28/3/05 Conventional wisdom has it that the Scottish parliament is a waste of space, a costly irrelevance, which spends its time talking social work jargon, passing pointless politic ally-correct legislation, and handing anything controversial to Westminster under Sewell motions. Well, it turns out that this image is, as the Spectator Editor might put it, a towering pyramid of piffle. In this election, if it weren’t for the Scottish parliament, some parties would have very little to say for themselves.
Yesterday, the Liberal Democrats launched a UK manifesto which was a blatant lift from Holyrood. Their headline policies are free personal elderly care, abolition of student tuition fees, and council tax reform. These are being presented to English voters as an election-winning programme of radical new ideas. Well, not so new here.
It’s not just the Lib Dems - they’re all at it. Last week, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown announced - to much fanfare - that pensioners in England are to get free concessionary bus fares. Been there; done that. Only, in England the elderly will only get it off peak, whereas in Scotland it is near universal. Michael Howard has also been drawing heavily on the Scottish agenda. He wants to abolish student fees in England and the Tories are also looking at elderly care. Free eye and dental checks, currently going through the Scottish parliament, are also likely to migrate south in time.
Last week, the broadcaster Jeremy Paxman complained that England was being run by a Scottish “Raj”, and looking at the drift of legislation will no doubt fuel his paranoia. However, this has not come about because of some imperial annexation by the Scottish parliament. Rather, Scottish ideas are migrating south, it appears, because they seem to work. Relieved of responsibility for things like fighting wars, the Scottish parliament has had the time to do a lot of things which would never get a look in to the crowded Westminster schedules.
Truth be told, since the days of Section 28 (2A here) - abolished first in Scotland - Scotland has been used, consciously or unconsciously, as a kind of proving ground for UK legislation which was already in the pipeline. The abolition of fox hunting happened first in Scotland, in Mike Watson’s Protection of Wild Mammals bill. This has been widely panned for failing to stop the slaughter of foxes - but that was never the objective. It was to stop a particularly barbaric death being inflicted on these animals. The compromise seems to have worked.
The Scottish Parliament is legislating for a total ban on smoking in public places - including pubs and clubs. The home office has resisted a blanket proscription on the weed in England. But since the anomalies of a partial ban are already becoming apparent, the government is watching Scotland very closely.
Indeed, a lot of people in England are watching Scotland, which is increasingly regarded as a kind of next-door Scandinavia, where progressive ideas are flourishing. In “The Moral State We’re In” by Rabbi Julia Neuberger, Scotland is credited with pioneering progressive ideas in elderly care, family law and the protection of children.
The Adults with Incapacity Act passed, almost unnoticed, by the Scottish parliament five years ago, addressed issues about euthanasia and living wills which are only now arousing controversy south of the border. Scotland looked at the incitement to religious hatred long before England got round to it. Constitutional reformers have been impressed by the way Holyrood has introduced proportional representation and coalition government into mainland Britain for the first time in history. The extension of fair voting to local government is being watched very closely as is the reform of council tax.
Of course, the movement isn’t all one way. Since 1999 there have been almost as many Sewell motions, handing legislation back to Westminster, as there have Scottish bills. After the Section 2A row, the Scottish Executive fought shy of any “moral” legislation and handed civil partnership (“gay marriage” etc.) over to M’Lord Sewell’s device. Indeed, there has been a tendency for commentators to look at post-devolution Scotland and lament the narrow mindedness of the political culture here.
However, when it comes to narrow mindedness it is hard to beat this general election campaign. In England, the political agenda has been hijacked by immigration, abortion and attacks on gypsies. Imagine if the last Scottish election had been contested over such populist territory? People would no doubt have blamed devolution.
Holyrood is often attacked for being intellectually under powered. But it was the House of Commons which voted to go to war on the basis of intellectually dishonest dossiers claiming that Iraq had active weapons of mass destruction. Actually, as anyone who bothers to go to the Scottish parliament will tell you, the standards of debate have improved immeasurably.
So, why is it then that if you ask anyone in SCotland what the Scottish parliament has done, all they seem to think of is a heap of Lego at the foot of the Royal Mile? Well, the obvious answer is that sections of the Scottish press were always convinced that the parliament would fail and have dedicated themselves to proving they were right. But the malign media is only part of the problem.
It has to be said that the ministers who represent the new Scottish politics, and should be taking credit for its achievements, are not always its best salesmen. The Scottish Executive has acquired a downbeat and unimaginative image - a consequence of spending six years on the defensive. I don’t subscribe to the view that the lack of visionary leadership in Holyrood is a result of inherent defects in the Scottish political gene pool. Look how many Scots there are at the highest reaches of UK politics, Brown, Kennedy, Cook, Campbell (Ming that its not Alastair, though he does play the bagpipes), Darling etc etc.. Unfortunately, we could have done with a few of them back here.
The Scottish Parliament also opened up to scrutiny whole areas of Scottish life - from the Scottish Qualifications Agency to Labour constituency associations - which were previously hidden from view. The reality has been unattractive. There is a much greater understanding now of the inherent deficiencies in the Scottish economy. The shrinking population is no longer seen as inevitable. The performance of the Scottish health service has been subjected to relentless scrutiny and been found wanting.
It was always part of the mission statement of devolution to open up the subordinate state in Scotland and reform it. Unfortunately, in exposing the deficiencies of institutional Scotland, the Scottish Parliament has provoked another round of negative navel gazing and defeatism. There is anyway a tendency in Scotland not to take anything seriously unless it is happening in England. Hence the sometimes bizarre election coverage where policies of relevance only to England are given equal prominence in the Scottish press.
But if Scotland has trouble taking itself seriously, others don’t. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then this election should be giving Scots some cause for modest self-congratulation for successfully piloting the most important constitutional innovation in the UK in over a century. And coming up with a few good policy ideas too