I hope the polls are wrong, but I suspect – this time – they may not be. They tell us that the SNP will win the May 2016 Holyrood election and will continue in office as the Scottish Government. Naturally, I want Ruth Davidson to be First Minister, not Nicola Sturgeon, but if the SNP leader pips Ruth to the post, the Scottish Conservatives are, at the least, extremely well placed to form the most robust, principled and effective Opposition that any SNP administration has yet faced.
This is why I am seeking election to the Scottish Parliament.
The SNP may be flying high – but they do not deserve to be. At its core their success has but one source. They have succeeded in making the key question of Scottish politics “who best represents Scotland”. That’s a nationalist’s question and it’s not surprising that Scotland’s nationalist party has managed to persuade many Scots – far too many – that “the SNP” is the answer to that question.
The SNP will be brought down not by unionists trying to out-nationalist the nationalists. That’s a mug’s game. Rather, they will be brought down by the opposition focusing relentlessly on the SNP’s record in office and by demonstrating to Scots that our solutions to Scotland’s problems are better than the SNP’s, even if we don’t tattoo the Saltire on every press release and policy announcement.
Failure to Govern
The SNP do as if they are a protest movement – the victims of, not those wielding, power. Yet they have been in government since 2007. If they win another five-year term in May that will give them an unbroken 14-year period in office. That’s longer than Mrs Thatcher was prime minister for, and it’s longer than New Labour’s ascendency lasted, too. The SNP thrive on the politics of grievance, but the truth is it is already the case that there is no-one to blame but the SNP for the ongoing failures of Scottish education, of the Scottish health service, and of policing and the criminal justice system in Scotland.
The SNP’s record in office is dismal. In large part this is because, in the interests of pursuing their constitutional obsession, they would rather bleat about the powers they don’t have than get on and use they powers they do have. Devolution, as I have written on these pages before, is avowedly a unionist invention. Designed to give Scots the home rule we crave without having to break up the state and start over, devolution’s popularity is a major reason why Scots voted No to independence last year. The SNP know this and, for this reason, they are deeply reluctant to make a success of devolution. Far better, for them, to do devolution down, as if it is not worth the paper it’s written on, as if we can really do nothing at all unless we have “all the powers that independence would bring”. This is why Scottish education is crumbling. This is why the Scottish health service is struggling. Because the SNP sits idly on its hands, declining to govern, waiting for independence.
While the SNP have been keen to be seen as competent ministers, Nicola Sturgeon’s administration is following resolutely in the footsteps of Alex Salmond’s in trying to do as little as possible with its devolved powers. The UK Supreme Court has accurately described the powers of the Scottish Parliament as “ample” and “generous”. Holyrood has complete control over the NHS in Scotland, as it does over the whole of Scottish education, from nurseries to schools and colleges. Yet in the eight long years in which the SNP have been in power, next to nothing has been done to reform the health service in Scotland, save that SNP ministers’ controls over Scotland’s fourteen health boards have been tightened. Has this led to improved service? Of course not: latest figures show waiting times rising alarmingly. When the SNP came to power Scotland spent a higher share of its budget on health than England but under the nationalists this has been reversed.
The same is true in education. Scottish schools and colleges are going from mediocre to worse, with plummeting numeracy scores, 140,000 college places cut, colleges merged and campuses closed down. These are calamitous policies to have pursued in an economy crying out for a more highly skilled and better trained workforce. The SNP’s famed ban on university tuition fees has resulted in a lower percentage of undergraduates from a poorer background attending university in Scotland than is the case in England and has been paid for in part by cutting government grants for poorer students.
Illiberal and Centralising
When the SNP does act to make reforms in Scotland, two tendencies in its policy-making are striking. The SNP’s illiberalism should not, perhaps, surprise us, nationalism in Europe all too often having sacrificed individual freedoms on the altar of national self-determination. The party’s centralising tendencies, however, are remarkable given the SNP’s vocal opposition to rule from London.
Under the SNP Scotland’s eight regional police constabularies were merged into a single force. At the same time as Theresa May was creating locally elected Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales, increasing the accountability of the police to local voters, the Scottish Government was doing precisely the opposite. The Chief Constable of Police Scotland is accountable to a single police authority whose members are appointed by Scottish Ministers. The one force now polices both the UK’s third largest city and the UK’s most remote communities, notwithstanding the obvious and huge diversity of policing needs. Happily, recorded crime is falling in Scotland but, despite having fewer offences to investigate, Police Scotland are managing to clear up 50,000 fewer crimes each year than the eight constabularies managed a decade ago.
Policing is just one example of over-centralisation. Another is the reform of local government. Contrast Greater Manchester’s city deal with Glasgow’s and one can see in an instant that there is nothing in Scotland to compare with the northern powerhouse George Osborne is building in the north-west of England. One can see why: a Mayor of Greater Glasgow would be an instant rival to the First Minister’s power base. Or, again, in the university sector, the recently published Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill contains deeply worrying provisions seeking to extend Scottish Ministers’ control over the way Scotland’s universities are run. Given the fears about academic freedom voiced during the course of the independence referendum campaign, these moves deserve far more scrutiny than they have yet received.
Amongst the very worst of the SNP’s reforms is the “named persons” legislation. Under this new law it will be a requirement in Scotland that every child under the age of 18 has a “named person” (code for “State guardian”) who will have the power to discuss or raise a matter about that child with any “relevant authority”. Families may neither opt into nor out of this scheme. It is compulsory. There is no threshold condition, for example that such a draconian step is necessary in order to protect a vulnerable child from harm: it will apply to all. It is an indiscriminate measure of unprecedented interference with family life. It has been challenged in the courts but, thus far, without success. Opposition to the named person legislation has been led, of course, by the Scottish Conservatives.
The named person will, in the Scottish Government’s chilling words, “monitor what children and young people need”. No matter that parents, families, doctors and teachers do this already. The state must do it too. Badged under the acronym GIRFEC (getting it right for every child) the named person scheme does precisely the opposite. Of course governments must ensure that effective and swift interventions are made when children are at risk. But most never are. For most children the named person will be not only an unwelcome but also a wholly unnecessary intrusion because, for most children, parents and families and doctors and teachers already know and supply exactly what children need.
Not content with resting there the named person law goes further. It takes to the statute book to tell us what children need: they need “wellbeing”. And it tells us that a child’s wellbeing is to be “assessed” (yes, assessed) by reference to the extent to which the child is “safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible and included”. Thus, named persons will not be focusing only on harm, or risk, or even neglect, but on the entire human condition. So if my child is assessed to be under-achieving, inactive or somehow lacking in respect or responsibility, the named person can discuss this as he or she considers appropriate not only with the NHS, with a social worker, or with the police, but with a whole range of bodies including the Scottish Sports Council and something called Skills Development Scotland Co Ltd.
The illiberal and centralising control-freakery of this measure might have attracted more attention had it been unusual. But it is typical of the Scottish National Party in power. From policing to higher education, indeed across the whole spectrum of devolved responsibilities, the SNP are archetypes of the top-down, authoritarian, one-size-fits-all school of government. It has been a disaster for Scotland.
This is why I am seeking election as a Scottish Conservative.
I have not always been a Tory, but I have always been a unionist. I moved from England to Glasgow in 2003, and I have lived and worked in Glasgow ever since. I am a constitutional lawyer. Most of the law I teach, and most of the law I write about in my academic publications, is reserved to the UK (or, indeed, is European law, rather than Scots law). For this reason I did not pay a great deal of professional attention to devolved Scottish politics. Until, that is, the independence referendum came along. As soon as the SNP secured their majority in the 2011 Holyrood election it was clear to me that a referendum was coming and that we unionists had to get ready. I went to see Liberal Democrat ministers in David Cameron’s coalition government. I went to see the leaders of the UK and Scottish Labour party. And I went to see the newly elected leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson. In those days I was a member of no political party. I offered to work with – and for – them all. I worked for the Advocate General, the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Wallace. I worked for the Scottish Conservatives (with the party’s Strathclyde Commission, examining the operation and reform of devolution). But with Labour nothing happened – they kept asking me who I voted for, not what I could offer in Scotland’s constitutional moment of need. They are the most tribal politicians I have ever encountered.
The more I worked with the Conservatives, the more I came to realise that they really got it. They understood what the Union was for and both why, as well as how, it should be defended and celebrated. But they also got what devolution was for and why, as well as how, it should be deepened. At the same time, at the UK level, David Cameron’s government was doing outstanding things that had lain dormant under New Labour’s long neglect. Michael Gove’s education reforms, freeing schools from the shackles of outdated local authority control and empowering parents and the communities schools serve. Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms, ensuring that work always pays and moving people from the immiseration of benefit dependency to the liberation and dignity that comes with work. The record job creation: more than two million jobs created in five years. Theresa May’s liberalising reforms to policing and her determination to outlaw modern slavery. The fact that under the Tories England was leading allegedly left-leaning social democratic Scotland on the big liberal issues of the day (marriage equality being the stand-out example).
This is the kind of Tory I am: liberal, modern, reformist. Committed to the Union, of course, but also to renewing and breathing fresh life into it through devolution and decentralisation, driving power down not hoarding it at the top. This is what I want to argue for in politics, and this is why I am announcing today that I am seeking election to the Scottish Parliament.