The Insider

Why the SNP’s chaos may help Scotland

We might see more focus on boosting public services and less on the existential debate on independence

May 01, 2024
Outgoing First Minister Humza Yousaf and Minister for Independence Jamie Hepburn. Image: SST/Alamy Live News
Departing First Minister Humza Yousaf and Minister for Independence Jamie Hepburn. Image: SST/Alamy Live News

Has Scottish devolution failed? A fair response to this week’s shenanigans is that Scotland’s turmoil is no greater than Britain’s, in terms of turnover of prime/first ministers and the disintegration of its governing party. Yet we aren’t about to abolish Britain.

But then Britain hasn’t been doing so well of late, and that’s a low bar. In particular, public services north and south of the border have been under huge pressure, and devolution doesn’t seem to have made any notable difference for the better.

For example, recent NHS data shows that waiting times for operations in both Scotland and Wales are longer than in England. According to the Office for National Statistics, in February 2023, 49 per cent of people waiting in Wales had been waiting for longer than one year, compared with 23 per cent in Scotland and 18 per cent in England.

Data on education outcomes shows that poor students are far less likely to go to university in Scotland than in England. As for transport, the ferries fiasco—the inability to build and operate modern ferries to the Scottish islands—has become a byword for failure in Scottish public service delivery.

Despite these failings, the actual public service functions of the Scottish government and parliament haven’t even been the main issue of debate for most of the past 25 years of Scottish devolution. Maybe that’s why public services haven’t improved relative to England. Rather, the political dividing line has been independence, with the SNP—which has now been running Scotland’s devolved government for 17 years—rejecting devolution as a mere halfway house to complete control.

And they came close to pulling it off. They boosted the proportion supporting independence to 45 per cent in the referendum a decade ago, and it has hovered at that level or a bit higher ever since. If devolution was intended to quash independence, it has only narrowly succeeded.

However, succeeded it has. And now that the SNP government is on the ropes and highly unlikely to retain power in Edinburgh, or become a power broker in London, maybe the next decade at least will see more focus on delivery and less on the existential debate on independence.