Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance, Finance

Don’t frighten the horses: the independence referendum and local government



Richard Kerley, Chair of the Centre for Scottish Public Policy, explains why the independence referendum won’t help local government with the day job.

Whether your reaction to the First Minister announcement of yesterday is “Here we go… here we go… here we go…” or a more plaintive “Here we go – again”, we all need to recognise that the announcement of a potential second independence referendum will have an impact on local government.

Let’s be clear – it is not actually clear whether this announcement it will have any impact on the votes cast in the upcoming local elections on 4th May; the people elected; or how the administration of the various councils will play out. The outcomes of an election based on STV – mainly in new wards, remember – is uncertain. The opinion polls suggest the outcome is likely to be better for the SNP and the Conservatives, and worse for Labour, but there remains considerable uncertainty – not least because of turnout.

Even if there are major shifts in councillor numbers and shifts in council control, in most cases after the elections councils will be a mix of different ad hoc coalitions – just as most of them are now.

It seems to me there are a few consequences which we can suggest or even predict based on the last independence campaign.

1) There will be few bold moves on local government in any shape or form – ‘don’t frighten the horses’ was the clear government driver last time round. So some of the more extensive and bold(ish) changes currently under some discussion will be put into storage for now.

2) On the other hand, and where I contradict my own item (1) , some dysfunctional or ill-advised ideas might well win through. Some – for example, SNP councillors in SNP-run authorities – may sit quietly as weak ideas are promoted. Last time round, my conversations did not turn up any SNP councillors (or SNP MSPs for that matter) who thought Police Scotland rather than a three force solution was an appropriate answer to “how many police forces should we have here?” and the other parties were similar. People keen to see an independence vote will keep their heads down on such matters.

3) All aspects of government tax raising and spending  in Scotland will be scrutinised forensically by many, many, different organisations – some partisan, many not – because government competence and capability will be a key issue in this debate.

None of this necessarily helps local government with ‘the day job’. After all, some changes might be justified on merit, but raise some noise as an aggrieved interest group and see the prospect – or threat – of change dwindle away.

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