With the count down to the end of the Blair era well underway, the search for a suitable legacy for Labour’s most successful leader is becoming increasingly desperate. What is there in the trophy cupboard? The Millennium Dome? Hardly. ASBOs and the respect agenda? Please. The public service reforms are in trouble, and anyway borrowed from the Tory internal market. The economy and the Bank of England are down to Gordon.
No, apart from the Iraq war – the greatest foreign policy disaster since the Suez – there is very little for the PM to call his own. Except, strangely enough, a policy in which he has shown virtually no interest: devolution. Tony Blair has yet to visit the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, but when historians come to assess the lasting impact of his three administrations, they are likely to see home rule as the only thing that actually worked.
Devolution not only addressed long-standing Scottish grievances over the centralised state, it has broken the legislative monopoly of Westminster and opened a new democratic space in British politics. It has brought diversity to public service provision in Britain, brought democracy closer to the people, and arguably saved the UK from disintegration – even the SNP is reluctant to talk of independence these days.
Proportional representation has changed the character of electoral politics in Scotland by forcing parties to work together in coalitions. The extension of fair voting to council elections next year begins the long-delayed reform of the local state. New Labour used to talk about the “new politics” – well, you’re looking at it.
Unfortunately, Tony Blair has tended to see the nuisance rather than the new. He was furious at the Labour-led Scottish Executive for refusing to implement his market-centred health service and education reforms. Nor was he amused by the abolition of university tuition fees, free personal care for the elderly and a raft of progressive measures specifically rejected by New Labour for the rest of the country.
The Scottish Executive has challenged the UK Home Office over dawn raids on asylum seekers, and has been trying to pursue a more liberal immigration policy under the Fresh Talent initiative. Identity cards – if they ever happen – will not be compulsory in Scotland. The Scottish Executive has resolved to resist any new generation of nuclear power stations, unless or until there is a solution to the waste problem. If the Scottish Parliament hadn’t taken the initiative in pushing through the total smoking ban, it would never have happened in England.
But it is above all in the Scottish Executive’s resistance to Blairite reforms to schools and hospitals, with their focus on competition and choice, that Scotland is embarking on a very different social journey. Scotland, on the whole, remains content with one-size-fits-all comprehensives, albeit with ‘setting’ or ‘streaming’ for pupils of different abilities. There is little demand for hospitals to compete for patients, and most GPs favour the collaborative approach over the internal market.
Tony Blair sees all this as Old Labour, as state socialism, but it’s really a newer kind of New Labour. Regional diversity is itself an extension of choice. Why not allow Scotland to experiment with a more ‘European’ social model, while England pursues the ‘Anglo Saxon’ road? If nothing else it provides a laboratory for progressive alternatives. The puzzle is that progressives in and around the Labour Party, such as Compass, seem to be unaware that they are already a reality.
Scotland is not another country and the constitutional revolution will not stop at the border. Holyrood’s example of consensus politics will eventually fuel demands for proportional representation for Westminster, if for no other reason than this: had the House of Commons been elected under the Scottish system, leaving Blair without his inflated majority, Britain would never have gone to war in Iraq. And Tony Blair’s legacy would not be written in blood.