Remarkably little attention has been paid to a statement made by John Swinney in the Scottish Parliament on 23 November when, in effect, he announced the formation of a vast Scottish super quango under political control.
Maybe I am wrong. There might no longer be anything remarkable about the fact that the most dramatic centralising initiative in modern Scottish history has barely caused a ripple of public interest, not least because most of the public are entirely unaware of it.
And maybe it is wrong to call it an 'announcement' since actually Mr Swinney just slipped it in as an answer to a question. 'Once established,' he intoned, 'the overarching board will replace individual agency boards while retaining the separate legal status of each of the bodies'.
If this goes ahead, the 'overarching board' will incorporate Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Scottish Development International, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council. For all I know, a few others might be thrown in to complete the job lot.
Presumably the bit about 'separate legal status' is to avoid the need for legislation to enforce the great centralisation plan. It is unlikely that it would find a majority within Holyrood. Indeed, all but the most zealous Nationalist MSPs might find discomfort in supporting it. That would certainly be true in the Highlands and Islands where they are already feeling the pressure. So my guess is that they will not be allowed, far less obliged, to vote on it.
Insofar as there has been reaction to Mr Swinney’s announcement, it has been on a sectional basis. There is certainly opposition in the Highlands and Islands to the effective death of a distinctive economic development agency for the region. Some academics have put their heads above the parapet to warn of the threat to the autonomy of their academic institutions from the loss of a Funding Council at arm's-length from government.
However, there has been very little discussion of the wider implication and objective – which is to place an incredible degree of power and influence over crucial areas of Scottish life within the remit of a single organisation which inevitably would come under tight political control. Indeed it is mooted that it would be chaired by a minister.
On this latter point, Mr Swinney went out of his way to avoid denying the possibility. The Tory education spokeswoman, Liz Smith, said that 'the real concern is that the new board will potentially be chaired by a minister'. Mr Swinney ignored that question and replied instead that he was 'happy to rule out government control of the universities' – an assurance which may be taken with the appropriate measure of salt.
There is, however, more than one 'real concern'. My own is that every point of challenge to the centralised power of the Scottish Government is being closed down, on a very systematic basis, with an imperious disrespect for regional variation or the need for independent centres of decision-making, beyond the arm of central government. Scotland’s public sector is to be run from Edinburgh, as close as possible to political control. Full stop.
The trend is not new. Since 2008, a guiding objective of ministers has been to create as many organisations as possible to which the word 'Scotland' could be attached. Some of them, like Police Scotland and Transport Scotland, have given rise to few efficiencies and a string of notable fiascos. All of them have removed decision-making powers from the regions of Scotland and people who know their own areas and subjects. At the same time, local government has been steadily eroded and starved of funding.
Reviews and reforms are the standard fare of government. All of the affected organisations have been subject to them over the years. The Tories in the 1980s changed both the names and remits of the HIDB and SDA. The Fundings Councils were merged in 2005 . Skills Development Scotland has drawn powers from other agencies, and so on. There may well be a case for further refinements but what is now proposed is of an entirely different order.
Take the case of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which is the one I know best. Since 2008, the organisation’s powers and budget have been steadily whittled away. Its leadership was apparently hired on condition of docile anonymity. Previous decades had seen outstanding figures – Grieve, Gilchrist, Alexander, Cowan, Hunter – at the head of the organisation. Each had become a very public (and effective) fighter for the region; major figures in Scottish public life. All of that is already gone.
Public figures who challenge the authority and judgment of the Scottish Government are no longer wanted because the politicians are no longer big enough to tolerate thorns in their flesh. The watchwords are control, control, control; Scotland, Scotland, Scotland. My own view is that HIE should be far more focused on the needs of its peripheral areas where fragile communities are still losing population. Mr Swinney’s plans point in exactly the opposite direction. What place for the micro-economics of peripheral communities will there be in the councils of his 'single over-arching board'?
There are synergies between economic development, education and skills, but there are many other synergies to be taken account of also. The ones which affect the fate of peripheral communities are far more about economic development, housing, transport and land use. Are these synergies to be brought within the remit of Mr Swinney’s super quango – or just left on the sidelines as minor matters beneath the dignity of his 'overarching board'?
In 2010, the nationalists closed down the Highlands and Islands Partnership Programme which involved local authorities and distributed EU Structural Funds on the basis of acute local knowledge of needs and priorities. The whole thing was taken in-house to become part of an overall pot of money which could be branded as Scottish Government largesse. I defy anyone to identify the way in which these funds have been spent in the intervening years. That is what Scotland-wide 'overarching boards' do for local accountability.
What grounds are there for believing that academic freedom would be respected by our newly politicised super quango? Most of Scotland’s university principals are already wary of opening their mouths for fear of incurring the displeasure of the powers they have to deal with. Mr Swinney’s old collaborator, Alex Salmond, was notoriously not above the early morning phone call to bring academic dissidents into line. With the safety valve of the Funding Council removed, implied threats will carry a lot more menace.
The whole principle of centralisation within Scotland needs to become the belated subject of wider debate – as opposed to piecemeal reaction to its symptoms. Mr Swinney’s super quango should be resisted as a step much too far.
It confirms what some of us have known for a long time – that nationalism is not an extension of devolution but its antithesis. As one SNP minister put it: 'Scotland is our localism'. It is time for those who do not share that view to stand up for diversity. Around Scotland, they might find a lot of support and some lifting of scales from eyes.