Let’s stop the devolution blame game and work on a British way forward

Earlier this week, Henry Hill delivered a robust critique of what he termed Scotland’s “devolutionaries” – of whom I’m one, I suppose. I work for the thinktank Our Scottish Future, which wants to see reforms of the UK to encourage greater co-operation across the country. These ideas were spelled out a few days ago by the think-tank’s founder, Gordon Brown. It’s fair to say Henry took a rather dim view.

Henry ended his piece by calling for ‘devocrats’ to admit our faults. The famous comments made by George Robertson 25 years ago, that “devolution would kill nationalism stone dead” hangs around their necks. Wouldn’t it show some humility if we finally accepted they had been flat out wrong?

OK, Henry, I’ll admit it – the devocrats were flat-out wrong.

That devolution has provided the SNP with a platform from which to push their vision of an independent Scotland is a simple point of fact. Michael Forsyth and Tam Dalyell were right. Alex Salmond was right, correctly seeing how a Scottish Parliament would provide the SNP with the platform it needed, and lacked on the green benches of Westminster. Devophiles can, I suppose, argue the counter-factual and talk up a world in which a Scottish Parliament wasn’t created, to claim that would have led to more support for secession. But nobody knows. All we do know is that devolution was introduced, has given the SNP a huge leg-up, and taken them from the margins of Scottish politics to its front and centre.

So if devolution was only ever meant to be an experiment in “killing nationalism” then let’s all agree it has conclusively failed. But, of course, it wasn’t. I was not around in the 80s and 90s when the campaign for devolution was running hard, but veterans from that time point out it was never pursued as a way to head off nationalism. Rather devolution was seen as a way, across partisans of all parties (including a significant number of Tories) to – as one campaigner puts it – “remedy the position whereby government played a part in public life never imagined in 1707, yet Scotland continued to have its own law but not its own legislature”.

Politics, of course, played a part, specifically, the desire on the left to provide against Thatcherism, but there was a principle here. It was that a nation like Scotland, while remaining part of the British family, should be able to take markedly different decisions from Westminster, and have some democratic accountability around them. The Parliament was created to fill that hole.

This it has done. And that enshrining principle of autonomous Scottish decision making and greater democratic accountability is one that voters in Scotland overwhelmingly support. Despite rocky beginnings, people in Scotland have consistently declared their approval for devolution. Scots like it still, and are proud of the parliament they voted for.

If democracy is about making people feel in touch with their decision-makers, and giving them a sense of accountability, then devolution has been a success.  Of course, the policy agenda should be bolder – and our thinktank is planning to set out our own priorities for action over the coming weeks. But that lack of ambition isn’t devolution’s fault, it’s down to the conservatism of Scotland’s political establishment.

So rather than bemoan devolution as if the Union is already a dead duck, I’d argue that the delivery and the development of the Scottish Parliament is something Unionists should be proud of. It has demonstrated we are a nation keen to reflect our multi-national character. It suggests we’re a country still trying to push power down and out to communities across the country.

The appeal of nationalism in Scotland – and the growing restlessness of regional leaders in England and in Wales – now means we need to see more work done to coordinate and manage that effort. We need to improve the governing infrastructure of the UK. We need to improve the relationship between the centre and the new devolved nations and regions, with new institutions.

This isn’t another “concession” to the Scots by “appeasers”, as we keep being told. Nor is it about handing more powers to the Scottish Government, as has been done in the past. It’s simply a suggestion we build a better, more responsive, system than the one we have right now.

In his piece, Henry argues that it’s a fool’s errand to seek to improve this system when you’re faced with a nationalist administration which only acts in bad faith. I couldn’t disagree more. Only working with devolved administrations you agree with strikes me as a pretty shallow form of Unionism. It’s precisely by seeking to work better with your opponents in Edinburgh or Cardiff that the government of the UK demonstrates its good faith in the Union, and its commitment to making it work.

Nor is it just a matter of constitutional good practice. Better working arrangements on, for example, vaccine delivery and testing matters to me and my family in Glasgow a great deal just now.

The United Kingdom should be proud of the devolved institutions it has created across the nation over the last 25 years. We should always be seeking to improve the way our country is run, with better mechanisms to promote cooperation, more structured ways to resolve disputes, and a more inclusive political system. None of us has a monopoly of wisdom on how this might be achieved, hence the reason a Commission on the Union should be convened.

The blame game is a backward-looking and ultimately futile sport. Let’s instead imagine a new British way forward.

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Gordon Brown: “Let’s Unite Around a British Way Forward”

Battered by Covid, threatened by nationalism and uncertain what the promise of a post- Brexit ‘Global Britain’ adds up to, the United Kingdom must urgently rediscover what holds it together and sort out what is driving us apart.

The status quo is not working and the world’s most successful experiment in multinational living is under greater threat than at any time in 300 years.   

Months of Covid – and bitter disputes between No 10 and the regions and nations over lockdowns, furloughs and business and employment support – have brought to the surface tensions and grievances that have been simmering for years. 

The complaint is that Whitehall does not fully understand the country it is supposed to govern. 

Elected leaders in our nations and regions protest that their local knowledge has been ignored and only rarely are they ever consulted.

We are all fighting the same virus and the same recession, but instead of the different tiers of government pulling together, relations are now so fraught that the public doesn’t believe them when they say they are determined to cooperate. According to a recent poll, only 4 in 10 Scots think that Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon want to work constructively with each other.

And it is indeed Scotland where dissatisfaction is so deep that it threatens the end of the United Kingdom. For the first time, a majority of Scots now feel, according to recent polls , that Scotland and the rest of the UK are moving inexorably in opposite directions and, nearly half of all scots who have a view believe – against all the evidence – that Scotland would be better off economically independent, and they feel that the Union undermines Scotland’s distinctive identity.

While the crisis is deepest in Scotland, it is far from alone. Regional Metro Mayors – from Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, to Sheffield, Bristol and London – are demanding more powers from what they see as an insensitive, out of touch and over-centralised centre. And in Wales it is not nationalists but the pro-Union First Minister Mark Drakeford who is leading calls for change.

But it’s not leaders’ opinions that should worry us most but the drift in public opinion. ‘Whoever in London thought of that?” is a common refrain, reflecting the frustration of people in outlying communities who feel they are the forgotten men and women, virtually invisible to Whitehall. Too often they feel they are treated like second class citizens. Little surprise that the annual Edelman UK Trust barometer has reported a dramatic overall collapse in public trust in both British political leaders and Britain’s institutions.

 Their demand ‘to take back control’ has not, it seems, been assuaged by Brexit nor, in England, by David Cameron’s introduction of English votes for English Laws. 

A succession of constitutional reviews since the 1970s have tended to focus on one set of remedies to the exclusion of most others: more powers for devolved administrations.  This has invariably led to allegations from opponents that all this means is transferring powers from one set of politicians to another and creating new bureaucracies to replace the old.  

A more rounded, thought-through approach is now essential. The Union’s future depends not just on a fair and workable post-Brexit delineation of powers but on rebuilding relationships that are currently broken and renewing our social fabric so that it nurtures   them. This means dealing with social and economic inequalities as recognised in the promise to ‘level up’ – and empowering our northern cities  and regions to once again become vibrant centres of economic imitative in their own right And it requires joint working between the centre and the rest; a new inclusiveness at the heart of government; and a clarity about the purposes of the United Kingdom itself.  

I believe the choice is now between a reformed state and a failed state. So Boris Johnson should announce that when COVID is finally under control, he will set up the Commission on democracy  his election manifesto promised and state that it will review the way the whole  United Kingdom is governed.

The commission will discover that all the Institutions designed to promote collaboration across the U.K, like the Joint Ministerial Committees, and the Council of the Isles have fallen into disuse, the latest victims of a policy of ‘devolve and forget. They will find that the United Kingdom urgently needs a Forum of the Nations and Regions that brings them and Boris Johnson together on a regular basis.

No country can have national integration without political inclusion, and the commission might start by learning from the experience of countries like Australia, Canada, Germany and America where, partly because of British influence in times past,   second chambers are senates of their regions,  and minorities   who can easily be outvoted are guaranteed a stronger voice. 

But such a Commission cannot be yet another case of an elite reviewing an elite, so the Prime Minister should complement the commission’s work by convening Citizens’ Assemblies in each region and nation so that he can listen to what the public are saying. 

Of course Scottish, Welsh, Irish and – perhaps – English nationalists will tell you that nationhood must automatically mean statehood in spite of the evidence of successful multinational states  all round the world , but perhaps for too long we have left unstated the shared purpose – and values – that  bind the UK together, and we have said  too little about what we have in common: our shared beliefs in tolerance, liberty, civic responsibility and fairness, and our conviction that all benefit when we pool and share risks and resources across the country. 

Yes, we can appeal to history, tradition, culture and the longevity  of our institutions, but it is through a focus on the everyday benefits of cooperation and reciprocity, represented  by, for  example, the National Health Service and our Armed Forces, and the sentiments that inspire them – solidarity and empathy, that we demonstrate the real glue that today brings four distinctive nations and many diverse regions together.

I believe that when faced with the choice, the vast majority across Britain will favour empathy over enmity, solidarity over separation, cooperation over conflict, and reciprocity over the resentments – often more imagined than real – that are sadly what drives us- versus- them political nationalisms.

Indeed, it is because the United Kingdom and its institutions can be rebuilt on the solid rock of shared values that today’s troubled and fractured Union can become a modern reformed UK with a renewed sense of mission and purpose. This is the prize that awaits a Prime Minister who chooses to act. Whether it is this Prime Minister, only time will tell.

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Scotland’s Testing Programme “Worst Record In UK”

More than two-thirds of Scotland’s Coronavirus cases are being missed by the country’s testing programme – the worst record of all four UK home nations, a new study reveals today.

Examining the last six weeks of 2020, the report finds that, according to Office of National Statistics data, a daily average of 43,379 Scots had the virus.

Yet, in that same time frame, the Our Scottish Future study shows that Scotland’s test and tracing programme was only picking up a rolling average of 13,650 cases – just 32% of the total.

It suggest the majority of cases – affecting 30,000 Scots – were not found, meaning that the virus was left to spread within the community undetected.

Testing and tracing is the crucial “third leg” of the response to the pandemic, along with the vaccine and social distancing measures. Notwithstanding the vaccination programme, it will be vital over the coming weeks and months in assisting services to open up.  

Scotland’s performance compares to figures in Wales and Northern Ireland where the “detection rate” was more than twice as high, at 70% and 81% of total cases respectively. The figure in England is also low, at just 41%. 

The report finds that Scotland’s tracking and tracing programme is working relatively well compared to other UK nations. But it concludes that the failure to detect two-thirds of cases means it is having virtually zero impact on reducing the R number and preventing the spread of the disease.

Leading virologist Professor Hugh Pennington declares today that this failure means that – despite the prospect of a vaccine – Scotland is “fighting the virus with both arms tied behind our back”.

Prof Pennington and Our Scottish Future are now calling for testing to be offered far more proactively, particularly in schools to allow them to re-open as planned next month. Only a third of Scotland’s testing capacity is being used, according to the study, meaning there is ample scope for more tests to be completed.

The paper blames Scotland’s low detection rate and the failure to use spare capacity on the fragmented and hard-to-access delivery system which sees responsibility and capacity divided between different local health boards, the Scottish Government, and the UK Government. It urges all stakeholders to agree a fresh plan to deliver far more testing.

 The paper concludes: “Comparing positive tests results to the infection rate estimated by the ONS surveillance survey implies that an average of 68% cases since November have not been identified through testing – meaning that the vast majority of cases have not been contact-traced. Scotland is the worst performer in the UK on this metric.”

It adds: “Scotland’s Test & Protect operation is having no impact on the fight against COVID. Its low detection rate puts a ‘cap’ on the effectiveness of the rest of the Test & Protect operation. So long as detection rate is 30-40%, Scotland will be unable to meaningfully inhibit the spread of the virus through track & trace.”

Last week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon defended the low testing numbers, insisting that the figure was “demand led”.

However, the OSF paper argues that, rather than waiting for people to come forward, the UK and Scottish Governments should be doing far more to increase the demand for testing, with more focussed communication of the need to get tested, more sites that can provide better accessibility, improved “at home” testing services using lateral flow devices, and more targeted requests to test for those who have been identified as being potentially part of a chain of infection.

It also backs asymptomatic testing in schools so they can re-open as planned from February 1st.

Commenting today, Professor Pennington says: “It’s no wonder the virus is winning because, as this report shows, we are not seeking it out, and we are not finding it as often as we should do.”

He added: “Unless you go out to find the cases in the community, then we are working with both hands tied behind our back. We need proper investigation of outbreaks and I despair that this is not being done at all well. Until we get testing and tracing right, then the virus will continue to spread.”

Notes

The “detection rate” used in the OSF study takes the average daily number of infections in Scotland between November 22nd and January 2nd, as assessed by the Office of National Statistics – 43,379 a day.

It then calculates the trailing two-week average of positive cases actually detected by NHS Scotland and UK Government services from samples collected over that same time-frame – 13,649. Two weeks is used as this is the length of time people are typically estimated to be infected with the virus. Please see attached:

The full Our Scottish Future report on testing

An Excel spreadsheet setting out the calculations for the “detection rate” in the four UK home nations.

The six week timeframe from November 22nd to January 2nd was chosen by the think-tank in order to ensure a reliable and up-to-date figure


For any further information please contact info@ourscottishfuture.org

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