Are you local?

Sunday National, 20th March.

I almost choked on my morning coffee. “It’s time for a fresh start for Glasgow” the slogan read, arguing “it’s time to sweep out the SNP and clean up Glasgow.” The identity of these fresh-faced newcomers? Yes, you’ve guessed it: the Scottish Labour Party. Because nothing says “fresh start” like giving Glasgow Labour back its keys to the City Chambers.

After all, the party only had the better part of forty years running things, with single party control of local government in the city between 1980 and 2017. The phrase “one party state” is foolishly bandied around in Scottish politics these days, but it is easy to forget how monochrome local government used to be under first-past-the post. Before the advent of proportional representation, Labour managed to secure almost 90% of council seats in Glasgow with just under half of the popular vote. Civic politics didn’t take place between different political parties – it played out between different factions in Glasgow Labour. Jack McConnell’s coalition compromise with the Lib Dems put paid to that in 2007, and the city has been in no overall control since 2017. Apparently it is time to end the experiment. Back down the time tunnel to the future we go.

Brazen and forgetful Scottish Labour’s message might be – but it was a reminder that local government elections are just around the corner, and that activists across the country will be looking to persuade their communities to give them a high preference and friendly transfers when we go to the polls in early May. In an engaging essay this week, Professor James Mitchell argues that all is not well in the state of modern Scotland. Local government is being disempowered, he says, as powers accumulate in Edinburgh in the hands of an over-mighty and insufficiently scrutinised Scottish Government.

The tension Mitchell identifies between centralised decision-making the powers which might be exercised closer to home isn’t a new one. Our political culture creates extremely low incentives for significant regional variation in services, and that in turn creates political incentives towards centralisation. People might say they support the idea of more local decision-making in principle. Almost all political parties, from time to time, give lip-service to ideas of community empowerment. But our political practice suggests much of this rhetoric is opportunistic rather than being rooted in any worked through philosophy of government or developed conception of subsidiarity.

Politicians are a changeable lot. Journalists too. It doesn’t matter which political party you’re talking about. Stick them in opposition, and your MSP is looking for a killer line for FMQs which will be picked up in the local press. Stick them in government, and there will be a remarkable conversion to the party line. Your reporter is looking for a stand-up story, with a hook which works. And when it comes to the tension between central decision-making and local autonomy, we have a range of clichés to choose from. It is another one of those irregular political verbs: I take responsibility. You have a sinister centralising agenda. They are exercising their right to set their priorities locally.

Because local autonomy means differences. And looked at from the wrong angle, a difference can look like an unfairness. The fact that public services are free in one council area and charged for in another, for example, easily mutates from a divergence in local spending priorities into an injustice. And suddenly that regional difference has become “a postcode lottery,” screamer headlines are printed, and questions are lodged about what the government intends to do about it at the national level.

Barely a day goes by in Holyrood without MSPs demanding the Scottish Government take responsibility for decisions it has no control over, or to intervene directly in decisions made by health boards or local government. Take First Minister’s questions this week. Anas Sarwar wanted to know whether the First Minister supports a windfall tax on oil or gas. This – like a number of the issues which has preoccupied the Labour leader at FMQs of late – is a reserved matter. If they are going to be blamed for decisions taken by other people, you can understand why national politicians want the opportunity to shape those decisions.

Sometimes the ambivalence about local and national decision-making is even more explicit. Consider the issue of council tax, by way of example. When it came into office in 2007, the SNP’s policy of freezing council tax and capping increases generated considerable scunneration in some parts of local government. Why? Because some council leaders thought that setting local tax rates were essentially their purview, and that Holyrood had no business in imposing any kind of national policy. De facto if not de jure, by requiring councils to freeze their taxation decisions, the Scottish Government was effectively nationalising local tax decisions.

But all’s change. And that’s apparently bad too. In her draft budget last December, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance announced that from 2022, “councils will have complete flexibility to set the council tax rate that is appropriate for their local authority area.” In setting council tax rates, Kate Forbes said, “we expect councils to take full account of local needs and of the impacts on household budgets of the decisions they make.”

Surely a win for local government decision-making, right? Wrong. The headlines the next day read “SNP accused of opening the door to ‘massive’ council tax hikes” and “Council tax rise warning as SNP give authorities free rein.” In the event, 22 of the 32 local authorities in Scotland settled on a 3% rise. Given the pinch of economic hardship people are facing from pay stagnation, inflation, and rising energy and food prices – you can understand why the possibility of significant increases in this regressive tax concerned people.

But the framing of the story in these two mainstream titles is a fascinating example of how incoherent our attitude to local decision-making really is. Then, the council tax freeze was bad because it stripped local government of their autonomy. Now we’ve decided that autonomy is bad, and that the central authorities should be criticised for allowing councils to go their own way.

You see the same flip-flop all the time in other sectors. The Scottish Tories actually stood on a manifesto platform of creating a single police force in Scotland – and then proceeded to criticise Police Scotland, with the more paranoid treating the amalgamation of the eight forces into one as some kind of “sinister” development in public life.

Another live example. In August last year, the Scottish Government launched a consultation on the idea of a National Care Service to mirror in social care the work of the NHS. The proposal was described as an “attack on localism” by COSLA, who suggested it could spell “the end for anything other than central control in Scotland.” We seem incapable of having an intelligent conversation about these kinds of issues, because politicians and the wider media have such incoherent and inconsistent ideas about where powers ought to lie.

The recent public health restrictions are another interesting example of these tensions. Until 2008, there was no unified statute book dealing with public health emergencies in Scotland. Most public health powers were actually held by local government, short of a full-blown state of emergency. Westminster actually had to beef up the Scottish Government’s powers in 2020 to give them the powers they needed to close premises and impose restrictions.

Should Aberdeen City and Angus have been left to steer their public health decisions on Covid for themselves? Should Midlothian and Inverclyde have had the opportunity to decide what stays open and what is required to close? It’d be undeniably local in its decision-making, but also uncoordinated and fragmented.

In his essay this week, Professor Mitchell frames this as losing sight of “the ideals of self-government that animated earlier debates” about devolution. He quotes the devolution White Paper from 1998, which envisaged that “in establishing a Scottish Parliament to extend democratic accountability, the Government do not expect the Scottish Parliament and its Executive to accumulate a range of new functions at the centre which would be more appropriately and efficiently delivered by other bodies within Scotland.”

But there’s the rub. Where are decisions “more appropriately” made? “Efficient” by what metrics, and in whose terms? It seems to me the political arguments here are much more contested than we’re generally prepared to recognise, and boo-hurrah slogans about a particular decision being “centralising” or “local” don’t help us very much to navigate our way through these issues.

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