Devolution will never live up to expectations

From a Royal Society of Arts lecture by Edinburgh University's professor of educational policy, Lindsay Paterson, given at the city's book festival
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The Independent Online

Scotland has been characterised as a land of lost dreams - of revolutionary utopianism ground into disappointment. Many commentators have interpreted the first year of the Scottish Parliament as another such experience. They point to the enormously high expectations that people had at the time of the referendum just three years ago, voting overwhelmingly to set up the Parliament. As elections approached in May 1999, the Parliament seemed to be acquiring epochal significance - a revolution that would give Scotland its first government for three centuries, and its first taste of real democracy ever.

Scotland has been characterised as a land of lost dreams - of revolutionary utopianism ground into disappointment. Many commentators have interpreted the first year of the Scottish Parliament as another such experience. They point to the enormously high expectations that people had at the time of the referendum just three years ago, voting overwhelmingly to set up the Parliament. As elections approached in May 1999, the Parliament seemed to be acquiring epochal significance - a revolution that would give Scotland its first government for three centuries, and its first taste of real democracy ever.

The current lamentations note the readiness of people to tell more recent surveys that the Parliament has not made much of an impact: one for BBC Scotland on the first anniversary of the elections found a third of people rating the Parliament's performance as poor and only a quarter rating it as good. My purpose is to analyse this disappointment. Could a merely home-rule Parliament ever have lived up to expectations that were heaped on it?

Three points are relevant to the way in which the Union operated from 1707 until fairly recently. First, the Union was partial: it did not take away from Scotland any of the major institutions of civic life, notably the church, the legal system and the system of local government. It was an amalgamation of Parliaments and little else. This established the precedent that what we would now call social policy would be debated and made in Scotland by Scottish agencies.

Second, partly because of that, the Union allowed a distinctive Scottish social ethic to flourish. This started as the sense of social responsibility that was a product of presbyterianism.

Third, all these protected civic institutions managed to maintain their semi-autonomy through nationalist pressure - not because of the enlightened goodwill of the British state, but because Scots have recurrently asserted their separateness.

The old Union, when working at its most effective, consulted widely, tried to link different areas of social policy together, and brought into being some of the most distinctive features of current Scottish life. That is what Scottish social democratic unionism amounted to, and it is a signal achievement. And I think, therefore, that we mustn't underestimate the extent to which the project for Scottish home rule has been conditioned by a memory of this experience.

Important though features of the new Scottish social policy are, they are not more distinctive than the kinds of policy from the old Union. Perhaps all this says is that the scope for a small nation to be distinctive is restricted to variations on common themes, whatever the governing system.

My main point is to induce a sense of perspective. If we want to find out whether coherent government is feasible, we have to look at the 1940s and after. If we want to see what a pluralistic democracy looks like, we have to examine the old policy communities. But saying that the Scottish Parliament is recovering the best of Scottish unionist policy-making is hardly likely to excite a people that has entertained such utopian hopes for so long.

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