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Numpties No More

Not so numpty after all. The Scottish Parliament and Jack McConnell are entitled to take some small satisfaction at Tony Blair’s u turn last week on the partial smoking ban in England. They’d been told that Holyrood’s complete ban was poltically-correct madness, wouldn’t work, nanny state etc..
Scottish politicians who should have known better, like the former Health Secretary John Reid, insisted that the working classes should not be denied their small pleasures. Tony Blair agreed, even to the length of slapping down his own health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, who wanted to go the whole Scottish hog.
Well, after mature consideration, England is now to come into line with Scotland. At least, that’s what most people expect will be the result of the free vote on smoking, which is now to be granted in the House of Commons. Really, it was only matter of time before Westminster realised that Scotland’s comprehensive ban wasn’t health fascism but common sense.
The idea that private clubs could be exempted, as the PM wished, raised questions about the human rights of staff working in them. Exempting pubs which served no food seemed to herald a return to Dickensian drinking dens, where the consumption of alcohol is uncivilised and untamed. On legal and moral grounds, the logic of a total ban was unanswerable.
So, a result for Holyrood, and not for the first time. We’ve been so brainwashed into thinking that the Scottish Parliament is filled with useless time-servers, who can’t tell a statutory instrument from an order in council, that we tend to assume that anything Holyrood does is suspect. But smoking isn’t the only area where Scotland’s example is being followed. The Education Secretary Ruth Kelly’s attempt to rewrite education white paper signals a clear move back towards the comprehensive system which Scotland never abandoned.
Even Neil Kinnock, the most loyal Blairite of all, last week attacked the PM’s plans to introduce competition between schools and restore an element of selection. He echoed the views of the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, and the hundred Labour MPs who are threatening to rebel against the forthcoming bill.
Now, in Scotland we have been told endlessly that the only way to improve education here is to get rid of the “bog standard” comprehensive and embrace the English reform agenda. We have been sold an image of Scottish education that is failing pupils across the land, that is crippled by crackpot educational theories; that grinds down excellence. A system in crisis which needs to be reformed by the introduction of parental choice.
Largely nonsense, of course. Scottish schools continue to perform rather well on the OECD PISA league tables. There are failing schools, of course, and there is an air of defeatism among teachers who seem to be unable or unwilling to exercise discipline.
However, it was never clear exactly how the English reforms would help change this. Nor was it clear how parental choice could meaningfully be exercised by the large numbers of Scots who have only one local school to choose from. Even where choice exists, there is the problem of what to do if parents all want to go to the same school.
In England, there was – is – a widespread suspicion that the educational reforms were intended ultimately to lead to the reintroduction of academic selection; that taking schools out of local authority control was Blairite device designed to allow English schools to form their own selective admissions policies.
Specialist schools for non-academic subjects are – in the view of many Labour backbenchers – a kind of educational Trojan horse. Once the principle of selection on merit for music, art or sport was established, there would inevitably be pressure for selection to be extended to academic subjects.
Now, the PM insists that his reforms were never designed to do this, still less return England to the days of the grammar schools, but he has been unable to persuade his own party, if Kelly doesn’t return to the comprehensive status quo the bill will be lost. What remains of the reforms are a proliferation of semi-autonomous schools including city academies with commercial sponsorship and faith schools. But would Scotland really benefit from a chain of McDonald’s Middle Schools or Abu Hamsa Primaries?
The other botched reform which Scotland didn’t emulate was competition in hospital provision. The Scottish Executive rejected it in favour of co-operation between hospitals and GPs. This was derided as a cop out, a sell-out to the health unions, a sign of Scottish backwardness. But they’re not saying that quite so loudly now that English hospital trusts and PFI hospitals in England are in financial crisis. Faced with a #1.4bn deficit, wards are being closed and operations postponed.
Enlisting the private sector to help clear waiting lists brought short term relief. But the reintroduction of the internal market by Labour has reproduced many of the inefficiencies of the Conservatives’ internal market which Labour scrapped in 1998. Payment by result encourages hospitals to specialise in the most lucrative operations, to the neglect of fields like geriatrics and preventive medicine.
But the basic problem is that hospitals are not like private firms in a market. Hospitals cannot go out of business – they are hundred million pound public investments and cannot be written off, especially in areas where local people depend and rely on them, as in much of Scotland.
The Scottish system is far from perfect, of course. A colossal injection of public money does not seem to have led to commensurate improvement. But that doesn’t mean the English reforms would have helped. Sometimes, masterly inactivity is the right course.
Of course, the Scottish Executive has the luxury of the Barnett Formula and secure funding. This may breed indolence and complacency. But there is strong evidence that across the range of domestic policy the Scottish Parliament is getting at least some things right. Even the Scottish legislation on sexual offenders was praised by the Bichard Inquiry. Then there’s tuition fees, PR, free personal care, freedom of information.
Looked at objectively, the Scottish Parliament has achieved a great deal. It’s worth remembering that the next time you curse Holyrood as a costly waste of space.

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