Donald Cameron is the Scottish Conservative MSP for the Highlands and the Islands.
As we’ve marked the 20th anniversary of the devolution referendum this week, acres of newsprint has been devoted to the last two decades of Scotland’s national life.
Looking back over what has – or has not – been achieved in that time is fine and proper. But looking ahead is vital and necessary.
So, over the summer, Scottish Conservative MPs and MSPs have been giving some thought to how we should face the next two decades of devolution in Scotland. How should we learn from the experience of the first 20 years of devolution? What needs to change in order to deliver the ‘better nation’ we hoped for? How can we ensure that the second 20 years of Scotland’s Parliament are more useful, and more productive than the first? Anniversaries provide the chance to take the long view – and here are our thoughts.
Our first priority is clear – rather than remain stuck in a cycle of discussing what powers should be available, the next 20 years should be about using the powers at Scotland’s disposal,
This isn’t to ignore the ever-evolving nature of devolution, or to say that getting the balance between devolved and reserved powers doesn’t matter.
Not least as we leave the EU, which will mean powers currently held by the EU coming back to Britain.
But we have spent the bulk of the past 20 years on structure. Now it’s time for substance.
This is informed by our age and stage. Most of our MSPs and MPs barely remember a time before devolution. Our leader was 20 when the Scottish Parliament was reconstituted. I was 22, as was our Westminster convenor. Our chief whip was 18.
Our youngest MP was nine.
We are a generation that has grown up under first a mild, soggy Lab-Lib coalition, and has then seen a decade of distraction from the SNP.
We see the Scottish Parliament as an outlet for our ambitions, and we see the powers it has, now, to change the country – and we are frustrated it has yet to do so.
So if there is one overall mindset that guides us, it’s to see the Parliament redeem its potential – to fulfil the promise of devolution to mark new explorations and ideas.
Secondly, that in turn demands a focus on outcomes, not inputs.
Again, the last 20 years has seen too much focus on the latter. True, when they came into power the SNP talked a good game, and published a set of indicators that at the time, did seem like focussing on real-world results.
But that was swiftly rejected in favour of the symbolic.
We see this in any number of policies: baby boxes, which take a potentially good intervention and then stripped it of the educational and wider maternity services that could make them work better; or a £500m Scottish Growth Fund – unveiled in last year’s programme for government, but still to deliver a single penny to Scottish firms.
The SNP represents government by “virtue signalling”.
Our instinct would be for a longer view, and a recognition that in the end, progress isn’t measured in press releases and symbols; it comes through a determined focus on effecting lasting change.
Thirdly, the next 20 years should be a time when we re-think the role of the State in Scotland. It’s not so much the size of the state that matters. It’s the scope. And that scope should be firmly on enabling – on giving people a platform to do whatever they want with their lives.
That means finding a balance. We don’t want the State to do it all for people. Nor do we want to leave people entirely on their own. Instead, it is time to deliver a State in the best Scottish traditions that enables people’s most basic hopes of a good job, a good house, a stable family and a safe community.
It’s a vision that rejects plans like the Named Persons scheme – where the State intrudes in an area that should be sacrosanct.
On the other hand, it’s a vision of a State that delivers a well-funded education system, while clearing out swathes of centralised bureaucracy from everyday teaching.
It’s a vision that comes direct from the Scottish Enlightenment, and the voices of Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson, whose philosophy was underpinned by the notion that we are motivated as much by the well-being of others, as by our own interests.
And – fourthly – just as the next twenty years should be about re-thinking the role of the State in Scotland, so we must also examine the state of our society.
That starts by acknowledging that – yes – society does indeed exist. For Conservatives, it starts with a recognition that we on the centre-right have sometimes got the balance wrong. Too often, conservatives are seen as all abacus and no heart. We are highly effective bean-counters, when what matters to most people are the softer, human relationships: friends, family, and community – whether that’s the church, a Gurdwara, or football.
So, yes, we need growth– because that means a wealthier society, and that makes almost every social policy objective easier, as well as simply raising living standards.
But we need to see growth as a means too, for the stuff that makes life worth living. It won’t profit a country to gain all the riches in the world, and lose its soul.
Improving the fabric of society is by necessity a harder task for government, and we have to be careful about the role of the state. But public policy plays a part. It can avoid getting in the way when social institutions do a better job. It can set a regime around organisations that sit between the individual and the state, like smart tax regimes for social enterprises, or voluntary groups. It can offer infrastructure that reduces social isolation and permits new opportunities for interaction – rural transport, family hubs, social care services. It can incentivise (or destroy) the institutions that offer a framework for community life. And, critically, it can promote social justice for those left behind by the modern world because the battle against injustice, in whatever form, should always be an objective of conservatism.
That, in our view, is what the next 20 years should be about. A focus on delivery, not grievance. A sense of ambition for our beloved country. A focus on what works, not what looks good on a press release. Thinking as much about the scope of the state as its size.
And above all else, seeing our task as strengthening our nation’s society and providing a bolder, better, government for Scotland.
Wouldn’t it be nice to think we could focus on these issues over the next twenty years? Wouldn’t this deliver that better nation rather than another twenty years of constitutional warfare?
It’s an easy question to answer. And we intend to do our bit to make this vision into a reality.