At a debate on The Purple Book last week, IAN MURRAY MP argued for greater decentralisation of the Scottish state.
I would like to start by reminding everyone that Labour achieved a great deal in government and that this shouldn’t be forgotten. A fundamental change in the country took place by the intervention of a Labour government using the state to reverse the underinvestment in our public services.
Some of this investment and modernisation was in order to decentralise power and there has to be a recognition that the power of the state delivers decentralisation, none more so than the last Labour government’s first piece of legislation: the Scotland Act, creating the Scottish Parliament. Decentralisation of the state at its most extreme form, despite the consequences that we are suffering now.
Douglas, in his chapter, briefly touches on the various accounts on the reasons for Labour’s heavy defeat in 2010 but interestingly relates it to a wider demise of the centre-left across Europe. He places the blame on the global financial crisis which damaged “the electoral position of the centre-left much more than the centre-right.” But I do feel that the role of the state has little or nothing to do with the Labour government’s demise.
The current European fiscal crisis illustrates the importance of states working together to set consistent economic principles to form the basis of a sustainable recovery and climb back to growth. We need our member states to create a return to prosperity by allowing nations to take charge of their own affairs through an agreed framework, allowing local and national decisions to be as effective as possible without compromising the overall direction of an aspirational Europe.
It’s only through a powerful state, keen to share that power with national, regional and local institutions that we can ever effectively de-centralise power.
And if I may, I will stick with the Scottish perspective for the moment as it demonstrates an interesting angle on the state issue.
The UK government set up a mechanism for building a strong consensus across the whole of Scotland for a Scottish parliament. Politicians, civic scotland, business, charities and the like came to the table to make it work. This was the state facilitating the local to deliver a decentralising agenda.
But look what’s happened now. The devolved Scottish Parliament has, in many ways recently, not led by this decentralised example and has been fundamentally changing the relationship between the state and the people of Scotland on a centralising agenda. Let me give you some examples:
The freezing of the Council Tax removed the ability for local authorities and local councillors to raise their own revenues and, therefore, the accountability of the local to their local politicians.
The Single Outcome Agreements dictated to local authorities by the Scottish state on what they were to deliver, when, in what form and with what resources.
These 2 examples have, in my view, squeezed the lifeblood out of local authorities in favour of the state and a centralising, controlling agenda.
And, as Paul Brant suggests in his chapter, the best way of delivering responsive services is at the closest level to the public. He is quite clear that since 1997, Labour has been seen as a party of top-down public services with a major “centralising tendency.” They believe that to move forward, we must reject the “top-down” perspective and show more trust in the abilities of local government and hand them the power which can transform peoples’ lives. But this has not happened in Scotland under the SNP.
Edinburgh Council also gives an interesting perspective. For years there were meetings and debates about Neighbourhood Partnerships. They were supposed to be a mechanism for devolving power to local communities. It had been trialled with Environmental Forums where local communities got the opportunity to spend real money by identifying environmental projects in the area and implementing the improvements. This gave real power to local people for the benefit of the local community. However, Neighbourhood Partnerships were never given any noticeable funds to spend and the power was sucked back up to the centre as quickly as it was dissolved. Local communities went from warmly welcoming the idea to disengaging from it. If you devolve power you must devolve the resources.
I’d like to finish by making two points central to this debate:
Though decentralisation of power to local communities is and should always be an aspiration, it needs to be backed by sufficient resources and not left to communities to provide services for free in the place of fair public sector provision.
When we achieve effective decentralisation, the state needs to be robust in its authority to be able to protect any institutional or organisation with devolved power. Decentralisation doesn’t mean a weak state, government or parliament. It means that we can see our services delivered at a level which best reflects the needs of our constituents.
Ian Murray is the Labour MP for Edinburgh South. Follow him on Twitter at @IanMurrayMP.
Ian Murray was speaking at ‘The Purple Book: Should we leave the big state behind?’ debate organised by Progress on Friday 18 November in Edinburgh.