Devolution allows social policy experiments. But, as the English higher education white paper shows, it also has unintended effectsby Iain McLean / March 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Devolution is (sort of) working in a (sort of) social democratic country, pace prophets of doom since Nye Bevan. But it could and should work better if we thought more clearly about how devolution and social democracy can live together. The failure of the London government to anticipate the effects of January’s higher education white paper outside England is a clear sign of this. A recent Lords report has also pointed out that the secretaryship of state for Scotland is an unfair anomaly.
Let’s start with Bevan. He detested the idea of devolution to Wales. In the 1970s his follower Neil Kinnock warned that a Welsh assembly could be an “obituary notice” for Labour. Why? Because they were both socialists and centralists. My colleague Vernon Bogdanor has argued (Prospect, February 2001) that they are right: that devolution is fundamentally incompatible with social democracy. Social democracy requires redistribution from richer regions to poorer ones and uniform standards in everything that the state provides. Some kinds of devolution make both of those things harder. Bevan insisted, for example, not only that the NHS should be funded out of centralised tax income but that it must be truly national in organisation?the minister must hear a bedpan dropped in Tredegar. (What would Nye have done? Gone to pick it up?)
But those, like Bevan, who still fear that national redistribution is undermined by devolution, forget that it is the tax and benefit system which does social democracy’s heavy lifting?and that remains centralised in Britain. Today’s devolved administrations have, basically, no power to tax. For a given pre-tax income and family situation, one’s financial position after tax and benefits is identical throughout Britain.
Devolution does, however, mean letting the territories do things their way in some of the public services. As a result, some aspects of the public sector-health, education, and social services are likely to diverge. This has, indeed, been happening since 1998, especially between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Social policy has diverged the most in Scotland, because Scotland has both more extensive powers and more money to play with than Wales or Northern Ireland. The Scottish parliament has voted to pay teachers much more than in England; to entitle the elderly to free social care; and to abandon up-front tuition fees for Scottish students. Downing Street’s attitude to these experiments has veered from nannyish scolding to lordly disdain. The…