Devolution raises the stakes

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
Voters' desire to cherry-pick the best from each country will add to the pressure at the general election, argues Willis Pickard

he forthcoming general election is going to be extraordinarily difficult to fight in Scotland - and for journalists here to report. Many of the issues on which the Westminster parties intend concentrating, including education and health, are not affected by the outcome. Whether or not Tony Blair is returned to take on bog-standard comprehensives or William Hague is empowered to crusade for more grammar schools, Jack McConnell will remain the Education Minister here, with his policy programme unaffected.

The parties are worried about electors becoming confused, or staying at home because they regard the election as irrelevant. The Scottish National Party has most to fear from such apathy and that is a main reason why the former leader, Alex Salmond, is to fight his Westminster seat and lead the party's campaign.

But Labour could suffer, too. Its strong issues - the public services and the Government's claim of funds reinjected after 18 years of neglect - will be trailed every day of the campaign. Yet it is these issues that have been devolved to Scotland and, less sweepingly, to Wales. The party will no doubt also argue that health and education depend on a healthy economy and the prudence shown by Chancellor Gordon Brown over the past four years. Treasury affairs, like social services including pensions, remain a Westminster responsibility. Voters may respond to the call to make up their minds which party can be best trusted with the economy, just as the Conservatives will seek to broaden the debate through strident defence of the pound against European integration.

The first UK election since devolution takes us into new territory. On the surface, the constitutional issue will not play the part it did in 1997 when three of the four parties campaigned for a Scottish Parliament of some kind. Only the SNP will seek to raise the stakes this time round, but it is too early for the independence issue to appeal beyond the ranks of the committed. Most people want to give the Parliament on the Mound more time to settle down and to test further the relationship between Edinburgh and Westminster.

Yet the consequences of devolution will never be far from the politicians' minds as they campaign. The more each of the four devolved administrations strikesout on its own, the more pressure there is for the other countries to cherry-pick the most attractive initiatives.

Scotland's acceptance of the principle of free care for the elderly as proposed in the Sutherland report is being studied enviously south of the border, and worriedly in the Treasury and Whitehall Department of Health because of the potential cost across England and Wales. (Since Edinburgh cabinet members seem in the dark about where the extra money is to come from, perhaps Whitehall ministers are right to be cautious.) Charles Kennedy intends putting abolition of student fees at the heart of the Liberal Democrats' campaign on the back of the party's claimed success in the Scottish coalition.

Sir David Winkley, one of the first headteachers to be knighted at the Prime Minister's instigation, gave the English perspective in this paper two weeks ago: "Teachers are aware they increasingly have choices. In Scotland pay is rapidly improving, in Northern Ireland league tables have been abolished to popular acclaim, in Wales the OFSTED regime has never been as oppressive as it has been in England."

Teachers could move from England to Scotland to share in the post-McCrone handout. They are more likely, as Sir David implies, to argue that the best aspects of education in the other three countries should be imported to their own system. It is hard for a Labour Education Secretary in Whitehall to argue against a policy enacted by a Labour education minister in Scotland or Wales - such as free student tuition. He is left to stall on the ground of cost alone, thereby opening the door to opposition parties to point out anomalies.

Pressure groups, too, are using victory in one place to step up their demands elsewhere. Last week children's charities here celebrated Jack McConnell's support for a children's commissioner. Their press statement said that Scotland had been "in danger of falling behind when the Northern Ireland Assembly declared its intentions to establish an independent children's commissioner, following the example of Wales".

Devolution offers a testbed for locally devised solutions. That is one of its best characteristics. But the politics of envy, most evident in English teachers' reaction to the Scottish pay deal, will bring new pressure on ministers and their budgets across the UK - and will feed the election manifestos of opposition parties.

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