Where’s the big idea?
TOM HARRIS fears our obsession with the constitution has not served Scotland well
I recently read Andrew Adonis’s excellent book, “Education Education Education”, detailing the last Labour government’s attempts to reform the comprehensive schools system in England.
For many politically-minded Scots, any mention of the academies programme will provoke an impatient “tsk!” and a rolling of the eyes. Our antipathy towards such initiatives, including those described as “Blairite”, is based on two facts of Scottish political and civic life: we are an incredibly conservative nation (do I really need to add “with a small c”?), and we believe as an article of faith that there is virtually no problem facing our nation to which the solution is not “more money”.
In England, there is a huge ongoing debate about how the challenges of the 21st century – in health provision, education and welfare, to name but three – can be met, and how radical or innovative our approaches need to be.
But here in Scotland, any idea that we should actually change the structures of, say, the health service, are met with gasps of “Heretic!” Or, even worse, “Tory!” If it was good enough for Nye Bevan and for 1950s Britain, it’s good enough for us!
In education, we have managed to convince ourselves that we have the best secondary provision in the UK. Even if that’s true (and I have my doubts), that’s not a tremendously high bar. We still have too many under-performing schools, far too few working class pupils going to university, far too many unable properly to read and write when they leave school.
Were anyone, least of all Andrew Adonis, to suggest that the true potential of genuinely comprehensive education might be better achieved under a new structure – for example, academies free from local authority control and with private sector sponsorship and leadership – it would be met by howls of derision, most of which would emanate from Scotland’s conservative vested interests.
Meanwhile, the coalition government’s “reform” of welfare reform has been so appallingly implemented that it has given comfort to those whose only response to the immoral, shameful waste of human lives caused by welfare dependency has been: “Increase benefits.”
Where are the ideas? Where are the think tanks coming up with new, imaginative solutions? If they’re there, no-one’s listening to them.
Why? The depressing answer is that in Scotland, we have far more important things to focus on than silly little things like the future of the health service, the prospects of our kids or the future and purpose of the welfare state; we have the constitution to think about!
For the whole of my adult life, media, political and academic debate has been hijacked by the constitutional issue. Like a political black hole, its density and mass suck in everything around it, preventing even light escaping its gravitational force. Energy that should properly be used to create new ideas and new solutions are instead diverted into the constitutional navel-gazing to which the political class and media are addicted.
Scottish Labour shares responsibility. We could have tried harder to lead a debate about how devolution could be exploited for the benefit of the people. Instead, too often we found ourselves repeating the meaningless mantra that decisions taken closer to the people would be better for them, without pointing out that that would be true only if those decisions were the right ones.
In this respect, however, Scottish Labour has an advantage over our nationalist opponents. For (most of) us, devolution was never an end in itself; Donald Dewar’s dream was of a devolved Scotland, firmly within the UK but developing unique and radical policies that might even inspire the rest of the country once they were seen to succeed in Scotland. Devolution was nothing more than a vehicle by which we could deliver better policy solutions. Nationalists, on the other hand, however much they will deny it, see “independence” as the end result of their struggle. A bad decision made in Edinburgh is, they believe, better than a good decision made on our behalf by Westminster.
Scottish Labour, therefore, should feel more confident about developing new policy solutions for a devolved Scotland, solutions that, it’s to be hoped, will challenge rather than comfort the establishments of government – local, national or guango-ised.
Such solutions have been a long time coming. “More money” is a slogan, not a solution, and Scottish voters can see through it. They deserve more than that. They deserve a grown-up debate, a debate that opponents don’t try to close down by shouting abuse and in which participants’ motives are not deliberately misrepresented.
Imagine a devolved Scotland free from the obsession with “independence”; just think what we could achieve if we focused on real problems facing the Scottish people in the here and now. The SNP, by definition, cannot lead that debate because their imagined utopia depends on a major constitutional change which is unlikely to happen. Scottish Labour can, because the constitutional changes we campaigned for have already been achieved, with more to come.
That future is still within our grasp. Instead of wringing our hands at our well-deserved defeat last year and bemoaning the (admittedly real) dangers the SNP pose to Scotland, we can embrace devolution and its original purpose. We can – and should – transform the current dry, constitutional debate from a process story in which only the politically anoraked are interested into one about real people’s lives.
We still have time to prove that Donald did not dream in vain.
Tom Harris is the MP for Glasgow South and is a Shadow Environment Minister. Follow him on Twitter at @TomHarrisMP.