It was, of course, predictable that the SNP would dislike Gordon Brown’s proposed reforms to the British constitution. Under Nicola Sturgeon’s increasingly dogmatic leadership, any idea short of full independence for Scotland is now treated with contempt. The days when the nationalists were thoughtful gradualists seem long gone.
And yet Brown’s proposals are considerably more radical for Scotland than anything the SNP has come up with in its 15 years of government. Sadly, devolution has stopped at the border, as the Scottish government has sought to accrue ever more power to itself through policies such as caps on council tax, police centralisation and current proposals to remove local authorities’ role within social care.
Councils are struggling after years of funding restrictions imposed from Holyrood. This situation is unlikely to improve when John Swinney sets out his Scottish Budget on Thursday. Philip Braat, a Labour councillor and the former lord provost of Glasgow, makes the point that “the Scottish government is keen on making announcements that are actually committing local government to do things, but then do not stump up all the cash needed to fulfil those commitments”.
“Local government is not some delivery agent for the SNP in Holyrood,” he adds. And yet that is exactly what the Nats have tried to turn councils into. Local leaders have little control over their finances and little direct link with or profile within the communities they serve.
Brown’s suggestion that Scotland should have directly elected mayors, and that these leaders should be given greater freedom over budgets and key local services, is exactly the kind of innovation the nation’s stale democratic infrastructure needs. Susan Aitken, the SNP leader of Glasgow council, has in the past suggested councils should be given a general fiscal power, freeing them to raise funds and levy local taxes as they see fit and as approved by local electorates. Scotland has laboured for too long under an unimaginative, controlling and increasingly tired Holyrood administration. Many ministers have simply not been up to it intellectually, or have lacked the courage to embrace reform and its challenges.
The Scottish Parliament’s local government committee is about to investigate how the financing of local authorities could be improved. But we’ve been here before: in 2002 the same committee said the system of local government finance needed renewal and that there should be a shift in the balance between local and central revenue raising. In 2014 the committee again recommended greater local fiscal autonomy. It seems like everyone can agree on the problem, but there is a lack of political will to implement the solution. Is this going to change, and if so, how and when?
Scotland’s centralised state – and the SNP’s obsession with control from the centre – is outdated and has been superseded in most of the developed world and in most of the countries the Nats compare an independent Scotland to. Their fear of alternative centres of power and success is stifling the kind of innovation that would potentially lift Scotland into a higher international league – what an irony.