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.
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.