It was Voltaire who said “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of
civilisation.” What was true in the Enlightenment is perhaps an
overstatement nowadays. However, in several areas of social policy
– from university tuition fees to long-term care – the Scottish
executive and Scottish parliament have forged distinctive
positions. As Scotland goes to the polls on 1 May, what are the
prospects of the next four years producing further divergence
between policies north and south of the border?
We need to note two features of Scottish politics. First, we have
four main parties – in descending order of electoral strength:
Labour, Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and
Conservatives. Second, there is a strong element of proportionality
in the electoral system – so it is almost impossible for any single
party to form a government. The result is a homogenisation of
politics with all four parties contesting the centre ground.
Reading all the manifestos, it is virtually impossible to
distinguish them. All pledge to raise educational standards, save
the NHS and cut crime by recruiting more teachers, more doctors and
nurses, and more police. And each swears that its form of
technocratic managerialism will be the one that delivers.
Of course, there are some nuances of difference. The Scottish
Conservatives have opportunistically stolen Alan Milburn’s idea of
foundation hospitals, cleverly but cynically pointing out that
voters have the option of Scottish Labour rather than New
More significantly, there is a real difference between Labour and
the Liberal Democrats on law and order. Jack McConnell, the first
minister and Labour’s leader in the Scottish parliament, has
adopted the full populist, neo-authoritarian package from David
Blunkett – targeting young people and proposing to punish their
His coalition partner Jim Wallace, deputy first minister and leader
of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, has attacked Labour’s policies
as unworkable. Extra spice is added to this debate because Wallace
is justice minister and over the past four years has proved to be a
true successor to Roy Jenkins as a thoughtful, liberal, reforming
Ultimately, they will strike a deal because the Liberal Democrat
priority is likely to be legislation for proportional
representation in local government. Long-term, that could be
transformative if it ends one-party rule in Scottish councils – and
it has implications for England where the case for a similar reform
has for several years been overwhelming.
So, maybe not new ideas of civilisation, but, in the words of
Jaroslav Hasek, author of the Good Soldier Svejk, moderate
progress within the law.
John McTernan is a political analyst.