Scotland: The Bitter Taste of Independence

Big Governments with Ludicrous Promises Kill Dreams

For nearly a thousand years, the Scots have been struggling to gain independence from England—and a bloody struggle it has been, too, costing countless lives and sowing destruction in both countries. An act of union in 1707, and the suppression of revolts in 1715 and 1745, left Scotland firmly a part of the United Kingdom in modern times, yet the dream of Scottish independence would not die. In the mid-twentieth century a handful of activists gave this goal a somewhat violent turn, blowing up pillar-boxes of the Royal Mail and stealing Scotland’s coronation stone, the Stone of Scone, from Westminster Abbey. In the end, cooler heads prevailed. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP, founded in 1934) persisted in a peaceful campaign for self-rule that finally bore fruit in 1997.

In that year a referendum was held in Scotland asking voters whether they wanted to create a Scottish parliament to control domestic affairs and, secondly, asking them whether they wanted to give this parliament the power to levy its own taxes. The Scots embraced both ideas: 74 percent voted for the creation of a new Scottish parliament, and 64 percent voted to give it taxing powers. Under the resulting arrangement, called “devolution,” the British government in London continues to control defense, foreign policy, and monetary policy, while the Scottish government is in charge of most domestic policy areas, including education, health care, transportation, and cultural affairs. Leaders of the SNP were optimistic, thinking that the election of a separate Scottish parliament would soon pave the way to full independence—“independence heaven,” as the leader of the SNP put it back in 1999.

The dream has soured completely. To understand what happened, we need to step back and review a general point about public opinion in the modern welfare state.

As originally conceived, the welfare state was expected to be an engine of political popularity. The politicians in charge of it were supposed to win honor and esteem by solving society’s problems and providing the public with a vast range of free services.

It hasn’t worked out that way at all. Citizens in modern welfare states are becoming increasingly disillusioned and cynical. In country after country, from Japan to Sweden, from Australia to Italy, political scientists have documented a dramatic decline in public trust in government.

One doesn’t have to look far to explain why this has occurred: the welfare state cannot deliver as promised. Government can’t solve most social and economic problems, for they are too complicated and too intractable to be fixed by laws, bureaucracies, and appropriations. Second, government cannot efficiently deliver high-quality, free public services. Because of its huge waste factor, government has to overtax to provide the service, or cut corners on quality—or both.

Finally, there is the problem of attracting praiseworthy political leaders. The original vision of the welfare state assumed farsighted, responsible, and selfless public officials. After all, if you’re going to give government godlike powers and enormous responsibilities in directing a vast welfare state, you need godlike people to run it. Citizens of today are discovering—with the assistance of free and energetic mass media—that their politicians are nothing like gods, that most are shortsighted, error-prone, and dismayingly self-centered.

Hence the malaise of public opinion in the modern welfare state: citizens who deplore, even loathe, the political class. It is this malaise that has derailed the project of Scottish independence. Devolution has given the Scots a close look at what comes along with independence, namely, a modern big government with all its intrusions and pretensions. The Scots are concluding that full independence under such a government would be an indignity they can just as well do without.

Construction Scandal

The first scandal involved the construction of the building for the Scottish Parliament. This was originally projected to cost 39.9 million pounds, and those who told the politicians they were hiding the true cost were angrily rebuffed. Once construction began, cost estimates began to rise. Scots watched, first in surprise and then in shock, as the announced cost rose and rose, reaching 400 million pounds ($650 million) at last count. (Expenses included $140,000 for a reception desk that Ikea could have supplied for $4,000.) To appease the popular furor, the politicians announced the formation of a special investigating committee to find out why costs had escalated. This only added to the anger since the committee would cost an additional million pounds, and would not make any findings until after the building was completed and all the money had already been spent. (Privately, many Scots believe that the cost overrun has been caused mainly by padded contracts born of cronyism.)

The leader of the SNP, John Swinney, summed up the national mood in November 2003: “Holyrood [the parliament building] has turned from a farce into a national scandal and everyone knows it. People clearly understand that their pocket has been picked to the tune of 400 million.”

One area of perpetual complaint is the nationalized health-care system. Everything that goes wrong is laid at the feet of the new government now responsible for it. Just one hospital, the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary (ERI) opened last year, has given the government enough grief to last for generations. The hospital doesn’t have enough beds to handle its caseload, so operations have to be canceled—40 hip replacements were canceled in October 2003 alone—and patients with acute needs have to be transported long distances to other hospitals. Newspapers revel in this kind of scandal. The Evening News (Edinburgh) ran a picture of one expectant mother sent 75 miles away to Dundee. “We are absolutely furious,” she told the reporter.

Another press story reported that despite the shortage of beds, the ERI has deliberately kept one ward permanently closed. Administrators claimed they lacked the money to operate it. With a 6 million pound deficit, the hospital is cutting corners, and each corner cut produces another newsworthy scandal. One report detailed shortages of linen, bandages, and syringes. Another news story highlighted complaints about the high charges for parking and telephone calls. A former hospital administrator who had to spend a few weeks in the ERI as a patient told reporters about the hospital’s “disgusting and inedible food,” unhygienic wards, and callous and inattentive staff.

When a woman died at the hospital as a result of falling out of bed, the Scottish health minister made the “astounding mistake” (as the news story put it) of later sending the family a letter wishing her a full recovery. When a second patient was also killed falling out of a bed a few weeks later, opposition politicians demanded an investigation of this “shocking incident.”

Whatever else one might say about it, a government-run health-care system turns out to be, as Scottish officials are discovering, a perennial source of criticism directed against the politicians in charge of it.

Reporters found a juicy scandal in the fall of 2003 at Scottish Enterprise, the government agency that is supposed to boost economic development by giving subsidies to promising firms. Instead of picking economic winners, the agency has exhibited an uncanny flair for backing losers. The Scotsman reported that nine of the 16 major firms Scottish Enterprise invested in have declared bankruptcy, and the value of its “investments” in private firms had plunged 70 percent.

Bureaucratic Greed

The folly of taxing productive businesses to subsidize failing ones may not bother most Scots (who are rather out of touch with Adam Smith’s legacy), but they all understand another of the agency’s faults: greed. The bureaucrats in charge of Scottish Enterprise are making out like bandits: the chairman has a salary of 181,000 pounds—more than even England’s Prime Minister Tony Blair is paid—and each of the 12 regional directors takes down 100,000 pounds, well over the salaries of top cabinet members in the Scottish government. An SNP leader pointed out that in bygone days many directors in this unit served on a volunteer basis, without pay. Now, under a Scottish government, they were looting the treasury. “Think of Scotland a wee bit,” he implored, “and consider taking a pay cut.”

Everyone understands that it won’t happen, that overpriced government and self-interested government officials are in Scotland to stay. Taxes have increased significantly in recent years, yet even the politicians concede that the promised service improvements haven’t materialized: health-care waiting lists are as long as ever, promised class-size reductions in the schools haven’t been achieved, new roads aren’t being built. Where has all the money gone? Mainly into the many layers of administration needed to manage (or, perhaps we should say, attempt to manage) the sprawling, incoherent empires that the welfare state has spawned.

Paying more and getting less, the public is deeply disillusioned. In the May 2003 elections, politicians urged a high turnout as a show of support for the new Scottish government. They were rebuffed by a record low turnout—less than 50 percent. A post-election survey showed that most of the voters who stayed away from the polls did so “because they did not trust politicians to keep their promises.” Now that they understand that a Scottish government does not lead to “heaven” but to waste, mismanagement, and political posturing, Scottish voters have lost interest in independence—as is evident from the declining support for the party that advocates full independence, the SNP. It went from 35 seats in the 129-member parliament in the 1999 election to 27 in 2003.

It was a well-deserved punishment. This far-left socialist party has strongly promoted the big-government cause in Scotland. In the 1999 elections, it ran on a platform of increasing taxes, on the theory that the new Scottish government could spend its way into the hearts and minds of the people.

They got it exactly wrong. It is big government with its ludicrous promise to solve everyone’s problems that has killed the dream of Scottish independence.

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