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  1. Politics
18 December 2000

Scotland: the Syria of the north?

Devolution has given new life to old Labour machine politics, argues Tim Luckhurst

By Tim Luckhurst

When Donald Dewar won the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party with 97 per cent of the vote in an unopposed election, he had the decency to be embarrassed. Dewar knew that this was not democratic, that plebiscites in which a sole candidate is endorsed by acclamation are the tactics of Iraq and Syria, not modern democracies. Dewar joked that Hafez al-Assad might have ordered more dissent.

The analogy was good: Scotland has the characteristics of a one-party state and, since Dewar’s death, they have emerged with new vigour.

Devolution has “stalled”. The “wheels of government are clogged” and “decision-making has slowed down”. These are the views of pro-devolution academics, not unreconstructed Tory unionists. They are expressed in an audit of devolution that has just been published by the constitution unit at University College London. One of the academics argues that “constitutional incoherence surely contributes to the democratic deficit in the UK”.

Devolution a contributor to the democratic deficit? The thought is almost blasphemous. But that is the point. Devolution has not made Scotland more progressive. It has sent modernisation into reverse and placed at the heart of Scottish politics the sleaze and authoritarianism practised for decades in the one-party monoliths of Scotland’s Labour councils.

New politics? Not in the bitter conflict over the repeal of Section 28. Consensus? Not when Labour MSPs are fighting tooth and nail to retain the first-past-the-post system for local elections, which routinely gives Labour in Glasgow 90 per cent of the seats for less than 45 per cent of the vote. Radicalism? Not when an education system in crisis cannot be reformed because no Labour politician dare risk the ire of the teaching unions.

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Under Dewar, devolution delivered less than was expected of it. Under his successor, Henry McLeish, the objective has changed. Now Labour seems to be taking its philosophy from the punk-poet John Cooper Clarke. It will aim low and miss.

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As Graham Leicester, the director of the Scottish Council Foundation, puts it: “The party in Scotland has never faced the electoral reverses that forced change . . . in the south. We may have some new institutions, but there is still too much of the old politics about Labour in Scotland.”

Blunter voices in the Scottish press go further. Labour in Scotland is complacent and institutionally corrupt. The Scottish Labour Party has gone the way of all traditional establishments: it has forgotten what it was created to do and concentrates exclusively on self-preservation.

Devolution was not sold as a clever constitutional device. It was presented as a means of bringing power closer to people. Devolution was to change Scotland a lot, while altering Britain only slightly. It was not abstruse academic theory, but the means by which social justice, great schools, excellent healthcare and decent housing would be delivered to the people.

And what has happened? Cautious, constipated government. A Labour Party paralysed by the fear of offending powerful vested interests, and a producer mentality in which schools are run for teachers not pupils, and local authorities for their staff not council-tax payers.

The fault lies squarely with the party, not the institutions. The devolved settlement in Scotland is more advanced and better designed than in any other part of the UK. The Scottish Parliament does not lack the power to make a difference – as the Welsh Assembly clearly does – it lacks the will to use them.

In the constitution unit report, Graham Leicester hints at the tests that McLeish, Dewar’s successor, must pass if he is to confound the sceptics: reform of the electoral system for local government; fundamental change in an education system that is no longer the envy of the United Kingdom, let alone the world.

Yet already McLeish has postponed Scotland’s next round of council elections, for no better reason than that he needs time to fudge an issue that can break his coalition and provoke revolt on his back benches. Jack McConnell, the Education Minister, has made gestures towards educational reform – but McConnell has done nothing more than tinker with the most outrageous anomalies in a fundamentally flawed system. A new phrase has been coined to describe McLeish’s tendency towards the glib and nebulous. It is “the McLeishe”, but nobody is laughing.

Scottish Labour has lost none of its conservatism. We have machine politics, not conviction politics. MSPs who were supposed to discover independence of mind have been cravenly loyal to the party whip. They know they owe their jobs to the party’s selection system and only incidentally to the electorate.

Scotland expects more of McLeish than pseudo state visits to the Vatican. It expects change. Disillusionment will spread and deepen if it is not forthcoming. If McLeish believed he had inherited a sinecure, he was wrong. Dewar’s repu-tation survived a lacklustre year in office because the man was so obviously brilliant and committed.

McLeish starts with neither of those attributes and an increased burden of expectation. If he fails, it will be because Scottish Labour has changed the constitution without changing itself. The brightest ministers in the Scottish Executive know this – they should not wait too long before concluding that the squalid internal fix that had McLeish elected with no proper ballot of the party membership was not just embarrassing, but a grotesque manifestation of old Labour machine politics in action.

Tim Luckhurst is a former editor of the Scotsman. He was research assistant and press officer to Donald Dewar, 1985-88