The party governs behind a vast wall of bureaucracy
Another week, and yet another story about how the Scottish National Party is misgoverning Scotland. This time, the Times reports on how the Scottish Government has built up a swirling alphabet soup of inquiries and arms-length bodies in order to evade scrutiny and postpone indefinitely the need to take unpopular decisions.
And this is a huge pot of soup: according to the paper, Holyrood currently presides over more than 400 “commissions, inquiries and working groups”. By contrast Westminster — with a broader range of devolved responsibilities and a much larger population to oversee — maintains only around 600 equivalent groups.
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Of the examples listed by the paper, the one that stands out (especially given the total hash the SNP have made of Scotland’s once world-leading school system) is on education. Twice the Nationalists asked the OECD for advice on how to improve the curriculum. Twice, it gave an answer they didn’t want to hear: simplify, and relax the tight central control which is a hallmark of the SNP’s Scotland.
None of this happened, of course. Instead, they simply sat on the second report until after May’s devolved elections, when a new education secretary was installed “who commissioned another round of groups”. More years of failing Scotland’s children await. At this point, it feels almost superfluous to point out the SNP’s abysmal domestic record. Some weeks, one can fill an entire column just with signposts to the most recent clutch of disgraces.
But we should not forget that this ever-changing mass of quangos and titles doubtless also helps to extend the Nationalists’ reach into “civic Scotland”. A key driver of devolution has been that the institutions are an excellent vehicle for distributing salaries, sinecures, and status to the devo-crat class, whether or not they produce good or even passable governance. What we’re seeing under the SNP is that process taken to a tragic, cartoonish degree.
Yet simply complaining about the Nationalists gets nothing done. The real question is — and a Tory leadership contest is a great time to ask it — what is the Government going to do about it? Remember that, whatever the most committed devolutionaries might like to believe, the UK is not some sort of confederation or arrangement between the various governments of the “four nations”. It is a nation, and the national government is ultimately responsible for, and to, every citizen.
In other countries with devolved or federal systems, it is perfectly normal for the central government to police the performance of delegated functions and attach stipulations to grants of central funding. Britain is very much an outlier in allowing the Barnett Formula to allot vast sums of cash to the devolved governments without conditions, let alone granting them the leeway to not just evade central oversight but destroy the evidence which might make such oversight possible.
It is not beyond the power of our next prime minister to hack through the SNP’s thicket of acronyms and subject the Scottish Government to real scrutiny. All that’s needed is the will to act.