Nicola Sturgeon cropped up in our newslinks this morning, courtesy of this Sun story on her attempt to defend the SNP’s education record yesterday.
Apparently the First Minister tried to claim that Scottish schools are actually doing well – provided you set aside for a moment their dire literacy and numeracy outcomes.
Educational under-performance (to use a relatively mild description) has become one of the salient features of devolution. Here’s the BBC on how Scotland and Wales are ‘dragging down’ the UK’s overall performance in international scores, plus more detailed looks at the particular failures overseen by Holyrood and Cardiff Bay.
Perhaps you suspect the BBC’s reportorial style isn’t really drilling in quite how bad the situation is. If so, let Stephen Daisley and Alex Massie paint you a fuller picture. As for Wales, this old piece from the Economist’s Bagehot column remains the best introduction to “the self-inflicted Welsh education debacle”.
In Scotland this has particular resonance because Sturgeon vowed to make addressing Scotland’s deep-seated educational problems her top priority when she assumed the office of First Minister in 2014, since when her administration has been so consumed by the constitution (a reserved issue) that it’s barely legislating at all.
As bad as all this is, it shouldn’t really surprise us. Devolution has had its Douglas Carswells, people like Fraser Nelson who genuinely thought it would lead to imaginative and dynamic new governance. He has since recanted.
Yet for the most part it has always been a rather reactionary ‘radicalism‘. Labour embraced it in the 1980s because a) nationalism was a handy stick to beat the Tories with but also b) because they couldn’t win nationally and devolution offered the opportunity to lock down local fiefdoms.
Of course it took a national victory by Labour to actually deliver devolution, but it wasn’t the sort of Labour that the Scottish and Welsh comrades seem to have been particularly keen on. So they took their new legislatures and set about insulating education (and other public services) from the reforms undertaken by Tony Blair.
The results can be seen in any test from which they have not yet withdrawn.
Whilst this systemic and long-running failure to wield the power entrusted to them effectively won’t do anything to dampen calls to entrust the devolved political classes yet more of it – nothing does – it does pose a challenge to the Conservatives in both countries.
It’s been pointed out (see Massie again) that the revival of the Conservative and Unionist Party’s revival in Scotland owes much more to being ‘Unionists’ than ‘Conservatives. It’s certainly true that Ruth Davidson’s focus on the constitution has helped both to energise the Union’s ultras and reach out to voters who distrust Labour’s dithering on the constitutional question.
Should this continue it may lead to revived calls for the Scottish Tories to follow the Ulster Unionists’ lead and split off, becoming a catch-all pro-UK party without awkward ties to Westminster government. You can see the sentiment when some grumble about having to defend the so-called ‘rape clause’, a result of welfare being one area where there is still British national policy.
But Davidson was elected leader of the Scottish Conservatives as a rejection of that logic, and these results show the wisdom of that. As unionists are constantly admonishing Sturgeon (and could easily Carwyn Jones too), there is more to governing than the constitution. Scotland and Wales don’t just need Unionists: they need Conservatives.
Devolution has passed power down from the UK, a relatively large and diverse polity, to much smaller areas where local elites can and do maintain stifling political consensuses.
I’ve written elsewhere about the ‘Holyrood Bubble’ that left more than a million Scottish Leave voters almost entirely without a voice in Scotland’s political or civil society, whilst Roger Scully – the omnipresent doyen of Welsh psephology – has written of Wales:
“Across much of the centre-left, and even some more moderate Welsh Conservatives, the image has been cherished of the Welsh as an outward-looking, pro-European and progressive stateless nation… Although detailed academic analyses of public attitudes have found little or no evidence that such views are any more abundant in Wales than across the border”.
Conservative revivals in both countries will mean little if it simply leads to the same failed and myth-based consensus being administered by people in different rosettes.
Happily, this is a field where an injection of unionist sentiment can help. We’ve written before about devolved politicians try to wrap themselves in the flag to shield their policies from unflattering comparisons. Tories should take a lesson from the US, where centre-right think-tanks across all 50 states are pro-active in comparing notes and adopting good ideas from each other, and make a virtue of contrasting approaches and outcomes from across the UK and adopting whatever works best.
If necessary, they ought to at least consider creating a UK-wide set of measurements for educational standards, enshrined at the British level and from which devolved administrations can’t opt out when convenient. This would provoke squeals of outrage from those who like their devolution one-directional and divorced from utility, but there are worse things. Think of the children.