The Paradoxes of Devolution and the Forces of Conservatism


Gerry Hassan

Open Democracy, July 16th 2010
Devolution north of the border has always been filled by paradox and contradiction. Promising radicalism, while influenced by conservatism. Articulating a vision of ‘the new politics’, yet in reality shaped by institutional vested interests. Supposedly about Scotland’s voice and place as a nation, but driven by Labour fear of the Nationalists and the bogeyman of ‘separatism’.

Gerry Hassan

Open Democracy, July 16th 2010
Devolution north of the border has always been filled by paradox and contradiction. Promising radicalism, while influenced by conservatism. Articulating a vision of ‘the new politics’, yet in reality shaped by institutional vested interests. Supposedly about Scotland’s voice and place as a nation, but driven by Labour fear of the Nationalists and the bogeyman of ‘separatism’.

A new pamphlet by centre-right think tank Policy Exchange, ‘The Devolution Distraction’ by Tom Miers savages most of the assumptions and emotional supports of the devolution era. The Miers thesis is that Scottish devolution has been ‘a spectacular failure’ on the economy and public services, driven by an obsession with constitutional change. This reflects that ‘Scotland has a political problem, not a constitutional one’ (1).

Miers makes the case with five key points: that the Scottish economy has grown much slower than the rest of the UK since devolution, entrepreneurship is low, health and education underperform in comparison with the rest of the UK and are increasingly losing ground, and public spending higher than UK levels per head (2). The first two are long-term historic trends; the last complex; but the latter two have an uncomfortable truth which needs serious debate.

The conventional devolution class response to the failure Miers argues are two fold. The first is ‘to deny failure altogether’ – the politics and mindset of self-denial. The second is to invoke from failure and lack of results that the answer can be found in the argument that ‘Scotland needs more self-determination’.

Miers writes in ‘The Scotsman’ on this:

The history of democracy is full of examples of political elites that do not respond to evidence of decline, however obvious. So what is it with our own political class? What makes Scottish politics so deeply conservative, so hostile to the notion of reform, so defensive about the performance of Scottish institutions? (3)

The reaction of the devolution class to this critique has been as anyone could guess predictable and dismissive. The SNP claim Miers is ‘out of touch’; while Labour’s Pauline McNeil claimed that all the main problems were down to the Nationalists and ‘their obsession with independence’ (4).

The profound issue that needs to be brought to the fore of this and not lost is that a central part of the Miers thesis touches on the paradox at the heart of devolution: its place and purpose in the maintenance of the self-preservation society at the heart of Scotland.

This isn’t a new argument, but of course it is not the mainstream account of devolution. Radicals of left and right and outside the mainstream have put this view across the last decade.

Just before the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, I wrote a Fabian Society pamphlet, ‘The New Scotland’ (5) which explored the potential and limits of devolution. Its argument can be summarised in five points:

1. Labour were driven onto the devolution agenda with the intent of a politics of maintenance and conservation; one of the central paradoxes of devolution was that the party which introduced it would have its one party old state politics slowly undermined;

2. Devolution for all its hopes and rhetoric was always fundamentally about a politics of reinforcing the internal status quo in Scottish society: one characterized by inertia, lack of dynamism and absence of policy innovation;

3. The forces for devolution were marked despite their radical language by a profound sense of conservatism; this combination of radical hope and conservative reality concealed the limited prospects for change under devolution;

4. Democracy has been late coming to Scotland and the main forces of progress: the Liberals in the 19th century and Labour in the 20th century have colluded with and used the professional elites and castes which dominate and disfigure Scottish society; Thatcherism disrupted part of this, but devolution was never intended to fundamentally shift this;

5. Scottish civil society – shorn of all its illusion and romance about itself – has been characterised by a lack of diversity, pluralism and ideas. This raises the question where were and are the original, challenging ideas for devolution going to come from?

All of the above coalesced in the mainstream version of pre-devolution which stated that the Parliament was going to be the vehicle of Scottish radical opinion and a body born from the flowering of civil society and thus likely to be a bold, imaginative institution giving expression to progressive imagination. Instead, I argued that this very idea – of the Parliament as the creation of civil society (or even worse, ‘civic Scotland’: the well-mannered, middle class chatterers of institutional opinion) – made it inevitable that the Parliament would be the voice of closed, complacent Scotland. And so it has turned out to be.

Where Miers is on less secure ground is when he comes to solutions. Here he ventures onto predictable ground as he outlines in his conclusion, ‘a new approach’ which entails:

1. The constitution: a generational truce; advocating that we need to stop seeing the solution to Scotland’s problems in some inevitable slippery slope to more powers for the Parliament; instead we should implement Calman and then call a halt for a generation or so;

2. Measurement: a new honesty; challenging our ‘state owned national monopolies’ to stop changing and fiddling figures of measurement;

3. Reform: a new radicalism: declaring that ‘all the parties should seek to recast their policy positions from a foundation of recognition of the problems faced and genuine intellectual curiosity’ (6).

Miers outlines in his conclusion:

The combination of economic and social decline, conservative policy making and endless constitutional debate in Scotland cries out for a new approach. Those who ?rst articulate it persuasively will set the agenda for many years to come. (7)

This is broadly correct as a general description, and also in the opportunity it offers to whichever political force can seize the radical agenda. Where he is wrong is that his ‘new approach’ and radicalism is centred on old solutions: of free market ideas, fragmentation, marketisation and deregulation. It is a view of the world which isn’t ‘evidence based’ as it claims  – addressing Scottish failures in comparison to England, but ignoring English problems and pitfalls. It is as if the last few years haven’t happened or the fallout from New Labour approaches.

Following on from my ‘New Scotland’ thesis of over a decade ago here are six points for beginning to explore a more far-reaching, radical, new agenda:

1. Labour’s old style hegemony is as predicted slowly eroding – leaving the party rudderless, directionless and without any sense of anchor – beyond maintaining the rump remnants of its patronage state and its oppositional, opportunist detesting of the Nationalists;

2. Labour, SNP and civic Scotland ideas on economic, social, cultural and political change have shown their commitment to the forces of conservatism and inertia; none of these bodies really has any radical notion of how to deliver change in Scottish society, rather than just presiding over the internal status quo;

3. The forces of the new conservatism – which have critiqued the entire first decade of devolution from beginning to end  – advocating a ‘reform’ and ‘modernisation’ strategy – need to be scrutinised and challenged;

4. Equally problematic is the typical centre-left and nationalist response to calls for change – invoking a defensive politics of resistance and public sector institutional conservatism;

5. Mapping a path between these two cul-de-sacs involves embracing the politics of self-determination. Not the constitutional version, but at a societal level, shifting power and challenging elites – both in the public and private sector in Scotland;

6. This self-determination should inform and influence a genuine politics of self-government which can be summarised as post-nationalist Scotland – comfortable with the fuzzy ambiguities and fluidities of shared sovereignty in an interdependent age.

‘The Devolution Distraction’ has done us the service of setting out an analysis of some of the key complacencies and failures of the last decade. It would be wrong to dismiss it out of hand, just because some of it is unpalatable and a little uncomfortable to the gatekeepers and influencers of devo Scotland. Yet at the same time, its message for action is part of the groupthink and orthodoxy which has captured governments, corporates and think-tanks across the West, and in particular the UK and US.

The new conservatism has to be taken on and defeated – not by the forces of old conservatism – which it rightly critiques but the emergence of new voices, ideas and thinking in Scotland. And that requires new spaces and institutions which so far Scottish institutional opinion has shown no interest in supporting and nurturing.


1. Tom Miers, ‘This devolution obsession is wrecking Scotland’, The Scotsman, July 15th 2010.

2. Tom Miers, The Devolution Distraction: How Scotland’s constitutional obsession leads to bad government, Policy Exchange 2010,

3. The Scotsman, op. cit.

4. Angus Macleod, ‘Red herring of devolution is letting Scotland down’, The Times, July 15th 2010.

5. Gerry Hassan, The New Scotland, Fabian Society 1998,

6. Miers, The Devolution Distraction.

7. ibid.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Gerry Hassan.

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