I have been a fan of the Scottish Parliament since before we failed to get ourselves one in 1979. And, however sanctimoniously two-faced some parties my have been in opposing it and then using it to rescue themselves from well earned oblivion, that all political stripes of Scottish life are in there and arguing their corner speaks for democracy and to Scotland being mature enough to handle such diversity.
That said diversity does not currently stretch to the socialists can be blamed on their fractious nature (so ably lampooned in Life of Brian) or offer much hope to the BNP/UKIP right explained by the less xenophobic nature of the Scots. And the definition of ‘Scots’ can be as loose as you like. In the decade since 1999, 800,000 English came to settle in Scotland. Yet UKIP polled a miserable 0.7% in the 2010 election here vs the 25% they polled in England last month. Maybe it’s our water.
With good nationalist friends, I stood on the steps of the (as it still was) Bank of Scotland HQ steps that summer’s day in 1999, clutching my saltire and lump rising in my throat at the history being made before me. Winnie spoke powerfully of the Parliament being ‘reconvened’ after three centuries in oblivion and Sheena Wellington nailed the mood with a rendition of “A Man’s A Man, For A’ That” that didn’t leave a dry eye in the house.
I won’t rehearse the many unrealistic expectations of this reconvened ‘Pairlimunt’ because that which dissolved in 1707 was no model of representation, biased as it was towards a nobility of questionable nobility (they were still flogging Nova Scotia baronetcies to arrivistes if they could pony up the money) and still more questionable morals. The bulk of those there were more concerned with recovering what they had lost in the ‘gaun wursels’ colonial disaster at Darien the decade before than representing the Scottish people in any broad sense.
But nobody seems to have bothered wondering just what sort of Parliament we do have and—especially as it may wind up running the other 2/3rds of the Scots economy not under its control—it would seem a good time for a little stock-taking. The difficulty seems to be that everyone has already filed into their partisan trenches and got busy lobbing mud at Holyrood or Westminster, depending on which jersey you’re already wearing.
There is no doubt that there has been legislation that meets the elusive simultaneous goals of popular, effective and successful. Land reform; free personal care; smoking ban; rewriting teachers’ contracts come under those heads albeit—as with so much—not with everyone. That said, looking to the areas most affected (1/3rd of budget goes on the NHS and another 1/3rd on local government) precious little hard-headed analysis is done.
Both main parties are to blame for this. Labour managed to fluff the massive opportunity offered by a doubling of budget 1999-2007 to provide anything memorable. The 2001 McCrone agreement with teachers doubled their pay/pension per chalk-face hour, yet has yet to achieve improvement in pupil education. Even larger percentage increases in the social work budgets were swallowed up by ever-wider casting of the social care net so that free provisions—free bus passes; free prescriptions; free personal care—as well as new services—kinship care; compliance with DDA; equalities issues; etc. The system swallowed it all to the point that carers still complain they are under-compensated. They have a point.
But let’s be hard-nosed about some real luxuries. Why should travel concessions apply during rush hours? Or allow travel from Stranraer to Thurso for nothing? Why is there no means test of the annual heating allowance? Those are some simple ones. But if we truly are in a fiscal bind and local authorities are cutting services people value why don’t most charge for parking or special uplifts or park/ranger services? Why does property banding stop at an average-home price? Why do people get discounts on 2nd/3rd/etc homes when they usually rent them out for profit? Even if you’re an NHS fan, why should prescriptions be free and why should those who abuse its laudable impartiality (e.g. using ambulances as taxis) not get charged for their unreasonableness?
Billy Connolly derided Holyrood as a ‘pretendy parliament’. Most of us don’t share that view but, as long as they have no direct responsibility for raising their finances, there is a case to answer how they would do in the ‘real’ world. Full fiscal autonomy would sweep away much gesture politics and get whoever runs the show focused on balancing the books. It might launch civil debate over fundamental changes now being visited on the police/justice systems to prioritise cost-savings there so NHS monies are maintained (even as overheated wards open windows and thousands of meals are binned daily).
It should not take a fiscal crisis to make any government behave responsibly as it discharges its duties of health, welfare and prosperity for all of its citizens. They should be lean, mean and fit for purpose at all times: Olympic athletes do not start training three weeks before the games. But watching FMQs over the last couple of years should make even Labour politicos wonder if the present opposition is in any state to oppose, let alone run a country. The lack of lead in their pencil has let the present government run rings around them and so allow backbenchers the luxury of posing as much as pushing.
If only to release all 129 of ’em from self-importance (despite their doodling) in the chamber, the argument for independence is overwhelming. Not only is it a big, cold world out there but when the going gets tough, the tough get going. In its its formative decade and a half, the Scottish Parliament achieved much. But to overcome radical challenges from this century—and for as long as Westminster fixates on problems of a colonial past—the Scottish Parliament needs to streamline the jalopy—make it faster, leaner, meaner. And when independence does come, know how to drive clever and not make an arse of it.