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Centralising, illiberal, catastrophic: the SNP’s one-party state

For years, the Scottish government has used the independence argument to avoid proper scrutiny. That has to stop

17 October 2015

9:00 AM

17 October 2015

9:00 AM

Imagine a country where the government so mistrusted parents that every child was assigned a state guardian — not a member of their family — to act as a direct link between the child and officials. Imagine that such a scheme was compulsory, no matter how strongly parents objected. Imagine that the ruling party controlled 95 per cent of MPs, and policed the political culture through a voluntary army of internet fanatics who seek out and shout down dissent.

Welcome to Nicola Sturgeon’s Scotland in 2015. The First Minister is admired the world over. She has a few curious notions — chiefly, the idea that the political and cultural differences between Scots and the English are so great that the only solution is to sue for separation. But there is no denying it: she is intelligent, thoughtful and spirited. She has even mastered the Billy Connolly technique of giving a little giggle to her own jokes. Those outside Scotland have the sense of a charismatic insurgent, already looking forward to a new referendum that she’d have a good chance of winning.

But what is far less known south of the border is that the SNP have been in government since 2007 — and that its rule has been a disaster. Their central premise, that control from Edinburgh is inherently better, has been tested to destruction. Their stream of illiberal reforms and their mistrust of the Scottish people has led to power being centralised to an unprecedented degree. The SNP avoid proper scrutiny by always steering the conversation back towards independence.

For years, I have watched this with increasing alarm from my position as a professor of constitutional law at Glasgow University. I have decided to fight the SNP, and their pernicious ideology, by standing for the Scottish parliament as a Conservative candidate. What follows are my reasons for joining not just a fight for the survival of the union, but to preserve the basic notion of liberty that Scots have done much to define and defend.

The proposal for a ‘named person’ — i.e., a state guardian for children — is a classic example of what is going so wrong. The person will, in the Scottish government’s chilling words, ‘monitor what children and young people need’. That parents, families, doctors and teachers do this already is not enough: the state must do it, too. Badged under the ghastly Orwellian acronym Girfec (Getting It Right For Every Child), the ‘named person’ will ensure a child’s wellbeing is ‘assessed’ according to the extent to which the child is ‘safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible and included’.

So Ms Sturgeon’s ‘named persons’ will not focus only on harm, risk or even neglect — but the entire human condition. If my child is judged to be underachieving, inactive or somehow lacking in respect or responsibility, the ‘named person’ can discuss my child not only with the NHS, a social worker or the police, but with bodies including the Scottish Sports Council and something called Skills Development Scotland Co. Ltd.


The illiberal control-freakery of this measure might have attracted more attention had it been unusual. But it is typical of the Scottish National Party in power. From policing to higher education, the SNP are archetypes of the top-down, authoritarian, one-size-fits-all school of government.

If you want to know what England would be like under Jeremy Corbyn, the answer would not be far off what the SNP is doing to Scotland. Stridently anti-austerity, the party’s populist and highly successful general election campaign pitched them as Britain’s progressive beacon. It won them 56 of Scotland’s 59 MPs. It also helped Mr Cameron’s return to Downing Street.

The SNP know more than anyone else what they want to achieve: independence. Almost all their statements are geared towards this goal. For example, the SNP say that Scots should vote for independence to save the NHS. But Holyrood has complete control over the NHS in Scotland, as it does over the whole of Scottish education. And policing, transport, environmental policy — a whole gamut of powers that has been accurately described by the UK Supreme Court as ‘ample’ and ‘generous’. Yet in the eight years in which the SNP have been in power, next to nothing has been done to reform the health service in Scotland, save that SNP ministers’ controls over Scotland’s 14 health boards have been tightened. (Their motto: When in doubt, centralise.)

This has not led to improved service. The latest figures show waiting times rising alarmingly. When the SNP came to power, Scotland spent a higher share of its budget on health than England, but under the nationalists this has been reversed. The Institute for Fiscal Studies ran the numbers last September, and found England’s health budget this year is 4.4 per cent higher than before David Cameron came to power; Scotland’s is 1.2 per cent lower. When given the choice, Ms Sturgeon has cut the NHS budget — and protected it from much-needed reform.

The same is true in education. Scottish schools and colleges are going from mediocre to poor. Numeracy scores are plummeting, 140,000 college places have been cut, colleges have merged and campuses have been closed. These are calamitous policies to have pursued in an economy crying out for a more highly skilled, better-trained workforce. The SNP’s famous ban on tuition fees means that a Scottish teenager from a poor background is now half as likely to go to university as an English one. And the gap is widening. The decision not to charge fees has been paid for in part by cutting grants for poorer students.

The rot has set in at primary schools: at the ages of nine and 11, the literacy skills of the poorest are getting worse. Nicolas Sturgeon boasts that ‘the attainment gap is reducing’ because richer children are getting worse even faster. Yes, the SNP talk non-stop about their ‘progressive’ credentials, and how the main reason they want separation from England is because they place greater emphasis on a ‘fairer’ society. But the reality is very different. Under the SNP, Scotland is becoming the worst place in Britain to be bright and poor.

On the relatively rare occasions when the SNP reform, two tendencies are striking, both exemplified in last year’s ‘named person’ legislation. The SNP’s illiberality should not, perhaps, surprise us — nationalism in Europe all too often having sacrificed individual freedoms on the altar of national self-determination. The party’s centralising tendencies, however, are remarkable given the SNP’s vocal opposition to rule from London.

Under the SNP, Scotland’s eight regional police constabularies were merged into a single force. While Theresa May was creating locally elected police and crime commissioners in England and Wales, increasing the accountability of the police to local voters, the SNP was doing the opposite. The chief constable of Police Scotland is accountable to a single police authority whose members are appointed by Scottish ministers. The one force now polices both the UK’s third-largest city and its most remote communities, notwithstanding the obvious and huge diversity of policing needs.

Recorded crime is falling the world over — and Scotland, happily, is no exception. Despite having fewer offences to investigate, however, Police Scotland manages to clear up 50,000 fewer crimes each year than the eight old constabularies did a decade ago. Basic policing mistakes that just were not made in the old days now fill the newspapers: in July a woman was left lying next to her dead boyfriend in a car in Bannockburn for three days after the crash was reported to police; she later died. A few weeks ago an elderly disabled woman died when police waited 20 hours after a call from a concerned family member before forcing entry to her home, where she lay collapsed next to her dead husband. A recent survey found that a third of Police Scotland’s staff planned to leave the force within three years: the merger, as Theresa May put it, is a case study in what not to do.

This is why it suits the SNP to talk about independence: any other conversation would be about how they have betrayed the country they purport to champion. Having lost last year’s referendum, Ms Sturgeon immediately demanded more powers for the Scottish Parliament. These are being delivered in a Scotland Bill nearing the end of its passage through the House of Commons. But while the SNP make a lot of noise about devolution to Scotland, they are silent when it comes to devolution within Scotland.

Scotland returns to the polls yet again next spring, when a new Scottish Parliament will be elected. The shell-shocked state of Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats means the SNP will probably do well. Increasingly, the strongest voice of opposition is that of Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, whom I hope to serve in the next parliament. Her principles are those of the Scottish Enlightenment: that countries do best when the public stand tall and the power of government is kept in check.

SNP activists love to invoke the concept of freedom, but they support a party that brings no such thing. For those who believe in liberty, competition, diversity, localism and accountability, there is no point in voting for Ms Sturgeon. Fundamentally, her party places its trust in the state, rather than in the people. It’s an odd kind of patriotism, one which makes Scotland poorer and less free. It’s time for the rebellion to begin.

Adam Tomkins is the John Millar professor of public law at the University of Glasgow.

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