Local government's place in the Scottish polity: time for a re-think?

Published: 14 October 2020

Devolution rapidly transformed Scotland's political executive, legislature and party system, however, its impact on local government has been more muted as local government structure remains that inherited from the Conservatives in 1995-96. Neil McGarvey, University of Strathclyde, argues that it is time for Scotland to develop its own approach to local government.

Covid19 has been revealing and magnifying of many endemic features of the UK’s political system, not least of which is its increasing territorialisation. The four devolved territories approach stands in contrast to the historically more common unitary conceptions of British governance. This has meant Scotland, with public health a devolved policy concern, has been allowed to – in the avowed purpose of devolution develop ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’.

At first glance this seems like empirical evidence of the ‘success’ of devolution (though it seems somewhat crude to call much to do with the British response to Covid19 ‘successful’ in the wake of 40,000 plus and rising number of deaths). However, increased territorialisation in the British polity masks a long-standing British political tradition: centralisation. This has been evident in both UK and Scottish Government approaches. Devolution since 1999 has undoubtedly enhanced Scottish governing capacity, autonomy and flexibility but to date there is not much evidence of the Scottish Government departing from the inherited Westminster and Whitehall traditional attitude of ‘central government knows best’.

Whilst devolution rapidly transformed Scotland’s political executive, legislature and party system, its impact on central-local government relations has been more muted. The pre-devolution framework of constitutional and legal subordination, financial dependency and low council profiles (contrast the profiles of English local leaders such as Sadiq Khan (London) and Andy Burnham (Manchester) with the anonymity of the leaders of Glasgow. Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee). Despite their controversial implementation pre-devolution Scotland’s local government structure remains that inherited from the Conservative centrally imposed reorganisation of 1995-96. The dynamic and trajectory of Scottish central-local government relations has continued down the same pre-devolution path of incremental centralisation.

Local administrative and political elites have, to a degree, been conformists. A continued statutory framework and internalised local political culture of deference, direction seeking, concern with compliance with legal obligation remains. This reflects an embedded wariness, with appeal to national Scottish policy standards and outcomes, and thus central control and regulation is the default political setting. The pre-devolution trajectory of national accretion and centralisation remains. The acquiescence of local Labour and SNP leaders since 1999 is indicative of the weakness of notions of localism within both parties and Scottish political culture more broadly. This is an issue both today and in the future.

Scottish independence looks closer today than it has ever done since 1707. However, local government’s place in the constitutional debate has been, to date, a mere footnote (if discussed at all). If the evidence of the first twenty one years of devolution is anything to go by a new Scottish polity will simply replicate the Whitehall governance model with Edinburgh firmly in control. The Whitehall mind-set and understanding and interpretation of local government’s place in the polity has proved durable with the limitation of autonomy and the long term trend towards weaker local government still evident.

The narrative is so dominant in public, media, civil servant, and political perceptions of British and Scottish politics that few, beyond local political actors, ever question it. Devolution has strengthened public and media perceptions of local government’s place in the polity to be secondary. Scottish politics is perceived through the media lens of centrally driven rhetoric and actions. News coverage is about the First Minister, the machinations of parties and their leaders in Parliament and Government. This undoubtedly shapes and influences the opinions of both the wider public and key political actors. A critical appraisal of devolution is that it has merely replaced governance by London’s centralist political elite by a newly empowered body of political elites in Edinburgh.

In preparation for the potential of independence and a new constitution for Scotland it is time for a broader debate on the internal institutional structure of a new Scottish polity. Reproducing Whitehall’s intellectually elitist ‘central government knows best’ approach and centralist bureaucracy in Edinburgh is unlikely to serve Scotland well. The top-down response to Covid19 has largely by-passed local councils with stated aspirations of collaborative policy approaches, shared capacity, co-production and prevention looking pretty hollow.

This is a microcosm of the Scottish Government’s approach to local government post-devolution. To date, however, there is little evidence of the political will in terms of finance and institutional reform in re-thinking on the role and purpose of local government within an independent Scotland. A vibrant Scottish and effectively functioning democracy requires local engagement and pluralism, representation, participation and deliberation as a counterweight to excessive political and institutional centralism. A debate about what a post-independence local system of democracy in Scotland would look like is long overdue. Without one an independent Scotland will simply inherit existing institutional structures without reflection of whether they still make sense today and in the future.

Covid19, of course, is not something that respects national, territorial, health board or local government borders. The Scottish Government in March and April 2020 learned an early lesson that following UK Government timelines and practice was not an effective approach. It is time for Scotland to develop its own approach to local government. ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’ should not mean the continuance of inherited traditional Westminster and Whitehall approaches to governance. It is time for Scotland to chart its own course and find its own Scottish approach to local governance.

Neil McGarvey is a Senior Teaching Fellow in Politics at the University of Strathclyde. 

'Local Government' was published in The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics in August 2020 in the UK and Europe by the Oxford University Press. 





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