Devolving the cake

4th August 2000 at 01:00
A YEAR into devolution the lack of comprehension of its meaning continues. Sometimes the ignorance can only be wilful, as was illustrated last week following the Prime Minister's statement about health care. The Daily Record, no friend of the new Parliament, splashed across its front page: "Blair promises to make NHS 'envy of the world' . . . in Scotland, Susan Deacon waffles."

The Scottish Health Minister did not "waffle". She simply said that her statement about health service spending would not come until September. That is when the consequences of the Chancellor's comprehensive spending review will be spelt out by the Executive. Yet there was also a feeling, quite unjustified, that Scotland has been shortchanged when details of extra money for English education were announced by Gordon Brown.

The point of devolution is that the cake in Scotland is carved up as the Executive decides. Health and education will benefit as in the south, both because Labour leaders share their English colleagues' belief in the political priorities of these areas and because Mr Brown's fiscal and spending spending polices are meant to fit the needs of the United Kingdom. Whether Scotland should raise its own taxes and remit part to the Treasury for non-devolved services is another matter, although one where John Swinney, the likely next leader of the SNP, would find allies on Labour and Liberal Democrat benches if he were to open up that debate.

To achieve the best funding decisions for Scotland, we should be happy to wait from July to September. Meanwhile, other consequences of devolution are evident to those willing to use their ears and eyes. Section 28 looks like surviving in England although it is disappearing in Scotland. As with drink laws and Sunday trading (areas where legislative devolution was not a prerequisite for distinctiveness) the Calvinist tradition need not prevent Scotland taking a moral or social lead.

Progressiveness can be infectious. Children's groups south of the border are asking David Blunkett, Education and Employment Secretary, to follow (page five) the example of the Scottish Standards in Schools Act and introduce mandatory consultation with pupils about their own schooling.


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