AS a former government economist and senior civil servant, I should like to highlight an issue which is becoming one of the strongest arguments in favour of Scottish independence – the structural weaknesses of the current devolution arrangements which are leading to increasing inefficiency in government policy-making and a sheer waste of scarce resources.

Recent events are exposing more and more examples of how the division of powers between the UK and Scottish Governments is resulting in sub-optimal public decisions and outcomes for Scotland. These include:

  • Because the main levers of national economic policy (particularly borrowing powers) are reserved to Westminster, the Scottish Government is heavily constrained in its ability to take effective measures to counteract the spread of the Covid-19 virus. The Scottish Government throughout December 2021 (as in some earlier phases of the pandemic) clearly favoured the introduction of tighter restrictions to protect public health – but was unable to implement this policy quickly and effectively because of the UK Government’s reluctance to impose similar restrictions in England and to borrow money on the scale required. These delays will have led to more unnecessary deaths in Scotland.
  • The division of powers over social security between Westminster and Holyrood has led to the absurd situation whereby the Scottish Government continues to spend some of its limited resources on measures such as the enhanced Scottish Child Payment and additional Discretionary Housing Payments to mitigate the impact of UK decisions with which it disagrees, for example on Universal Credit and the so-called “bedroom tax”.
  • One of the few taxation policies devolved to the Scottish Government is in relation to rates of income tax, although even here the level of personal allowance is reserved to the UK Government. These arrangements make it impossible for the Scottish Government to adopt an integrated and comprehensive approach to taxation policy.
  • The UK Government is increasingly taking powers (for example through the Internal Market Act and the Levelling Up Fund – which replaces EU Structural Funds, the administration of which were devolved to Scotland) to impose its own spending priorities in Scotland, which frequently cut across those of the Scottish Government.
  • Policy for major industries is split in a haphazard way between the UK and Scottish Governments, making the development of coherent strategies for everything from tackling the climate crisis to industrial and regional development more difficult than they need to be. Energy policy such as approval for new oil fields and financial incentives for renewable energy is the responsibility of Westminster, as is corporation tax, fuel tax, and VAT; while Holyrood has powers to safeguard and encourage biodiversity, to take physical planning decisions, and to provide more general support for industry in Scotland. In these circumstances, it becomes almost impossible to ensure that strategies for a “just transition” from fossil fuels to renewable energy, or a credible industrial strategy for the future of the Scottish economy, can take account of the often-conflicting priorities of the two governments. The losers are the companies, employees, and people of Scotland now and in the future.

It is worth reflecting on how this highly inefficient and wasteful system of governance has arisen. When plans for devolution were enacted under the Scotland Act 1998, it was assumed that both parliaments would share common values and aspirations, if not governments of the same political complexion – and indeed that seemed to be largely the case in the first few years of the Scottish Parliament. But, since then, there have been several major developments which have completely undermined these assumptions: a greater self-confidence and appetite for political powers in Scotland; additional responsibilities granted to the Scottish Parliament which have introduced even more complexity into the governance arrangements; the growth of a more assertive English or British nationalism; and the decline of the Labour Party in Scotland, mainly in favour of the SNP.

Differences in prevailing values and aspirations in Scotland and England (broadly a greater priority being placed in the former on a more equal, inclusive, and outward-looking society) have become more overt, exemplified by the pattern of voting on Brexit in 2016 and the subsequent advent of a more “muscular” UK Conservative Government seemingly determined to ensure that its vision of Britain prevails throughout the four nations of the UK, irrespective of the different views in those nations.

Can these trends and the now mind-boggling complexity and conflict surrounding public decision-making in Scotland be reversed, perhaps by the election of a UK Labour government? I would submit that this is unlikely. The Brexit debate has revealed that anti-EU and anti-immigration attitudes are shared by many former Labour Party voters in England, and the Labour Party (and indeed the Liberal Democrats) have accepted that England’s (and in their view Scotland’s) future lies outwith the EU. We have now reached a point where not only the democratic arguments in Scotland but also the case for more efficient and effective government support independence. Having a single government in Scotland which reflects the wishes of the Scottish population will also enable more efficient public policy-making through properly co-ordinated and integrated decisions.

John Randall
via email