A Nation, Not a Region

Gone, happily, are the days when the land north of the Tweed was habitually referred to as ‘North Britain’. Sadly, however, it is still how the Whitehall-based civil service, by and large, continues to think of Scotland. It does not ‘get’ the fact that this is a country, but thinks and acts as if Scotland is simply another English region, like East Anglia or the West Midlands, for example, only with mountains. We sometimes encounter a symptom of this thinking in the way some English people use the term ‘England’ when they are, in fact, referring to ‘Britain’ or ‘United Kingdom’; or in reverse, the way that the riots in August this year were described as ‘UK riots’.

This mindset clearly doesn’t apply to every single civil servant; and even with the individuals to whom it does, this is rarely attributable to a deliberate anti-Scottish bias. Rather, it is caused largely because people’s view of the world is conditioned by their everyday environment and experiences. For many of those framing policy from a desk in London, that means a daily commute by train, tube, or bus in a metropolitan conurbation covering 628 square miles and with a population of 8.5 million. That dwarfs Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, which covers a mere 68 square miles, and has only 2.3 million people. Indeed, Greater London has more residents than the whole of Scotland.

 Subconsciously, Whitehall’s working model of the world is actually a mental model of Greater London. Nor are those working there likely to see anything to offer an alternative to that model, as, especially, since devolution, the London-based ‘national’ media largely ignores Scottish issues, except to report on crime, or to point out differences in prescription charges or university tuition fees. UK policy makers also operate within a context that includes the Scotland Act, which reserved certain powers to Westminster. This encourages the wholly erroneous assumption that there is no need to take into account any distinctively Scottish aspect of a given issue.

All this will have a powerful effect on how a civil servant will draft legislation or policy, even if it is meant to apply UK-wide. Its effect is often to lumber Scotland with ‘one size fits all’ policies that simply do not take proper account of Scottish circumstances, in practice even if not by design.

One example has been the way in which Ofgem regulates electricity transmission charging, favouring investment in energy generation close to large centres of population. This probably makes sense if you’re sitting in an office in London SW1, and thinking about large-scale, fossil fuel power stations built near the cities they serve. It makes no sense, though, if you want to encourage renewable energy, when many of the best locations are in some of Scotland’s remoter spots.

Or take high-speed rail. The men from the ministry use their models to calculate the return on investment, and these models put a premium on travellers’ journey times, rather than on the wider economic benefit that result from better transport links. The models tell them to favour cutting a few minutes off the journey time between London and Birmingham, rather than investing first in providing high-speed rail to the areas where it would give the greatest benefit, i.e. Glasgow and Edinburgh. But that doesn’t compute from a London perspective.

The changes to the North Sea taxation regime, contained in the 2011 Budget, also show symptoms of this phenomenon.  Danny Alexander, who should clearly understand Scotland, claims the tax change was his idea. The problem may be that neither the Treasury officials nor his Coalition colleagues, with whom he would have discussed it, had enough of an understanding of Scotland’s economy to ask: “Are you quite sure about that, Chief Secretary?”  Giving multinational oil companies a kicking probably sounds like a wheeze that would go down well with the punters in Watford or Tunbridge Wells. Clobbering the smaller operators, on whom exploitation of much of the North Sea now depends, might not be quite so popular in Aberdeen.  But who in London would know that? This isn’t the place to debate the merits of that particular policy, or indeed any of the others I’ve mentioned.
There are notable exceptions to this pattern of treating Scotland as simply another English region: in considering merger and competition issues, the OFT and Competition Commission do, when necessary, consider Scotland as a separate entity. They did so in the Lloyds/HBOS takeover – though on that occasion were overruled by the then Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson, ‘in the public interest’. This is, however, the exception that proves the rule.

The problem, as I said earlier, is not deliberate, anti-Scottish bias. Rather, it is that the men and women sitting in Whitehall cannot, because of the environment, culture, and systems within which they operate, properly grasp the concept of Scotland, or the nature of how policies will impact on it. If a UK-wide regulatory regime works equally well in Scotland as in the UK as a whole, that is likely to be a matter of good luck, not design. Much UK-wide regulation does not serve Scotland well. The solution is to transfer much more regulatory responsibility to Holyrood, which would then be able to develop Scottish solutions to Scottish problems.

When it comes to the EU, or to the ‘Big Society’, the Coalition Government seems very keen on the notions of localism and subsidiarity. It should apply those principles to Scotland, too.

The bulk of this post was first published in Newsnet Scotland, on 15 April 2011.

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