24 October 2006

The J.A. MacNumpty Lecture

(with apologies to the estate of J.P. Mackintosh)

I thought I'd consider the expected theme of Jack McConnell's presentation at the J.P. Mackintosh Lecture: namely the fear that a debate about Holyrood's powers could lead to inertia. This is one of Labour's favourite themes in the run-up to an election: raising worries that the SNP's desire for independence would lead to schools and hospitals being sidelined.

The problem with this idea is that it conveniently ignores the fact that any party who forms the Executive will put together a Cabinet of Ministers, each with separate jobs. So one focuses on hospitals, another on schools, and another on, say, the economy. That way, the Executive can do more than one thing at a time. It's hard, therefore, for an entire group of Ministers to focus on just one thing, forgetting that they all have their own job to do.

But consider this: the fear that the SNP are single-minded, and will focus only on the constitution, is the only thing that Labour have really said about the post-2007 situation. We've heard lots from Labour about the Union, but we don't actually know what their vision for schools and hospitals actually is. Considering that their Ministers love to mention the words 'schools' and 'hospitals' in their speeches, you'd think that by now we'd have some idea of what they want to do with them!

Meanwhile, you have the SNP campaigning against student debt, proposing a replacement for PFI, and seeking to prevent the closure of the Monklands A&E Department. So while Labour acknowledge that schools and hospitals actually exist, it's the SNP proposing to do something with them. While Labour accuse the SNP about obsessing over the constitution, the SNP are trying to put forward policies on everything else (well, let's face it, most people by now have a fairly good idea of what the SNP's policy on the constitution is), and Labour are left talking about... the constitution. Oh dear.

McConnell is expected to discuss the 'inertia' brought about by talking only about Holyrood's powers rather than using the ones it already has. I have to admit that I'm not entirely comfortable taking lessons on inertia from a man whose slogan was 'Do less, better', but there you go. The thing is, this again ignores the Cabinet idea: a Health Minister can already deal with NHS matters and is expected to do so: it's someone else's job to put together a blueprint for transferring extra powers to the Scottish Parliament.

Moreover, McConnell is talking about no further powers for Holyrood at this time. If inertia isn't acceptable for the NHS or education, why should it be acceptable for the Scottish Parliament? And with rumours that Ministers are considering allowing asylum applications in Scotland to be dealt with in Scotland rather than by the Home Office (a single state with two different immigration policies? is that wise?), will McConnell turn any such plans down, as Holyrood has enough to be getting on with?

Further, what Labour hasn't realised is the nature of the constitutional discussions in each of the parties: the SNP's position is pretty conclusive in that when 100% of powers are transferred from London to Edinburgh, the constitution debate as we know it becomes basically obsolete. The LibDem idea behind fiscal autonomy is that the Scottish Parliament ought to be in charge of raising money that it wants to spend, and even if you look at that proposal through a Unionist prism, there's a logic to it insofar as the current system allows Holyrood a good deal of spending power but with very limited fiscal responsibility, while also tying Scottish spending plans to what a UK Government wants to pass Scotland's way. The Tories see extra financial powers as a means to an end (at least, those who support them do): namely the reduction of corporate tax levels in an attempt to stimulate business. All three of those parties will still release a manifesto next year which contains policies on what Holyrood can do. So the Labour justification for maintaining the status quo, that otherwise Scotland's politicians will forget about other matters, doesn't wash. It's not so much an argument, as an attempt to kill the debate, and it hasn't worked.

One final point: while Jack McConnell is accusing the other parties of obsessing about Holyrood's powers (even though he himself is really talking about little else), Labour activists are writing to newspapers accusing the SNP of 'parking' independence, and talking about everything except their flagship policy. Now, I know that the Labour Party is meant to be a broad church, but really, this is ridiculous: these two ideas are contrary positions as they can't both be true. And most impartial observers will tell you that they're both false.

So we have a situation where different parts of Labour are saying completely different things, neither of which are true, a statement from the party's senior spokespeople which appears hypocritical when viewed in the full context of what they're actually saying, and an idea which is unambitious to say the least.

So at the end of it all, the question is this: do they think the voters are idiots, or are they actually trying to lose next year?


Neil Craig said...

McConnell's argument that the SNP wouldn't have time left over to do anything else also falls on looking at what Mr "the economy is our number one priority" has been doing over the last 4 years.


(Well ok we have had a promise that the business rates will, in due course, by returned to the level they were before Mconnell interfered & of course we have the 10% reduction in pub business due to our glorious smoking ban)

Anonymous said...

An incredibly incisive piece J Arthur. Good enough to be an opinion piece in a paper. Should offer it to them - and copyright your lines in case they get others stealing them.

Mark McDonald said...

Dear Will

Why were you never this insightful when we debated together?!?

Yours jokingly


Will said...

I thought it would have been rude to outshine you too much. :D