Thursday, May 18, 2006

Scotia Nostra

The Economist has an article on-line describing how devolution in Scotland has led to a land bedeviled by red tape, socialism-by-a-thousand-cuts, and out-and-out graft/hanky panky.
the propensity to spend is strong. Almost everything that the parliament has done to distinguish itself from its London counterpart has cost money, and its two main innovations may well be unsustainable: waiving student tuition fees means compensating universities (or assuring them an ever-sinking status), and free care for the elderly is a terrifying blank cheque in a country whose pensioners are expected to increase by 35% (to 1.3m) in the next 25 years, while those of working age are forecast to fall by 7% (to 3m).

Scotland's politicians, however, have been more interested in settling some old class-war scores than in shrinking the state. One of their first priorities was to ban hunting (embarrassingly, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, the Labour member whose acute sense of morality prompted him in 1999 to introduce the bill, was last year given a prison sentence for arson committed in an Edinburgh hotel after the Scottish Politician-of-the-Year awards).

Then came land reform, largely directed at “feudal” landowners. Some aspects of the legislation were good: the laws of access were clarified. Some were bad: crofters (hereditary tenants of small farms), many of whom live and work in distant cities, now have the right to buy not only their croft but also any fishing and mineral rights, so long as they form a "community," even if the landowner has no wish to sell. Some will have unintended results: the changes designed to increase the number of tenancies for farmers are having the opposite effect. None will save money: the purchase by their inhabitants of islands such as Gigha under new right-to-buy laws has largely been made possible by huge grants from the taxpayer.

Almost everything that the parliament has done to distinguish itself from its London counterpart has cost money, and its two main innovations may well be unsustainableThe ban on smoking in indoor public places, introduced at the end of March, falls into the nanny-state, not the class-war, category. It is, however, equally typical. Self-government has not merely brought an 18% increase in employment in the Scottish Executive's main departments and a 40% increase in jobs in quangos, it has also brought a flurry of new regulations. Tourists who struggle all the way to Orkney in the far north to visit Maeshowe, a remarkable neolithic tomb, may, for instance, find it closed by Historic Scotland because of “high winds”, even in August. The production of red tape—the issuance of statutory instruments provides a good proxy—far outpaces that of Harris tweed.

Banana-skin republic

The new parliament has not pulled all the best, or even best-known, Scottish politicians back home. Only about a score returned from Westminster, and they did not include such Labour luminaries as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, John Reid or Alistair Darling. Donald Dewar was an exception. His early death robbed Holyrood of its first premier—known as "first minister"—and one of its few members who was widely admired. Scandal, albeit a small one over expenses, claimed his successor, Henry McLeish. The present incumbent is Jack McConnell, the only one of the three not to have served at Westminster. A product of local government—which, especially in the west, is richly peopled in many minds with "numpties," ie, bone-headed placemen—he has conspicuously chosen not to give ministerial jobs to several capable colleagues.

Mr McConnell, too, has been caught up in controversy—scandal would be too strong a word—for failing to declare as an "interest" a brief holiday with a well-known television presenter, Kirsty Wark, and her husband in their villa in Majorca. In truth, the episode revealed more about Ms Wark and the small world of the Scottish establishment, often known as the Scotia Nostra. Ms Wark, it turned out, was a woman of many parts: fearless public-interest inquisitor on the telly, old friend of the first minister, founder of a company chosen by BBC Scotland to make a film about the new parliament building, and member of the panel that had originally selected its design. Fancy.

Looks like the Irish, who went sensibly to sound fiscal management and encouragement of the private sector, and built a booming economy, have reversed the traditional identities of the two entities as the newly-independent Scots spend wildly, build a gigantic bureaucracy, conduct low-intensity class warfare, and export their most talented politicians---Adam Smith must be revolving at a thousand RPMs! And a whiff of scandal with the BBC to boot!

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