AS the party conference season draws to a close, thoughts will turn to the general election likely next year. In Scotland it is going to be a strange affair. Already there is speculation about the relevance of Scottish National Party involvement since it has said that the goal of independence will come through winning a majority in the Scottish Parliament, not of Scottish MPs at Westminster.
But the issues on which the election will be fought in England are in many cases the responsibility of the Parliament in Edinburgh (and the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies). It is almost the West Lothian question in reverse: Scottish voters will not play a direct part in the debates about education and health. And the political leadership in Scotland belongs to the Edinburgh Parliament, with MPs like Donald Dewar, Jim Wallace and John Swinney surrendering their Westminster seats.
However Tony Blair seeks to advance the cause of education, education education with a renewed mandate will no affect Scotland, nor directly would William Hague's plans to release schools from bureaucratic thrall. But the colour of the next administration will still affect voters north of the border and not just in reserved matters. If the British Government takes education down a particular path in England, the influence will be felt here. That could happen even if the two administrations were of a different colour. Let us assume that a Conservative government launched a crusade for higher standards in schools, backed by significant money. The Scottish coalition would opt out at its peril, because of voter expectations.
It is already clear that although devolution allows the Executive to determine how money will be spent on education and health, the decision to concentrate funding on these services comes from Downing Street and the Treasury. To that extent an election campaign that turns on spending commitments and tax levels should engage voters here as much as south of the border.