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6 September 1999

From muddle and mess, a new politics

New Statesman Scotland - Only by going to the edge of chaos, the argument goes, can Scotlan

By Graham Leicester

If you are seeking clarity about the nature of the new politics, do not start in Scotland. Despite a summer of feverish activity, no one seems any the wiser about how things are going to work now the parliament is ready to get down to business. The confusion, contortion and occasional shambles of the parliament’s first weeks before the recess set a tone that will be difficult to break away from. It led many to write the parliament off from the start.

Yet, as David Marquand has wisely noted, the whole constitutional reform programme is designed to be this way: “the muddled, messy work of practical men and women, unintellectual when not positively anti-intellectual . . . a revolution of sleepwalkers who don’t know quite where they are going or quite why.” But the good news lies in Marquand’s conclusion: “muddle and mess are often the midwives of change.”

Hang on to that thought. Something remarkable is happening in the new Scotland, even though we may not yet have the eyes to see it. The modern management gurus all tell us that we cannot expect transformational change in a complex system until it has moved to “the edge of chaos”. Signs of confusion and discomfort should therefore be taken as encouraging. Yet the forces of resistance and reaction are still all too evident: old habits die hard, especially in a small country where genuinely new blood and good new ideas are hard to find.

Hence the media over the summer has been full of stories reinforcing the old politics: John Reid vs Donald Dewar; teachers’ strike threats; Machiavellian manoeuvring over the timing of the Hamilton by-election. Like a good many people with a vested interest in the old ways, there are parts of the Scottish media that earnestly wish to carry on as if nothing has really changed. Some, in the view of the deputy editor of the Glasgow Herald, have already “turned into naked propagandists” and “forfeited the moral authority” to act as impartial keepers of the new order. So they have. But so, too, do we lack authoritative guides to the new processes that are unfolding before us.

In introducing his legislative programme, Dewar was at pains to stress that it would take some time to enact this in a culture of consultation and open parliamentary politics, and that in any event there was plenty that the government could do without having to legislate. In a memorable phrase, which I am told he wrote himself, he stressed the powers of government “to connect, persuade, cajole, encourage, preach and lead” to achieve its objectives. That is a subtle and modern message – but there is not yet a critical mass in the media willing to acknowledge its truth and the changed nature of the political process it describes. The new politics is just not news.

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But it will become news. Anyone who watched the declarations around the country on 6 May will have had the bizarre experience of seeing time and again the loser coming to the podium, magnanimous in defeat, only to return a couple of hours later to celebrate victory through the regional list. One candidate at least had gone home to his bed and only learnt of his victory later that morning from teletext. That night showed dramatically that in Scotland the rules of the political game really have changed.

One obvious option is to go back. There is already an air of the Restoration about devolution: the return of a parliament after 300 years, the repatriation of powers to Edinburgh, the chance to reverse the policy errors of the Conservative years. That, if you like, is the default political position. If the parliament and our future political leaders who lie somewhere within it do not fashion something new and creative out of the muddle and the mess but are content to let things revert to the old ways, then Scotland will stand still – and then quickly fall even further behind.

But equally, Scotland could surprise us all. In the midst of this old country, with its tendency to tradition, deference and the politics of the machine rather than the apple tree, there is a vibrant young country trying to get out. Look at the arts, film, books, multimedia and the new creative industries. There is yeastiness about Scotland just now, even if it often takes an outsider to notice it, respond to it – and put some capital behind it.

There is some of this yeastiness in the new cabinet: four cabinet ministers under the age of 40, brought up in the modern world, a new generation. They are people who know that the future will be nothing like the past, that the education they received will not equip their children for the complexities of the next century, that environmental concern is not an optional extra but a pressing necessity and that if Scotland does not wake up to the deep implications of the knowledge economy, the gains of the past 30 years will have been for nothing. This is a generation that in London fills the swollen ranks of the special advisers who enjoy power without responsibility. In Scotland Dewar has given them both.

It is a bold step that deserves to succeed. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is the essence of modernity. In a world of networked, interconnected, decentralised and empowered individuals and organisations, we are coming to explode the “myth of the hero CEO”, as Peter Senge puts it in his new book, The Dance of Change. In an age of mess and muddle, “worshipping the cult of the hero-leader is a sure-fire way to maintain change-averse institutions. In fact, one can hardly think of a better strategy to achieve precisely this goal.” Dewar is not Tony Blair – but perhaps his quiet self-deprecation, his moral authority, his spin-free honesty and his willingness to put his trust in youth are better suited to the times.

Indeed if those around him could but pick up on his message, rather than straining after the control and certainty that are the hallmarks of the No 10 operation, they might turn out to be better politicians. A more mature politics requires a more mature political debate – evidence-based, long-term, inquiring, not the spun confection that propels tuition fees to centre stage and reduces even the most complex of modern policy challenges to three bullet points and an election pledge. That goes for the personal politics, too, where at present there is a risk that the covert race to replace Dewar will dissipate the energy for profound change. That would be the worst of the old politics in a small country.

Perhaps one of the best litmus tests of the new Scottish settlement will be how it deals with the challenge of Sir Donald Acheson’s report on inequalities in health in England (students of devolution, please note), published last December. That report argued that an unequal society is an unhealthy one. It laid down both a managerial challenge – how do we make “healthy public policy”? – and a moral one – why should we bother?

Scotland will have no trouble rising to the moral challenge. Acheson revealed no more than Scots already know in their bones. There is no avoiding the issue of inequality in Scottish society: it stares out of every set of statistics, gaping, shaming and mocking the self-image of a cohesive, consensual nation. It is the biggest challenge for the Scottish government. Perhaps it is the only one. But the managerial challenge is one we have still not taken on. We still seem to assume that if we work harder, talk longer and involve more people in the decision-making process, all will be well. Little thought is given to the need to fashion a common vocabulary for that dialogue, ways of stimulating creativity and innovation in the system, or effective machinery to turn idealism and commitment into action.

Devolution offers an opportunity to remedy that, to fashion a machinery of governance that encourages policy-making guided by a strategic vision and reflecting the complexities of the modern world. Scotland’s size should facilitate the former, and the strong idealistic tradition in Scotland needs to be reinvigorated to supply the vision to fuel the latter. Both elements are necessary. Maybe, just maybe, we shall see them come together effectively here. If so, it will be for the first time, and reforming social democrats will be beating a path to Morales’s upturned boats to see what magical transformation has occurred beneath.

Graham Leicester is director of the Scottish Council Foundation. The foundation is running a workshop on “Inequality: the healthy public policy response” at the “New Statesman” conference on 8 September

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