TOM HARRIS fears our obsession with the constitution has not served Scotland well


I recently read Andrew Adonis’s excellent book, “Education Education Education”, detailing the last Labour government’s attempts to reform the comprehensive schools system in England.

For many politically-minded Scots, any mention of the academies programme will provoke an impatient “tsk!” and a rolling of the eyes. Our antipathy towards such initiatives, including those described as “Blairite”, is based on two facts of Scottish political and civic life: we are an incredibly conservative nation (do I really need to add “with a small c”?), and we believe as an article of faith that there is virtually no problem facing our nation to which the solution is not “more money”.

In England, there is a huge ongoing debate about how the challenges of the 21st century – in health provision, education and welfare, to name but three – can be met, and how radical or innovative our approaches need to be.

But here in Scotland, any idea that we should actually change the structures of, say, the health service, are met with gasps of “Heretic!” Or, even worse, “Tory!” If it was good enough for Nye Bevan and for 1950s Britain, it’s good enough for us!

In education, we have managed to convince ourselves that we have the best secondary provision in the UK. Even if that’s true (and I have my doubts), that’s not a tremendously high bar. We still have too many under-performing schools, far too few working class pupils going to university, far too many unable properly to read and write when they leave school.

Were anyone, least of all Andrew Adonis, to suggest that the true potential of genuinely comprehensive education might be better achieved under a new structure – for example, academies free from local authority control and with private sector sponsorship and leadership – it would be met by howls of derision, most of which would emanate from Scotland’s conservative vested interests.

Meanwhile, the coalition government’s “reform” of welfare reform has been so appallingly implemented that it has given comfort to those whose only response to the immoral, shameful waste of human lives caused by welfare dependency has been: “Increase benefits.”

Where are the ideas? Where are the think tanks coming up with new, imaginative solutions? If they’re there, no-one’s listening to them.

Why? The depressing answer is that in Scotland, we have far more important things to focus on than silly little things like the future of the health service, the prospects of our kids or the future and purpose of the welfare state; we have the constitution to think about!

For the whole of my adult life, media, political and academic debate has been hijacked by the constitutional issue. Like a political black hole, its density and mass suck in everything around it, preventing even light escaping its gravitational force. Energy that should properly be used to create new ideas and new solutions are instead diverted into the constitutional navel-gazing to which the political class and media are addicted.

Scottish Labour shares responsibility. We could have tried harder to lead a debate about how devolution could be exploited for the benefit of the people. Instead, too often we found ourselves repeating the meaningless mantra that decisions taken closer to the people would be better for them, without pointing out that that would be true only if those decisions were the right ones.

In this respect, however, Scottish Labour has an advantage over our nationalist opponents. For (most of) us, devolution was never an end in itself; Donald Dewar’s dream was of a devolved Scotland, firmly within the UK but developing unique and radical policies that might even inspire the rest of the country once they were seen to succeed in Scotland. Devolution was nothing more than a vehicle by which we could deliver better policy solutions. Nationalists, on the other hand, however much they will deny it, see “independence” as the end result of their struggle. A bad decision made in Edinburgh is, they believe, better than a good decision made on our behalf by Westminster.

Scottish Labour, therefore, should feel more confident about developing new policy solutions for a devolved Scotland, solutions that, it’s to be hoped, will challenge rather than comfort the establishments of government – local, national or guango-ised.

Such solutions have been a long time coming. “More money” is a slogan, not a solution, and Scottish voters can see through it. They deserve more than that. They deserve a grown-up debate, a debate that opponents don’t try to close down by shouting abuse and in which participants’ motives are not deliberately misrepresented.

Imagine a devolved Scotland free from the obsession with “independence”; just think what we could achieve if we focused on real problems facing the Scottish people in the here and now. The SNP, by definition, cannot lead that debate because their imagined utopia depends on a major constitutional change which is unlikely to happen. Scottish Labour can, because the constitutional changes we campaigned for have already been achieved, with more to come.

That future is still within our grasp. Instead of wringing our hands at our well-deserved defeat last year and bemoaning the (admittedly real) dangers the SNP pose to Scotland, we can embrace devolution and its original purpose. We can – and should – transform the current dry, constitutional debate from a process story in which only the politically anoraked are interested into one about real people’s lives.

We still have time to prove that Donald did not dream in vain.

Tom Harris is the MP for Glasgow South and is a Shadow Environment Minister. Follow him on Twitter at @TomHarrisMP.

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15 thoughts on “Where’s the big idea?

  1. The constitutional debate has poisoned the political debate in Scotland, as every issue is seen through it, and specifically the rivalry between the SNP and Labour.

    We’ve really stood still as a country since 2007, compared to the transformative things that were done in the first two parliaments. Under the minority adminstration of 2007, nothing happened as the two main parties blocked each other, and since 2011 nothing has happened as the SNP are treading water for the referendum.

    1. ‘The constitutional debate has poisoned the political debate in Scotland’

      Only to those who are against constitutional change, or more accurately, those political parties against constitutional change.

      For everyone else, a societal debate on the constitution, how we are governed, exploring new avenues of political structure etc, can be deemed a very healthy thing.

      1. Whilst examining the constitutional model of a nation is healthy at times, in Scotland it the only debate in town. There is no real substantive debate in Scotland other than the debate over whether we are in or out of the UK. A bit like at a UKIP conference there is no real debate over anything but the ‘nasty, horrible, vicious’ EU.

        Scottish politics has no real vision of what society it wants to create, Salmond has no big idea beyond independence. His vision of Scotland is what it is now, with increased spending. He’s happy with the structure of our education system, won’t challenge the idea of religious state education for one, won’t look at new models of public transport for fear of offending the conglomerates which run our busses, or challenge First group on innovative ways to run the railways. Where has the big, game changing policy been? Where is the reforms to strengthen communities? Where is the reform for universal child care? or the push regenerate our failing town centres and substandard housing? Where’s the drive to eradicate child poverty? They are all beneath the surface or behind the curtain whilst the Constitutional question still remains unanswered. It’s time we got back to real everyday politics.

  2. Yes we should be looking at other things rather than the constitution but until that is decided of course it is going to be in the way. Isn’t that why Scotland has to decide once and for all about Independence and soon? As for looking to academies as a way of modernising education – think again. Scotland may be a conservative nation but that stems from a sense of equality and fairness. Want to have a fair, modern and progressively comprehensive education system? Then get rid of all fee paying schools and invest in the future of all Scottish children equally.

  3. The constitutional question is never, ever going to go away until one thing happens – independence.

    Even if a No vote is returned in 2014. It’ll run and run until the inevitable happens.

    Best get it out of the way soon, and move on.

    1. You might be right, but only if Eck was lying. He said a “No” vote would kill the independence issue “for a generation”. I have a higher regard for his honesty than you do, apparently.

      1. What’s your point? How is ‘Eck’ relevant? And anyway, how on earth does he know what’s going to happen? He’s speculating. It’s got nothing to do with his ‘honesty’

        If a No vote is returned the debate will just intensify, leading to more and more wrangling, bad blood and division.

        As I said, the constitutional question will only be resolved with independence. The genie is now out of the bottle. In fact, it was never fully in the bottle in the first place.

        It’s pure delusional fantasy and wishful thinking on unionists part, that somehow the question of Scottish independence can be resolved ‘once and for all’ while Scotland remains in the union.

      2. How can an opinion if proved wrong be classed as lying? An opinion is just an opinion nothing more.

  4. Sorry Heather, abolishing private education in Morningside will do little to improve state education in less affluent parts of Edinburgh, and the same holds for Glasgow, Dundee …. Is Jordanhill such a bad model?

  5. We happen, at this time, to live in the EU. The proper rational for this organisation would have been as a Pan-European Government, with common taxation, benefits, armed forces ect. This has not happened nor will it. We are all at heart “nationalists”, including Labour, if people are honest. Until people find the “nationality” that suits them, we are stuck with this debate. I have little doubt that most Scots would settle for Devo-Max (basically federalism), but are to be denied any vote on this to protect Westminster hegemony on political and economic issues. I dont understand Labours stand on this, if they indeed wish to be servants to the people and not their masters.

  6. You say the SNP can’t lead the debate due to their obsession with independence, but can’t it be said that Scottish Labour are equally obsessed with staying in the union? Given that there is no chance the SNP will move from this stance isn’t it up to Labour to take a less polarised view? Why is there no debate within the party about whether areas like education, health or welfare might be better served by being independent rather than within the union?

  7. Far too many Labour hacks, particularly post 1992 election saw devolution as a way to nullify Thatcherism and the likelihood of further UK electoral defeat. The full implications never appeared to be thought through. A child spawned to nullify the UK Cons has become a truculent Nat adolescent intent on giving his parents the occasional slap. SNP wont win referendum but I don’t hear any vision or big idea from Labour in Scotland.

  8. If Labour have big ideas to add to the post-constitutional debate or even to enliven the debate process itself then I’d like to hear them. I feelI’ve been waiting a long time – like Tom almost all my adult life. However, unlike Tom I’d like to recall the missed opportunities. I remember,for example, that before the Labour victory of 1997 we had Labour promises on all sorts of constitutional reform like Charter 88 which would have rebalanced the power of the citizen viz a vis the state. There are constitutional developments- up to and including independence IMO – which have the potential to free up the way we think about public services and service delivery in modern Scotland and within a Scottish context. However, the current institutional inertia in Scotland has been in large part cultivated by the Labour Party and has served it well – up until now that is.
    Constitutional reform does not need to be a barrier to new political and institutional thinking – indeed it could well be a catalyst – releasing new creative energy and freeing some of Scotland’s vested interests from institutional capture. Which is why Scottish Labour are missing a trick and why Tom’s article is limiting since ultimately he is taking a limited and may I say predictibly narrow and politically conservative (small c) view of constitutional reform.

  9. “A bad decision made in Edinburgh is, they believe, better than a good decision made on our behalf by Westminster.”

    Absolutely correct – that is exactly what democracy is all about: we get to make our own decisions, be they good or bad.

    Of course, Unionists believe that “A bad decision made in London is better than a good decision made by us in Scotland.”

  10. I dunno Tom, where’s the big idea, ain’t you paid to come up with a big idea? no point in quoting MacMillan , as there doesn’t seem to be any notion of building council homes. Nye was said there’s no point just standing in the middle of the road, you’ll just get knocked down.I throw a challenge down Tom from an ordinary bloke to an MP. give an idea on a way forward and I’ll throw one back. Hows that!!!

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