Decentralised government must be a prerequisite for a liberal democracy as excessively centralised government in a developed economy will inevitably be authoritarian by nature. The UK has one of the most centralised governments in the world. While devolved governance only came to Scotland and Wales at the very end of last century, our Edinburgh Government also maintains a centralist approach. There is much diversity in Scotland, yet devolved policy has overwhelmingly been one-size-fits-all.
The SNP abolished ring-fenced funding for local authorities when it came to office in 2007, but that has since crept back in. Entirely appointed and salaried members run Scotland's numerous health boards, and are answerable only to the Health Secretary. Scotland now has a single national police force, thus removing any local democratic oversight. Our state education system, which accounts for half of council spending, is effectively controlled by the Scottish Government.
The power of centralised government has grown with the welfare state, the foundations for which were put in place by Lloyd George with the introduction of National Insurance just over a century ago. This grew with the formation of the NHS in 1948, along with wartime and widespread post-war state intervention and the nationalisation of various sectors. Lloyd George also moved home rule bills for Scotland and Ireland, but the full legislation was abandoned with the start of the First World War. Scottish nationalism is essentially about how we can best run our country for the benefit of the people living in it.
The public sector in Scotland is disproportionately large compared with England and Wales. There are many reasons for this, some geographical, such as topography and hugely varying population densities, and historical as in an almost vanished tradition of heavy industry. The areas once dominated by heavy industry tended to take a more collectivist approach, but also one more dependent on paternalism, either from large employers or government. This dependency over a protracted period has helped produce an unbalanced economy that needs to significantly improve its performance.
Whether an organisation is a public or private sector, one does not necessarily impact on its efficiency, but its use of resources certainly does, and the public sector, albeit with honourable exceptions, has accumulated seemingly undeserved employment perks that those elsewhere can only dream of. There is simply no way the private sector can match taxpayer guaranteed public sector pension provision. Similarly, there still appears to be excessive layers of well-remunerated management. Compare this with what has happened to high street banks, whose disappearance is due in part at least to their high cost-base.
Security of employment for senior management can lead to complacency, and that instills inertia. Councils just kept spending money the same way, year on year, after their mid-90s reorganisation, and it was only the financial crash in 2008 that forced them to re-examine in any way how they were providing their services. There is evidence of similar behaviour elsewhere in the public sector. Theoretically, the public sector's monopoly position is counterbalanced by democratic accountability, but this may not happen in practice. Poorly-resourced councillors, for example, are little match for senior officers in any internal power struggle.
Some will read the above as an outright attack on the public sector: it isn't. Waste, inefficiency and unfairness are all bedfellows, wherever they occur, and a successful economy thrives by minimising them. If the system of governance in Scotland is unable to remedy manifest areas of poor performance, then that suggests institutional failure and the need for change. Our present council structure was gerrymandered by the Tories in seeking to maintain a foothold in local government. Many councils are perceived as too big and remote from the communities they serve, although they range greatly in size.
Making Scotland's economy more competitive means empowering communities and enhancing direct democratic accountability at that level and beyond. Giving people a sense of having more control over their lives enhances self-respect and encourages self-improvement in all its aspects, but particularly with diet, health and skills levels. Folk who are confident, fitter and healthier can take a more positive and effective approach to the challenges they face. Minimising the impact of the current coronavirus crisis on our most vulnerable will only happen through each individual's behaviour, not government diktat.
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