Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Scotland
10 February 2022

Scotland badly needs its own version of levelling up

The SNP should turn its attention to Scotland’s vast regional inequalities.

By Chris Deerin

Sometimes in politics an idea takes root that in hindsight seems obvious. It transcends governments and political allegiance and becomes a decades-long, shared project. England’s school reforms are a good recent example. Having in effect started under Margaret Thatcher’s education secretary Kenneth Baker, they were taken on by New Labour and then by David Cameron’s returning Tories. The current vista of academies and free schools – now around 50 per cent of all England’s schools – owes much to the general agreement that greater daily freedom for practitioners and less involvement of the state would improve results.

It seems possible, if not likely, that levelling up is another. Interviewing Peter Mandelson on Thursday (10 February) for my think tank Reform Scotland, I asked him whether the project should be picked up by an incoming Labour government. “Of course,” he said. Now the genie is out of the bottle it seems likely voters will quickly come to expect any new government to commit to advancing the policy. It will come to seem an obviously good idea.

Levelling up and other forms of localism will be high on the agenda for years to come. The success of directly-elected mayors is leading to demands for more of them, and with greater powers. Since lockdown, and since working from home became the norm for many people, we have all got used to spending more time in our local communities, be they cities, towns or villages. We can see the clear decline of the local high street, and pay more attention to the scars left by long-term cuts to council budgets. Our experience of greater control in many aspects of our lives, and the desire for more control, lends itself to demanding greater local accountability and autonomy.

England has roared ahead on this agenda, with the government’s recent white paper a mix of genuinely useful suggestions, sticking plasters and apparent Govian intellectual peacockery. It’s a start, at least.

In Scotland, the phrase “levelling up” has no echo, as yet. But there are stirrings in the undergrowth. At Reform Scotland we’ve been pointing out for a while that simply comparing Scotland to England, or even to the English regions, is of limited value. Scotland does better than most regions south of the border, and data from London and the south-east anyway warps the picture. What makes for more worthwhile examination are the differences within Scotland, covering areas such as income, GDP, GVA, employment, educational performance, life expectancy and other health measurements.

This week, Economics Observatory released a paper titled “Levelling up: What Might it Mean for Scotland”. It is largely an audit of publicly available information, but nevertheless full of fascinating comparisons. For example, GDP per head in Edinburgh is £46,027, compared with £16,122 in East and North Ayrshire. Edinburgh is increasingly Scotland’s “dark star”, as Alex Salmond once described London, leaving the rest of Scotland behind in its economic performance.

The former industrial cities still bear the painful legacy of 1980s reforms, while the decline of North Sea oil is starting to hit Aberdeen and the north-east, previously outstanding economic performers. Rural economies tend to be struggling, and to have older populations. In Dumfries and Galloway, the report finds, the median age is 50, while in Glasgow it is 36.

Content from our partners
How to navigate the modern cyber-threat landscape
Supporting customers through the cost of living crisis
Data on cloud will change the way you interact with the government

The percentage of working-age people claiming benefits is 2.4 in East Renfrewshire and 6.2 in Glasgow. Female life expectancy at birth is highest in East Renfrewshire, at 84, and lowest in Glasgow, at 78.3. Among men it is 80.6 in the Shetland Islands and 73.1 in Glasgow. Inverclyde, Dundee City and South Ayrshire have all experienced a decrease in life expectancy since the early 2010s.

Parts of Scotland are not well linked up. You cannot travel by train directly from Edinburgh to Dumfries. It takes nearly as long to reach Inverness by train from Edinburgh or Glasgow as it does to reach London, despite the former journey being about 150 miles and the latter about 400. With the SNP nationalising the ScotRail franchise, it is hard to imagine we are entering a new golden era for rail travel. Equally, the Nats have shown little interest in passing greater powers to local authorities or in establishing directly-elected mayors with a local mandate, substantial powers, and accountability.

I wrote last week about the risk that the SNP is going to have been in power at Holyrood for decades without completing many big, strategic programmes. The party has spent too much of its time in office firefighting and seeking to advance the cause of Scottish independence. A serious, joined-up approach to tackling the data mentioned above, seeking to drag the poorest-performing parts of Scotland closer to the best, would be a fine use of political capital and in time a worthwhile legacy to leave behind. But don’t hold your breath.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. Your new guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture each weekend - from the New Statesman. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.