Part 2 of a three-part series on the failure of Scottish Devolution and the options to reform or abolish the Scottish Parliament.
Before a system can be fixed or abolished, we need a clear understanding of the problems and issues of the current system of Legislative Devolution:
- Constitutional conflict
- Excessive spending
- Lack of accountability
Constitutional Power Grabs
It is a well-known fact that political organisations always aim to expand their power. In fact, devolution was set up, in principle, as a way to stop evermore power accruing in Westminster. What has actually happened, though, is that power has been hoarded in Edinburgh at the expense of Scotland’s local authorities, while the Scottish Government has tried to grab as much power as it can from Westminster, often aided by politicians who are either unaware or uncaring of the problems that would produce.
Legislative devolution was supposed to be a junior tier of local government, but in reality, since coming to power in 2007, the SNP have pursued a programme of turning the devolved Holyrood executive into a kind of national government, including Alex Salmond’s unchallenged renaming of the Assembly into ‘The Scottish Government’ and installing ministers. The UK Government’s indulgence of these pretensions has been detrimental to the stability and unity of the UK.
Nicola Sturgeon, when First Minister, travelled around the world acting like she was the Prime Minister of a sovereign country: opening ‘offices’ (an obvious attempt at projecting the impression to the world that Holyrood is the national government of a sovereign country); trying to do trade deals on behalf of Scotland; trying to negotiate deals with Eurocrats over trade arrangements on Scotland’s behalf (all of which were outside her devolved remit); and going to America to drum up support for independence; among other misdemeanours.
In fact, the UK is a unitary (single) state — the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland — in which, whilst power over any matter can be devolved (or delegated) to other bodies within its borders, the state remains a singular political entity. Irrespective of devolution, the Parliament of the UK still retains full sovereignty, even over issues it has devolved to these provincial bodies, and can take them away at any time.
The SNP has deliberately sought to pursue policies that clash with those of the rest of the UK, and then use any refusal as ‘proof’ of UK ‘oppression’. The SNP’s failed Second Independence Referendum Bill, its Gender Recognition Reform Bill and their Green Party coalition partners’ Deposit Return Scheme are three very good examples of this.
These laws are framed as ‘Westminster denying democracy’, when in fact they are power grabs into reserved areas and into areas that affect other UK legislation. It took the UK’s Supreme Court to quash Sturgeon’s Referendum Bill, despite it being a reserved matter, while the UK Government has now invoked Section 35 of the Scotland Act to refuse to give Royal Assent to the Gender Recognition Reform Bill (GRR), which it says contravenes equalities law in the rest of the UK.
You only have to look at the example of the last twenty-plus years of the real-world effects of legislative devolution in the various parts of the UK into which it has been introduced, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to see that the centralisation of power in one assembly or parliament has led to a massive failure by that executive to improve the living and working conditions for that particular area of the UK.
It is hardly a surprise that a nationalist movement aims to centralise powers. Since the SNP took over from Labour as the ruling party in the 2007 Holyrood election, it has steadily gathered powers previously in the control of local authorities into the remit of Holyrood (and consequently brought them under the SNP’s control as they controlled Holyrood).
This is both hypocritical and ironic. Since their inception 88 years ago, the SNP have complained about the evils of power being centralised at Westminster in London. Yet this is precisely what they have done in Scotland. Their complaints that Westminster centralisation led to remote and poor government has been mirrored as they centralised power in Holyrood, away from Scotland’s regions and local communities. But it’s hardly a surprise. Nationalism is a centralising ideology that aims to put every institution under central state control.
One act of centralisation that has led to major ramifications for the ordinary citizens of Scotland has been the major merging of the Police and Fire services. Police Scotland was formed on 1st April 2013, by the merger of several local constabularies that had previously policed their own local areas.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service was formed by the merger of eight regional fire services also on 1st April 2013. This led to decisions on policing and fire services being made in the central belt of Scotland rather than in the local communities they served.
The results of this are plain to see. The police force is now in severe turmoil, with one disaster after another. Morale is low among the rank and file (and the officers). There is now a pronounced problem with gun crime in Scotland (especially in the Highlands).
The resultant loss of local accountability that the creation of Police Scotland entailed, has led to the severe curtailment of services across Scotland, with the closure of five police control rooms and sixty-one public counters at police stations. Since the merger, Police Scotland has been racked with one failure and scandal after another, including deaths in custody and corruption, to add to the above-mentioned failure to provide an adequate service to the citizens of Scotland.
Finally called to account for this series of disasters, Police Scotland’s Chief Constable, Stephen House, resigned in disgrace on 30th November 2015. His successors have kept up the low standard, and Police Scotland continues to perform badly.
In a further development, a former top policeman who served for three decades in the former Strathclyde force before becoming Chief Constable of Grampian, Colin McKerracher, has voiced serious concerns that the creation of a single force would lead to the police being transformed into the puppets of the political elite at Holyrood (which currently means the SNP).
Mr McKerracher warned the creation of Police Scotland’s single force by the SNP in 2013 has led to ‘very unhealthy political influence’ and has raised fears of a ‘police state’.
He added that the single national force had ‘ruined’ policing in Scotland and that the force should be split into four separate units, adding that it had become distanced from communities, as he condemned ‘political interference’ in policing, saying it removed a ‘tried and trusted’ three-way check and balance that previously existed.
It has been a similar picture with the centralised Scottish Fire and Rescue service, with centralisation leading to the closure of fire services, including five fire control rooms, and inefficient service.
The SNP-dominated Holyrood executive has systematically and categorically stripped powers from local communities. A prime example is the construction of onshore windfarms, which are very often rejected by local communities, only to be appealed and passed at the national level, to conform to national environmental policies, which are, in turn, led by the minority Greens.
And in the health service, the SNP-dominated Holyrood executive has imposed a new rule on health boards, capping the amount they can spend on capital works at hospitals without getting the permission of the SNP. This means that Holyrood now has centralised decisions on major works in 179 hospitals, rather than the decisions being made locally. Local councils have also been affected by SNP centralisation. They have had their funding and council tax levels decided centrally by the SNP in Holyrood, rather than decisions taken locally. To get access to revenue support, thirty-two councils have been forced to agree to let the council tax level be set centrally by the SNP executive.
A financial disaster
In addition to constitutional considerations, legislative devolution has been a monetary drain on UK and Scottish taxpayers. These costs include:
- The cost to run the entire Scottish Government
- The cost of running the Scottish Parliament itself
- Waste due to failed and mismanaged projects
- Waste due to failed tax policies
- Ultra-vires spending
- Cost of lost investment
If Holyrood was abolished, the large amount of money saved could be employed in financing many other areas that need them much more, such as the NHS, housing, law and order, to name just three examples.
A first indication of the wayward expenditures and twisted priorities was the construction of the Scottish Parliament building itself. Initial estimates placed the costs of building Holyrood at £10-£40 million. The final cost came in at £414.4 million, a whopping 40 times higher than the lower estimate and 10 times larger than the higher one. The building also took considerably longer to construct than the architects predicted it would. It has also gained notoriety as one of the ugliest buildings in the UK.
The Scottish Government
The total operating costs budget for the Scottish Government in 2023-24 is £696.1 million. In the past five years, total spending on the Scottish Government has amounted to just over £3 billion. It is likely, given inflation and constantly increasing budgets, that the cost will amount to £10 billion over the next ten years. This extravagant figure is to implement decisions made by the Scottish Parliament that, prior to devolution, used to be made by a handful of staff in The Scottish Office.
To put that into perspective: £10 Billion or £1 billion/year would cover the cost of 33,000 nurses or teachers ,every year, at an average annual pay of £30,000.
In many cases, the Scottish Government is a solution in search of a problem. It has resulted in unnecessary duplication of services. Instead of adding a drop-down box for Scotland on a UK-wide IT system, the Scottish Government has insisted on building parallel systems, at huge expense to the taxpayer. This allows nationalists to create government departments that are under their control.
In addition to increasing the size and cost of the Scottish Government workforce, The Government has created and funded a huge array of Scotland-only charities and quangos. Each of these is stuffed with loyal party members who provide government-friendly support. This does not happen in the rest of the UK.
For example, the Scottish Government’s unpopular Gender Recognition Reform Bill was promoted and supported by charities that support the Bill. Aside from the spending, this is yet another way that nationalism gains power, through the tentacles of government.
The Scottish Parliament itself currently costs £89.3 million a year to run:
- Running costs: £8.6 million (listed under ‘other expenditure’).
- Property costs: £9 million.
- MSP and other officeholders’ salaries: £12.6 million.
- Other staff salaries: £31.8 million.
- MSP expenses: £17 million.
- Costs for salaries and running the offices of the Commissioners and Ombudsman: £10.3 million.
Would voters rather spend £12.6 million on MSPs salaries or hire 433 nurses or teachers?
Overspending scandals and waste
Added to the above, the SNP dominated devolved administration at Holyrood has wasted large sums of money on projects of doubtful value.
One well-documented example is the CMAL ferry fiasco. Scotland’s ferries fiasco will cost £1.5 billion to fix, over ten years, for two vessels from state-controlled ferry operator CalMac, that are over five years late.
One expert has tipped the final cost for the ferries alone to top £400 million, up from £97 million originally agreed. These huge costs come in the midst of brutal cuts facing public services, after ministers unveiled a spending plan that will slash more than £1 billion from key areas including councils and the police.
Despite foreign policy and international trade/relations being reserved to the UK Government, and UK Government running UK embassies around the world, the Scottish Government has opened international hubs (read proto-Scottish embassies), which cost millions every year, in countries including Canada, China, America, France, Ireland, Germany and Belgium. Salaries, upkeep, day-to-day running and hospitality costs across the network of hubs amounts to £5,942,000 a year. They are led by Ken Thomson, the SNP’s Director-General for Constitution and External Affairs.
Offices include a £2.5 million base in Brussels – the home of the European Union – which employs around 20 people, while the office in Ottawa, Canada, opened in 2018, had a budget of £570,000 for 2021-22, and has career civil servant Catriona Little, who was formerly with UK Dept for Trade and Investment, as office head.
This massively expensive network of unnecessary hubs is yet another example of the cash drain that the SNP have caused during their years in power.
Legal costs in pursuing ‘independence’
The SNP has also spent at least £20 million on constitutional vanity projects, such as agitating for a second independence referendum, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis.
Local authority spending cuts
On the other side of the coin of wasteful spending, are cuts in areas that the Scottish Government does not favour, most notably local authorities. While the overall Scottish Government budget and the block grant has grown, the Scottish Government is not passing that growth to Scotland’s local authorities.
The SNP has been told by local councils that it has to ‘reset’ the way it funds them, after Holyrood cut £937m from council funding. They accused the nationalist administration of having ‘neglected and mistreated’ Scotland’s local councils who have also warned they face real-term cuts to their non-ringfenced budgets of nearly £1 billion, over an eight-year period.
Pauline McNeill, who was Scottish Labour’s local government spokesperson, has pointed to research by her party that shows Holyrood has cut councils’ non-ringfenced revenue funding by £937.3 million in real terms, between 2013-14 and 2021-22, adding:
Throughout its 14 years in government, the SNP has systematically undervalued, underfunded and under-appreciated Scotland’s local authorities.
COSLA, the umbrella organisation that represents Scottish councils, has demanded that a new funding arrangement for local councils be set up, as the country emerges from the pandemic.
COSLA has also warned that some authorities will be left out of pocket and will suffer even deeper cuts following the council tax freeze, with alarm raised that some councils will even need to raise the charge as they receive no funding from the Holyrood to cover the increases needed.
Glasgow City Council officials have revealed £113 million of savings will have to be found up to 2025/26, while the city’s budget has been cut by 11% since 2013/14. During the same period, SNP-controlled Holyrood funding has increased by more than 3%.
In a rare act of dissent, Susan Aitken, leader of the SNP-led Glasgow City Council said, after a leaked document, prepared by a cross-party group of Glasgow councillors and officials, proposed a cut of 800 teachers and earlier closing for primary schools, in an attempt to save £51 million from the education budget.
But what we cannot be is treated solely as a delivery vehicle for national priorities at the expense of local needs. Almost the entirety of the additional £550 million announced for local government in December has to be directed at national priorities. It did little or nothing for Glasgow’s budget gap, protecting the policies Ministers were elected on rather than the services local councils are expected to deliver.
But it’s councillors who are accountable for decisions about local public services. Our call to remove the restrictions holding us back from setting local priorities and taking local decisions isn’t just about democracy and accountability, it’s about the very survival of those services at this critical time. Glasgow City Council’s budget needs to fund all of Glasgow’s services and so – with the greatest respect to colleagues at Holyrood – the decisions about it must and will be made here in Glasgow.’
Funding pressures are not isolated to Scotland’s cities, with the Highlands Council showing a £51 million budget gap until 2024, Angus Council highlighting a £11.3 budget gap and Argyll and Bute Council having to deal with a £6.7 million gap.
In the 1997 Devolution referendum, 63.7% of voters agreed that the Scottish Assembly should have tax raising powers.
The effects of differing taxation rates are now being felt, with Scots being taxed higher than any other part of the UK. Due to SNP tax policy over the last 11 years, the number of people on higher rate income tax, charged at 41%, has risen from 7% of all Scottish taxpayers to 17%. This has been done primarily by freezing tax thresholds.
The Scottish Fiscal Commission calculates that freezing the threshold for higher rate tax is costing someone on £60,000 more than £600 a year, rising above £1,300 a year, five years from now. So, by 2027-28, the Fiscal Commission is estimating that 697,000 Scots will be on the higher rate tax, up by 313,000 in only seven years.
It’s not as though this extra taxation is bringing in a lot of extra income. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), a financial think tank, said that, despite raising taxes, the Scottish Government received £200 million less than if the bands had been the same. This is an effect of the ‘Laffer Curve’, which says that if taxes are too high, people will work harder to avoid them.
Despite income tax rises equivalent to £500 million, the [SFC] forecasts that weak growth in the tax base means revenues will be nearly £200 million lower this year than if income tax hadn’t been devolved.
Increased personal taxes drive high earners, or young people with aspirations to higher earnings, out of Scotland, and are a major barrier to inward investment. Why would any global company’s executives choose to place a factory in Scotland, when it will subject them to higher taxes than in England?
Has this Parliament had any achievements?
It’s no surprise that these schemes are so poorly thought out and managed. Of the SNP’s 29 ministers, few have any business experience. Not a single SNP Minister has ever worked in management. A prime example is Kate Forbes, who has two years junior accounting experience, yet until recently, was in charge of a £36 billion budget.
It’s also no surprise that when a governing party doesn’t want devolution to work – only seeing it as a vehicle to independence, and promotes party politicians based on their ability to foment grievance, rather than their competence – that Scotland is in decline.
When asked about the achievements of 14 years of Nationalist government, most supporters will claim ‘baby boxes’ and ‘free prescriptions’. Are those benefits worth the cost? They appear to forget that most of the ‘free’ services introduced by SNP controlled Holyrood are actually a benefit of being in the UK, as they are largely funded by the taxpayers in London and the South of England.
The evidence is incontrovertible. The Scottish Government has been an expensive experiment, whose results are now clear and damning. It is populated by low-quality politicians, it is inherently wasteful, and the laws it has passed have, in the main, been rejected by voters and are mainly being used to provoke confrontation with the UK Government, through constitutional power grabs.
Until recently, nationalists, helped by a complacent UK Government and media appeasement, thought that independence was just a matter of time. But, as the SNP has collapsed in criminal investigation and financial scandal, the separatist myth of inevitability has shattered. Separatists can no longer push forward and the initiative is now firmly on the side of those who want to maintain the integrity of the UK. It is now time to reassess the failings of the ‘government’ and push back.
The third and final part of this series, which discusses the options to reform and abolish Holyrood, will be published on Wednesday May 3.
Stephen Bailey is pro-UK author who has written over 150 articles on the Constitution, especially as it concerns Scotland and the abolition of legislative devolution. His website is here.
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