Different strokes

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by John Cooke

Apart from the fact that it has caused tension within the Coalition, those in Scotland have had little reason to pay much attention to the Health and Social Care Bill – now in the Westminster Parliament – as it is chiefly concerned with reorganisation in the NHS in England. However, buried deep in the Bill’s undergrowth, are provisions to abolish a number of ‘arms-length bodies’, and merge their functions into a new organisation to be known as ‘Public Health England’.

And, why, you may ask, should Scots be interested in this? It is because one of the bodies that will become part of this new outfit is the Health Protection Agency; and in one of the quirks of the devolution settlement, it provides advice, not just to English ministers, but also to those in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and will continue to do so under the new arrangements.

I’m sure this advice will continue to be just as good and just as professional whatever it’s called. But it does seem a bit odd that someone in Whitehall thought it appropriate, if they considered the question at all, to have UK-wide advice being provided by something called Public Health England.

This is not a matter of being over-sensitive or politically correct on behalf of Scots. The UK’s central bank has been called the Bank of England since before the Act of Union and it doesn’t bother me. But calling a new body, with UK-wide responsibility, ‘Public Health England’ does matter. It matters because it is symptomatic of a wider problem facing Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland), which is that the Whitehall-based civil service, by and large, does not ‘get’ Scotland.

Collectively, it regards Scotland, to borrow Neville Chamberlain’s phrase about Czechoslovakia, as ‘a faraway country of which we know little’. Except that it tends not to regard Scotland as a country at all, but merely as another English region, like East Anglia or the West Midlands, for example, only with more mountains. This if often encountered where some English people use the term ‘England’ when they are, in fact, referring to ‘Britain’ or ‘United Kingdom’.

This clearly doesn’t apply to every single civil servant; and even with the individuals to whom it does, this is rarely attributable to a deliberate anti-Scottish bias. Rather, it is caused largely because people’s view of the world is conditioned by their everyday environment and experiences. For many of those framing policy from a desk in London, that means a daily commute by train, tube, or bus in a metropolitan conurbation covering 628 square miles and with a population of 8.5 million. That dwarfs Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, which covers a mere 68 square miles, and has only 2.3 million people. Indeed, Greater London has more residents than the whole of Scotland.

Subconsciously, Whitehall’s working model of the world is actually a mental model of Greater London. Nor are those working there likely to see anything to offer an alternative to that model, as, especially, since devolution, the London-based ‘national’ media largely ignores Scottish issues, except to report on crime, or to point out differences in prescription charges or university tuition fees. UK policy makers also operate within a context that includes the Scotland Act, which reserved certain powers to Westminster. This encourages the wholly erroneous assumption that there is no need to take into account any distinctively Scottish aspect of a given issue.

All this will have a powerful effect on how a civil servant will draft legislation or policy, even if it is meant to apply UK-wide. Its effect is often to lumber Scotland with ‘one size fits all’ policies that simply do not take proper account of Scottish circumstances, in practice even if not by design.

One example has been the way in which Ofgem regulates electricity transmission charging, favouring investment in energy generation close to large centres of population. This probably makes sense if you’re sitting in an office in London SW1, and thinking about large-scale, fossil fuel power stations built near the cities they serve. It makes no sense, though, if you want to encourage renewable energy, when many of the best locations are in some of Scotland’s remoter spots.

Or take high-speed rail. The men from the ministry use their models to calculate the return on investment, and these models put a premium on travellers’ journey times, rather than on the wider economic benefit that result from better transport links. The models tell them to favour cutting a few minutes off the journey time between London and Birmingham, rather than investing first in providing high-speed rail to the areas where it would give the greatest benefit, i.e. Glasgow and Edinburgh. But that doesn’t compute from a London perspective.

Then we have the Digital Economy Act 2010. It sets a target for high-speed broadband across 90 per cent of the UK by 2017. However, because of Scotland’s geographic and demographic profile, this target is not even-handed between England and Scotland, but puts the latter at a disadvantage. This is bound to be the case with any system that requires government or others to provide services to a percentage of the UK population as a whole, rather than to a percentage of each individual nation within the UK. Population density in England – at 1,023 per square mile – is much greater than in Scotland, where it is a mere 170.8 per square mile. England’s population is also far larger in absolute terms, accounting for 83% of the UK total. Any regulatory system that obliges someone to provide services to a percentage of the UK population will always favour England. But that’s what you get with a regulatory system designed in London.

The changes to the North Sea taxation regime, contained in the last Budget, also show symptoms of this phenomenon.  Danny Alexander, who should clearly understand Scotland, claims the tax change is his idea. The problem may be that neither the Treasury officials nor his Coalition colleagues, with whom he would have discussed it, had enough of an understanding of Scotland’s economy to ask: “Are you quite sure about that, Chief Secretary?”

Giving multinational oil companies a kicking probably sounds like a wheeze that would go down well with the punters in Watford or Tunbridge Wells. Clobbering the smaller operators, on whom exploitation of much of the North Sea now depends, might not be quite so popular in Aberdeen.  But who in London would know that? This isn’t the place to debate the merits of that particular policy, or indeed any of the others I’ve mentioned. Anyway, we can, no doubt, get all the oil we need from, other stable, reliable places like the Middle East.

There are notable exceptions to this pattern of treating Scotland as simply another English region: in considering merger and competition issues, the OFT and Competition Commission do, when necessary, consider Scotland as a separate entity. They did so in the Lloyds/HBOS takeover – though on that occasion were overruled by the then Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson, ‘in the public interest’. This is, however, the exception that proves the rule.

The problem, as I said earlier, is not deliberate, anti-Scottish bias. Rather, it is that the men and women sitting in Whitehall cannot, because of the environment, culture, and systems within which they operate, properly grasp the concept of Scotland, or the nature of how policies will impact on it. If a UK-wide regulatory regime works equally well in Scotland as in the UK as a whole, that is likely to be a matter of good luck, not design. Much UK-wide regulation does not serve Scotland well. The solution is to transfer much more regulatory responsibility – far more than in the current Scotland Bill – to Holyrood, which would then be able to develop Scottish solutions to Scottish problems.

When it comes to the EU, or to the ‘Big Society’, the Government seems very keen on the notions of localism and subsidiarity. It should apply those principles to Scotland, too.