Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

General Election 2024 – a personal perspective on what this means for public services in Scotland

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Image: TylaArabas via istock

With less than three weeks to go, the General Election 2024 campaign has had a fair amount of almost theatrical quality about it. There have been occasions of almost Pinter-like pathos: The prime minister announcing an election in the rain, shoes and clothing almost audibly squelching as he returned to the front door of Number 10. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage has returned like Godot and is just as unsettling. Here in Scotland, the current leader of the Conservative Party’s last-minute elbowing into a Westminster constituency has hints of an almost classic Shakespearian theatre act.

The two largest parties in Westminster have consumed a lot of time and (perhaps) wasted energy accusing each other of being liars. As a backdrop to those accusations Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies has sounded a regular Cassandra-like warning, basically pointing out that none of the largest parties that are capable of forming a Westminster government are being candid about the limited fiscal headroom available to do either tax cuts (Conservatives) or rebuild and develop public services and simultaneously commit to freezing some of the biggest tax channels (Labour).

That’s Devolved 

More broadly here in Scotland, as we read, watch and listen to those campaigning for themselves and for their parties in this Westminster election, it seems like many candidates and party leaders at the front of these campaigns would benefit from checking out the X/Twitter profile @ThatsDevolved.

As the authors of That’s Devolved regularly point out, it’s not just citizens of England, Wales, Scotland & Northern Ireland who get in a tangle about which legislature does what and who has legal competencies, but also the media and embarrassingly, members of the three devolved legislatures, as well as those MPs elected to Westminster.

The extent of powers that we now have in the three devolved legislatures is quite extensive. Though maybe not yet sufficient for those parties campaigning for independence. It is difficult for prospective Westminster candidates and their party to make any serious ‘retail‘ offers to the electorate whose votes they are trying to win in these devolved jurisdictions. That is particularly the case for possible voters including the man in Coatbridge who announced to a TV camera that the most important thing in this election was “potholes…”. I doubted that this would be a feature of any general election manifesto but there it is in the Labour manifesto.

Another headline news item was Bridget Philipson, Shadow Education Secretary, announcing plans for a major increase in nursery provision, some 3000 units, though as @ThatsDevolved chided Sky News, these won’t actually be in England & Wales, just England. Of course, neither will they be in either Scotland or Northern Ireland.

If you watched and followed the two Scottish party leaders’ debates you may have noticed that much of the discussion turned upon competencies that are in the control of the Scottish Parliament and little affected by whatever the result will be in on July 4th. All of that doesn’t stop candidates and campaigners arguing that a vote for them and their colleagues on July 4th will measurably and rapidly improve circumstances here in Scotland. In Edinburgh, Anas Sarwar outlined ‘Labour’s first steps for change’ with a speech fiercely criticising what Conservative governments in England and SNP governments in Scotland had done to their respective health services and urging a vote for Labour. The final part of this speech outlined various aspirations and policies for Scottish Government that he wants to lead in after the next Holyrood election in May 2026, with almost two years until that particular election and perhaps in very different political circumstances.

From such reports as are available covering Wales and Northern Ireland, similar mixed messages are shared on the campaign trail in both those jurisdictions.

We still find ourselves adjusting to the realities of a devolved or ‘quasi-federal’ political architecture, where for a variety of reasons none of the parties campaigning here can make those potentially persuasive ‘retail’ offers to voters. There may well be a Labour majority government of some scale but regardless of who forms the next UK Government, transmission line from choices, policies, programmes and resources from Westminster is mainly channelled through devolved legislatures and there are strictly limited ways for any Westminster majority to direct that channelling. More money for health voted at Westminster. Barnett and other mechanisms translate to money flows into Scottish Parliament, Senedd and the Northern Ireland Assembly, where the majority (if there is ever a majority for budgetary choices) can choose to re-direct that money to colleges, housing or the arts.

For local government here in Scotland the options are even more limited. COSLA has published its ‘Significant Seven‘ claims that it wishes to see post general election. Except for concerns for human rights and welcome for refugees and migrants, the other aspirations are mediated through Holyrood and legislated for and decided there.

All the major parties at Holyrood face that same sort of dilemma, though in subtly different ways. Anas Sarwar will want to fashion the right balance of support with a Westminster Labour government but with sufficient Scottish distinctiveness to help him in 2026. John Swinney is hard put to campaign on any desired outcome from the Westminster election other than “keep the faith… maintain our numbers …” and then we’ll see. No practical difference will suddenly be launched in Scotland by the SNP led Scottish Government come July 5th. Conservatives now create a picture of turbulence with an aspiration to make up the numbers of a minority opposition.

There was of course one small theme that ran through the first Scottish leaders’  debate. Alex Cole Hamilton for the Liberal Democrats almost appeared to be smiling coyly at Anas Sarwar with a suggestion of “Let’s get the band back together”. We’ll see if that happens in July 2024 or May 2026.

 



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