Reflecting on a week spent in Edinburgh
The Scottish papers have been full of doom and gloom during the short time I’ve been in Edinburgh this summer. “Scotland braced for winter of discontent,” declared a Glasgow Herald front-page headline, following an independent review of Scotland’s finances that warned 50,000 Scottish jobs are at risk from the forthcoming budget cuts. One of the paper’s leading commentators Ian Bell remarked, “There are plenty of people paid to tell you about our ‘bloated public sector’: each of them is wrong. Scotland exists in and through the public realm.”
A panel of ‘three wise men’ chaired by Crawford Beveridge, a former chief executive of the investment agency Scottish Enterprise, was set up by Scottish Government Ministers earlier this year to review its spending options. It concluded that the entire public sector faces intense pain as the UK government planned for 25 per cent cuts in spending. Free university education, free personal and nursing care for the elderly, free eye tests and prescriptions, generous public sector pay deals and a long-term freeze in council tax are all at risk.
In particular, and this applies equally to Wales, Beveridge said all the parties should reconsider their pledge to ring fence health service spending, otherwise all other public services would be doubly hit. The national health service in Scotland takes up 30 per cent of total spending, compared with 15 per cent in England. “Our recommendation is that they think very carefully about that,” Beveridge said.
Every part of Scottish society is going to be involved in this debate which is developing its own terminology. ‘Dragging’ is a new expression that I came across in the course of one of many discussions about the implications of the impending cuts. A friend whose own job in Edinburgh’s social services is at risk beyond next March, explained that it had to do with staff recruitment. There is already a freeze on replacing most public sector jobs that become vacant. But even those posts which are considered essential are being ‘dragged’ to the start of the next financial year, when a fresh assessment of how urgent a replacement will be made.
What is difficult to discern at this stage in the phoney war over the cuts – ahead of October’s spending announcements – is what the political fall out will be. All the parties are bracing themselves for next May’s elections to the Scottish Parliament which will provide an opportunity for people to vent their ire. One assumption, widely held, is that Labour will be the main beneficiary, but at whose expense?
What seems to me potentially most destabilising for both Scottish and British politics is if, as seems likely, the Liberal Democrats take a significant hit. At present they have 16 MSPs in the 123-strong Scottish Parliament. If this number falls below 10, then that would probably rule them out numerically as possible coalition partners in Scotland, even if Labour or the SNP wanted to be associated with them. It would also unsettle the Liberal Democrats south of the border.
If Welsh Liberal Democrat AMs also take a hammering, for the same reason of being tainted by the Tory cuts, then that would put further pressure on the coalition in London. Indeed, it might force the pace of a realignment of English politics, with the main choice ending up between a centre-ground Tory Party doused with civil liberties, and a Labour Party attempting to reinvent itself in terms of a freshly calibrated left-of-centre social democracy.
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ANOTHER Scottish debate being ratcheted up also has resonances in Wales. This is over the future of local government and whether the country can afford its 32 unitary authorities. A few weeks ago Alastair MacNish, former chief executive if South Lanarkshire Council and former chairman of the Scottish Accounts Commission, wrote a piece for the Scotsman which, if you changed the names and numbers, could easily have been found in the Western Mail.
He asked, “Do we really need, or can we afford 32 council leaders, 1,222 councillors, 32 chief executives, 32 heads of educational service, social service etc etc? Does it make any sense in this financial crisis to have, for example, two large finance departments servicing Lanarkshire, three roads and environmental health set-ups across Ayrshire…. The list goes on and on throughout Scotland. The answer is a categorical ‘No’ ”.
MacNish claimed that if Scotland’s local government was reorganised into just 12 mainland authorities, savings would be at least £10-15 million in the first year, net of severance costs, rising to a minimum of £100 million a year when full integration was achieved. That would total to around £1 billion over a decade.
Responding, the SNP Government said it had no plans to change the number of councils, Labour said it had an open mind, and the Conservatives wanted a more fundamental review about the role of local government in Scotland. As in Wales this is a debate that will run and run.
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AMONG the raft of new political books that have appeared since I last ventured north of the border is one with the arresting title Tartan Pimps. Written by Mitch Miller and Johnny Rodger, editors of Scotland’s cultural quarterly The Drouth, and historian Owen Dudley Edwards, it examines the writers, thinkers and analysts that have fed, nurtured or scorched Scottish political identity. Subjects include Gordon Brown, Margaret Thatcher, Hugh MacDiarmid, George Davie, John Macintosh, Tom Nairn, Christopher Harvie, Neal Acheson and many others.
So why are they all lumped together as Tartan Pimps? Indeed, who is a Tartan Pimp? The answer, explained on the book’s cover, is as follows:
“He – or she – is that member of the political class who sees Scotland as a source of political capital. In the face of indifference from London and the deference shown by its political elites, was it Scotland’s writers who reignited native democracy through creating a virtual’ parliament of letters? If so what were the books that set the stage for devolution? How did this exchange of ideas play into the daily, civil life of the country?”
The account is largely driven by the pen of Owen Dudley Edwards, a polymath historian and author of books on, among others, James Connally, P.G. Wodehouse, Conan Doyle, de Valera, Macaulay, Burke and Hare. He was co-author with Hugh MacDiarmid, Gwynfor Evans and Ioan Bowen Rhys of the seminal 1968 volume Celtic Nationalism.
Describing himself in this present volume as an “Irish revisionist, Welsh nationalist, and cheerful contrarian,” Dudley Edwards gives pride of place to his friend Tom Nairn, who he refers to as ‘The Prophet Nairn’. He was the author, it will be recalled, of the 1978 classic The Break-Up of Britain, and is still pursuing much the same theme to this day. I was intrigued that Tartan Pimps gives a good deal of attention to Nairn’s Gordon Brown: Bard of Britishness, published by the IWA in 2006. Here is a flavour:
Short but timely it is an interesting reiteration of Nairn’s views which are then interrogated by those of a different Parish, guest contributors culled from (Welsh) politics, English universities and old acquaintances from the Scottish intelligentsia (David Gow of the Red Paper and Neal Acheson each make an appearance). These contributors pay their respects to the preacher, but it is hard to miss the occasional scrape of knives over whetstones. Labour’s Leighton Andrews fair waggles the chib:
‘Reading Nairn today is like eating lettuce doused in vinegar: void of nutritional value, and indigestible, at the end all that remains is the acid.’
With the amiable, entertaining malice at which Tories excel (to the envy of their left-wing adversaries) David Melding declines to comment on the ‘personal antipathy Professor Nairn feels towards Mr Brown’, leaving the room as the fists start to fly. Melding also enjoys the rich, garlicky vituperation with which… [Nairn]… dresses his prose, and with an additional rabbit-food punch, wonders if Nairn is a Burke parodist:
‘… like Burke [Nairn] makes some prescient observations, even though he fails to convert them to sound judgements.’
Leave it, in these topsy-turvy times, to a Tory to accuse a Marxist theorist of being a closet reactionary – and an impotent one at that.”