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by James Mitchell
08 May 2024
The Scottish Parliament is 25 - it's time it grew up

The Scottish Parliament is 25 years old | Alamy

The Scottish Parliament is 25 - it's time it grew up

Addressing the inequalities that have endured throughout the Scottish Parliament’s 25 years requires grown-up decision making

The early years of devolution coincided with massive growth in public spending – greater than any time outside war – across the UK. Scottish spending was linked to changes in corresponding spending in England. Though Labour inherited Tory spending plans for its first two years in office, devolved government operated at the end of this period. 

Scotland shared in Tony Blair’s announcement in January 2000 that spending on health would increase to the European average by 2006. Between fiscal years 1999/2000 and 2003/04, total public spending as a share of Scottish GDP rose from 45 per cent to 51 per cent (compared with 37 per cent to 41 per cent for the UK as a whole). The total amount of money spent by the Scottish Executive grew by 46 per cent in real terms over the first two sessions of parliament.

The problem is that governments, like most people, tend to be spendthrifts when money is plentiful. And that was evident in those glorious early years. ‘Free’ tuition and generous care for the elderly became flagship policies. And there was much else.  

All good things come to an end when money is tight, but it is very difficult to reverse existing spending commitments. People are more likely to oppose cuts in existing services than demand new services. The most organised and voluble, who are also those most likely to vote, will have their preferred services protected while those most in need will not be so well heard.

As the 2007 Spending Review approached, Minister for Finance and Public Services Tom McCabe asked for a review of devolved budgets. Choices for a Purpose: Review of Scottish Executive Budgets was completed in July 2006 but would not see the light of day until after the following year’s election.

Under lead reviewer Bill Howatt, the former chief executive of Western Isles Council, the 181-page report argued for a more formal and rigorous process for assessing effective performance. Spending the available budget, the review maintained, had been prioritised over clearly defining what needed to be provided and there was too much micro-management. The review referred to the “crowded landscape” of agencies and public bodies and sought “headroom” to allow for the realignment of priorities. It was a thorough but uncomfortable piece of work that ought to have attracted much more attention and action than it did.

It would not be the last such review that would gather dust. A further inquiry, a concession by the SNP to the Tories in Holyrood, was conducted. The Independent Budget Review (IBR) was published in July 2010. It noted the increasing pressure on public services not least due to demographic changes and commented on the expansion of “free or subsidised public services on a near universal scale” under devolution. It noted that these had benefitted a “wide range of people” and that the issue was “not one of desirability, but of affordability”. It called for an outcomes-based approach and noted the “plethora” of public institutions.  

Fourteen years on and the Scottish Government still struggles to understand outcomes. The National Performance Framework (NPF) had been launched in an attempt to address deficiencies. But new-fangled structures are no substitute for hard political decisions. Ministers and officials still search for some administrative holy grail – as witnessed in recent developments over reviews of the NPF and ‘expert’ groups considering improving outcomes. The Scottish Government “outcomes-focused policy making in Scotland” typifies the evasive waffle we have seen across government. Buzzwords abound while difficult choices are avoided.

At some point hard choices will have to be made. So far, as well as dumping problems of its own making on local authorities, the Scottish Government proceeds to blame the others for its own failings. There have been suggestions that another major review of spending is needed but that makes sense only if action follows. There is a case for a review to highlight the scale of the task, offer options and prepare public opinion for some painful choices. But another worthy report that gathers dust is pointless.

The longer these choices are delayed the more painful it will be. The danger is that cuts will continue to be made where it is politically easiest rather than where it is necessary. There is nothing new in this nor is this a peculiarly Scottish problem. Ron Chernow’s magnificent biography of Alexander Hamilton includes a great quote (not used in the musical). Hamilton was repelled by cowardice and selfishness in the New York legislature: “The inquiry constantly is what will please, not what will benefit the people.” This resulted in “temporary expedient, fickleness and folly”. 

The hordes have long been creeping towards the Scottish Government’s gate. Nobody can claim that we have been caught unawares. The Scottish Parliament is 25 and needs to grow up fast. It no longer gets the kind of generous handouts from Westminster of the past – though still gets generous support. If we are to address inequalities and take climate change seriously then not only must economic growth be prioritised, as previously discussed, but a shift needs to take place in the allocation of resources.  

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