View from the Street: Scotland's settled will and unquiet dreams

@AndrewWilson

View from the Street: Scotland's settled will and unquiet dreams

Twenty years ago, I took the step of giving up my nascent civil service career to work at SNP HQ on a fixed term contract. The job was fascinating, as the SNP’s economist I worked with Kevin Pringle who has remained a firm friend ever since and is now a colleague again.
 
Part of the job was trying to undermine the GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) exercise that argued Scotland ran a deficit and therefore should stand still in constitutional terms.
 
It has taken a long time for me to realise that this was a futile exercise. Imperfect though any set of statistics will always be, it is surely better to embrace the situation and find ways to fix the factors causing the deficit. But to do that means changing the way we think – and stepping out of our echo chambers and comfort zones is very hard to do. We warmly welcome voices we agree with and find discordant argument and change, well, difficult.
 
But what life teaches us is that people, families, companies, organisations and countries that look beyond the moment to see what is coming, open themselves to challenge, build their own resilience and act with self-responsibility and improvement in mind, succeed.
 
Being willing to challenge the orthodoxy of how we think is mission critical to changing our performance for the better. Unless we start as world champions. But even then, we won’t stay on the pedestal for ever.
 
The devolution vote of 1997 should never be under-estimated or taken for granted. The settled will was settled. But our dreams have been unquiet ever since.
 
Scotland has this wonderful knack of being both radical and hugely conservative at the same time. To have delivered such an overwhelmingly self-confident step with such a broad base of support was a truly great moment. And failing to accept that Tony Blair’s decision to put it to the vote was the right one ignores the lessons of recent history. He was criticised by many home rulers on all sides and the SNP, but he did more to unify the country behind progress than anything else. It’s funny how it all works out.
 
The spirit of the moment was of possibility. Our gaze turned to ourselves to solve our own problems rather than lobbying power (in London) for resource. To the extent that it could create energy in the country and its politics for self-improvement and responsibility, it was one of the greatest political moments in our history. But only up to a point. So here is the heresy.
 
Devolution only took the existing powers of the Secretary of State for Scotland and put a magnifying bowl of scrutiny on top. It added a minor tax power designed to be unusable that has gone unused. As a result, expectations ran wildly ahead of reality.
 
On the upside, this corrected the democratic offence of Scotland being run by a party it didn’t support and created a new means by which the people of Scotland could lead and innovate and change things for the better, in small ways and large.
 
On the downside, the political culture never really developed as we all hoped and in some ways has taken a retrograde step. Cross-partisanship has become a foreign country. The parties holler at each other over minor differences and imagined nothings. The policy debate is much less sophisticated and worldly than in many of the most successful small countries. And the private sector and the profit motive is regarded with suspicion, at best, in the minds of far too many who should know better.
 
Risk bearing and innovation in policy have happened but proven difficult on any scale for all the parties that have tried it. The electoral cycles have increased the volume of politics and campaigning at the expense of long term policy efforts. The relationship with the UK government lurches from functional and positive to juvenile and partisan. Partisanship always seems to get in the way.
 
Possibly the greatest reason for all of this is rooted in the financial strictures of devolution that still bind tight, despite two Scotland Acts since the 1998 one. The most powerful policy force in Scotland is what we did yesterday. Changing that, stopping things, thinking about five or ten years hence? Very difficult. Despite the strut of those heady days of 1999 we take far too much of our cue from what is done in London. The manufactured outcry over daring not to follow a minor tax change in a UK budget is perfect evidence.
 
Two decades on it is time for all of the parties to agree that the adolescent years of devolution have to be over. Time for us all to grow. Let’s look to the best performing countries, regions and cities around the world, rather than declaring success when our quarterly growth rate nudges ahead of Yorkshire’s.
 
Adulthood will come when parties (and governments) genuinely work together and respect their different perspectives on what is a journey without end. All of us, bar no one, wants Scotland to be all it can be. Let’s start by doubting each other’s intent a lot less, and winning the debate on the content of our argument and ambition. We saw with the Brexit vote all that is at stake if we forget that. The country of the Enlightenment has had enough of endarkenment.
 
  
Andrew Wilson is a founding partner at Charlotte Street Partners.