those trying to get a first mortgage. And who loses, certainly not the banks who will find safer investments elsewhere but rather those at the bottom intent on moving up. I confidently predict this is another piece of legislation that will quietly be reversed in the near future.

And as for what is now proposed for the Criminal Justice system? Corroboration, an essential and distinctive part of Scots Law since time immemorial, is to be swept away in its entirety by a momentary whim and without any evidence, other than a few loud voices, demanding such a radical step. Can I ask the simple question as to why, other than in relation to crimes where corroboration might be difficult to obtain, this is being even considered? We used to be proud of the fact that miscarriages of justice were much rarer in Scotland than in England & Wales. Has nobody paused to think why that might be the case?

Of course it's not the theory but the practice that's the issue here. But that is going to be my recurring theme.

And with that I turn to the argument that devolution meant greater local democracy. Of course it is better that decisions, when that's appropriate, are made in Edinburgh than in London. But it would also be better, where that's appropriate, that decisions should be made in Glasgow, or Dundee, or Inverness rather than in Edinburgh. Instead, since devolution we have seen a steady move towards centralisation. Not just in the effective abolition of local revenue raising and in the abolition of local police and fire services but in the micro prescription of central Scottish Office/Executive/Government standards on local authorities through statutory provision, making things mandatory, rather than suggesting them in a manner which, on cause shown, can be adapted to local circumstance. And, at the same time, local government has remained totally unreformed by the additional layer of governance arising from devolution. Outwith the Cities, neither large enough to challenge Holyrood in any meaningful way, nor small enough to be truly local. Doing anything about this is however dismissed as "too difficult" so the easy option is to do nothing. It's not that the powers aren't there, it's that there is no enthusiasm for using them.

And then there's the question of the Parliament itself. It might be easier to get to Holyrood than to Westminster but the flummery and security that surrounds the Scottish Parliament itself runs wholly contrary to what was envisaged back in the days of the campaign. It seems almost designed to give the elected members a feeling that they might be above the common herd but since they designed it, or at least acquiesced in it, one can only assume that's how they feel. It certainly isn't the Citizens' Parliament that we envisaged back in the days of all these draughty halls.

And again, the problem is not the theory, it's the practice. All this could be swept away in an afternoon. Instead, our elected representatives have decided to build a new, more exclusive, "Security Canopy"!

Which leads me more generally on to the issue of public service reform. What, above all, was the Scottish Parliament allegedly created for? To find Scottish solutions to Scottish problems. Now, let's just think about this logically. The Parliament inherited a public sector landscape bequeathed to it by Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Michael Forsyth. While in England the period 97-99 saw various reforming initiatives by the incoming Labour Government, quite rightly, after the Referendum vote the feeling was that reform should await the actual arrival of the Scottish Parliament. But when it did arrive did it set about that task? Not for even a moment. Instead,  it was concerned primarily with protecting the institutional legacy inherited from the Tories, albeit with more money to spend. Suddenly the status quo, Michael Forsyth's status quo (!) was deemed to be the epitome of the Scottish social democratic consensus. It was nothing of the sort. It was just the status quo. But nonetheless the only thing that was to be done to it was that more money was to be spent on those who worked within it. Teachers were paid more without any meaningful commitment to changed working methods. So were Health Service workers. So were those working in Local Government. and the Universities.. Even the one meaningful change, in public sector housing, was only got through by creating the fiction that it was being forced upon us from outside. Tony Blair might have acquired scars on his back but nobody in the Scottish Government was of a mind to take that risk.

Now this, for the first eight years and for the avoidance of any doubt was entirely the fault of the Labour Party and its deference to vested interest. But when the SNP came along, sure, they offered one really big change. Pending its arrival however they offered little or nothing else. And now that the money's running out they cling ever tighter to that one big change. Increasingly however, even then, their argument is not that this change is needed  so that anything will be different but rather it is needed as a "guarantee" that it can all remain the same! As it was under Michael Forsyth.

In this regard it is only right that I should say something about welfare reform. I am in favour of the complete devolution of welfare expenditure. Always have been. It would greatly assist the economic initiatives I deal with below. But is there anybody who seriously thinks that Scotland does not have a welfare dependency problem? That too many people are content to live hopeless lives in hopeless circumstances and that this neither good for society nor, at least as importantly, good for these people themselves. The changes to medical eligibility for Employment Support Allowance (as opposed to it's means-testing) may be being implemented by the Tories and (thanks to ATOS)  implemented with an unacceptable combination of ruthlessness and incompetence but they are changes legislated for by the last Labour Government! The Universal Credit, Iain Duncan Smith's unique initiative, is in fact a change welcomed in principle if not in the manner of its proposed implementation, by most agencies working in the field of family poverty. The change from DLA to PIP actually anticipates an increase in expenditure albeit not always to the same recipients. Yet the position of the Nationalists and of Labour's Holyrood group at least, appears to be, that if the Scottish Parliament had control of welfare expenditure, not that these changes would be happening differently, but rather that they would not be happening at all! The SNP have at least got the fiction that, merits aside, at least money will be bubbling out of the North Sea to pay for this. But us? No idea.

But at least that's not something currently devolved. As regards everything else, look at how much the private sector experience has changed since 1999. Tesco doesn't sell the same products in the same looking stores; the internet has transformed buying everything from music, to flights, to car insurance; eating out is a much more diverse, if not neccessarily cheaper experience. Choice is everywhere. Certainly people in Scotland are, probably, more committed to direct public provision than those in England. But to suggest that they, uniquely, wish it delivered in  a totally monlithic manner defies logic. Indeed, it presumes they would welcome the nationalisation of Tesco or Ryanair or the Gulistan in Kilsyth.. Yet monolithic provision is still all that largely is on offer in the Scottish public sector. That's not a Scottish solution. It's no solution.

Which leads me on to the other side of the equation. Devolution was meant to help economic development. Well, that's not happened either. Again the blame can be spread around. In 2001, Wendy published a strategy document "Smart, Succesful, Scotland." And, eh, that's it. A year later she was gone from the front bench. She was initially replaced by Iain Gray, which was, in itself, an indication of the priority Labour gave to the issue. Then, post 2003, it was downgraded further by being handed as a sinecure to the Liberal Democrats. Post 2007 there was a brief chink of light when Jim Mather, the first person since Wendy with something to actually contribute,  arrived on the scene. However, although he toured the country strong on analysis, he was short on actual proposals this side of independence. Whether that was his doing or dictated by the need to stick to a script written by others, in 2011 he left the Parliament altogether. Whereupon entered Alex Neil, a man who didn't have a clue what to do this side of Independence or beyond but at least, in post, solved a Party management problem for Eck. And then, finally, last week, we got Nicola, who's been given the job but only as her second responsibility.

Here's what was meant to happen. Devolved Parliament's can't create economic growth. Indeed, small sovereign Parliaments can't do so either. In the global age, even large sovereign Parliaments struggle to do so in isolation. Ask Mitterand. And no Government, small, large sovereign or subsisduary has ever created a single private sector job. They can only create the conditions which enable others to do so.

Here, I want to talk about a city, Modena, in my favourite country, Italy.

Italy's economic history is too broad a subject to discourse upon here. Suffice to say, beyond unification and through to the end of the Second World War, Italy was never in the first division of European economies. It lacked natural resources and although it had a number of major private sector employers, most notably Fiat and Olivetti, until the fifties, they, and even more Italy's SMEs, were targeted towards a domestic, or, in the case of the SMEs, local clientele. And then that all changed.

I want only to deal with one example of as to how. Modena.

Modena lies in the Emilia Romagna, the region of Italy lying between Lombardy and Milan to the North and Tuscany and Florence to the South. At the start of the fifties it was essentially an agrarian economy. But each of the large Cities had a local artisan community and in Modena these artisans were engaged primarily in the production of ceramic tiles. So, if you were in Bologna or Parma or Piacenza, you knew that. But if you were in Milan, or Rome or certainly in Palermo, you only had the vaguest idea. And if you were north of the Alps you had no idea at all.

And yet in the 1950s something remarkable happened. Modena became the principal supplier of ceramic tiles to all of Europe. How? Because the local authorities realised they had something they could take to market. They established, by generic marketing, throughout Italy and then throughout Europe, the idea of the excellence of their product; they anticipated the demand for skilled labour to meet demand by working with the local technical colleges and for white collar salespeople and the rest by working with the universities; they bypassed the sclerotic Italian legal system by creating a local system of arbitration; they provided on the ground, trusted and competent assistance in new markets; and they allowed the market to do it's work with innovation in design or manufacture delivering  temporary advantage for a particular producer before it was copied or leapfrogged by a  local competitor.

And because not of Modena but of twenty, fifty Modenas: In Parma, farm machinery; in Piacenza, pumps and storage equipment; in Milan, on a much larger scale, fashion and design. Because of their collective initiative, in the 1960s the European Country which enjoyed the greatest economic growth was not industrial powerhouse Germany, or ultra cool Sweden; nor, certainly, not, the "white heat" economy of Harold Wilson. It was Italy, albeit from a lower base.

Now the visionaries of Modena and elsewhere did not create that economic boom, they simply positioned themselves to exploit it. And they did not a single thing that could not have been done by a devolved Scottish Government. Yet hasn't been.

And before I move on, I need make one further observation. Today, you don't buy tiles from Modena. For in time they were undermined on price; first by the Spanish then by the Chinese. The solution however was not protectionism or simply grievance. It was to find a new product for a more affluent market: Balsamic vinegar. Go and have a wee look in your kitchen.

Wendy could see that Scotland's industrial future did not lie in trying to artificially preserve heavy lifting  labour intensive industries whose very first world labour costs would inevitably make them uncompetitive in world markets. It was in picking not individual companies but industrial sectors where Scotland already had an excellence and then helping them market to the world. And it lay in realising many of these sectors: bioscience;  vocational education; engineering design, coupled the simple ability to speak the world's language, English, could only be fully exploited by investment in superfast broadband, for the world wide web was as important a resource to the future economy as the new sub-alpine tunnels had proved to the tile exporters of 1950s Modena.

But, yet again, none of this ever happened. The problem was not the theory but the practice.

And (nearly finished) whatever happened to Wendy? She chucked it. Like Sam Galbraith, and Susan Deacon and Angus McKay and Cathy Jamieson and Margaret Curran and Brian Fitzpatrick. Sure, some of them lost their seats but they showed no interest in coming back. Any more than did Andrew Wilson or Duncan Hamilton or, dare I say it, Jim Mather. Or various other reasonably articulate Tories or Liberal Democrats. Even Eck, having come back after a sabbatical did so for the supposed purpose of securing an Independence Referendum, or at least of being First Minister. There is little reason to think he'd hang aboot once that was over, one way or the other, any more than did Jack.

I used to say that a Parliament in Edinburgh would attract a new generation of politicians looking to serve here and unattracted by Westminster. Instead we have an elected assembly of 129 of whom perhaps 50 can even make the sort of extempore speech expected of a first year trainee in my line of work. Again all the Parties are to blame to here and in the unlikely eventuality I was ever the leader of a Parliamentary Party I do not underestimate the value of lobby fodder. But back, again, in all the draughty halls of the 1980s, it wasn't intended to be like this. The committees were intended to be filled with people certainly of convinced Party allegiance but also of independent mind. Instead, it is difficult to think of a single example of a committee, in 13 years, requiring a serious rethink by the governing party, even on supposedly non-partisan legislation.

So, again the the problem is not the theory but the practice.

And that, before the witching hour arrives, leads to my final and most serious complaint.

I didn't get elected to the Scottish Parliament but I've been in the fortunate position of still having a decent day job. Not long after the 1999 Election I dealt with what had eventually become a freeing for adoption. It involved a wee boy who had gone to school aged five and palled up with another kid, as you do. One day, perhaps a month in, nobody turned up to pick this kid up from school but his pal's mum was there and after a bit of discussion it was established that he lived just round the corner. So the pal's mum took him back to his house. Only there was no-one to answer the door. So she took him back to her own house where, after checking there was still no answer at his door, she gave him his tea. By now, it was getting late so the woman phoned the Social Work department for advice but they advised her that since by now it was 7pm no social workers could reasonably be expected still to be at work at that ungodly hour and she would need to phone the Police. Which she did.

And they went to the wee boy's house and found both his parents insensible through smack. So the kid gets taken into care overnight although, the papers revealed, he was returned the next morning as the family social worker was "unavailable".

And later that same day the father of the wee boy went to the door of the woman who had taken in his child and given him his tea, and told her that if she ever brought the Police to his door again, her own, five year old, child would be sorry.

Now, that happened in, perhaps, 2001. But would it be any less likely to happen today? One suspects that in the meantime the only change would be that the unavailable social worker would have been given a substantial pay increase.That's the real failure of the Scottish Parliament.
 
And that's where, in the real world, the practice has not matched the theory.

Happy Birthday to me.












4 comments:

  1. It does often seem that the real appeal of independence is that it will prevent change. But this is undesirable, and impossible.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ian. Great piece if a tad elegiac. Remember our Italian friend - pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will!

    ReplyDelete