Magazine article Public Finance

Scotland Grows Its Own

Magazine article Public Finance

Scotland Grows Its Own

Article excerpt

There has been a mixed response in Scotland to the soaring numbers of English students applying to Scottish universities. Some nationalist politicians fear these 'fee refugees' are elbowing Scottish students out. But at least this has confounded critics who claimed that the abolition of university tuition fees would lead to a parochial and narrow-minded higher education sector.

Thousands more foreign students have also been making their way to Scotland - a 20% rise this year - to benefit from the two-year extension to their residency visas introduced by the Scottish Executive last year under the 'Fresh Talent' initiative. Now, English universities are starting to complain of unfair competition, and there is pressure for Scotland's visa regime to be implemented south of the border.

These are just two examples of the way in which devolution has introduced a new diversity into public provision in the UK Scotland always was different, with its own legal and education systems. But the pace of differentiation has been stepped up since devolution in 1999.

Take home affairs. 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. Identity cards - if they ever happen - will not be compulsory in Scotland. The Freedom of Information regime here is also much more open than its English counterpart In its first year, it has been remarkably successful in altering the climate of official secretiveness. Scotland is becoming a more open society.

The Executive has resolved to resist any new generation of nuclear power stations, unless or until there is a solution to the waste problem. If a new generation of Trident nuclear missiles is scheduled for the Clyde, there could be a furious response. Scotland intends to exploit the fact that it has - potentially - some 25% of Europe's entire wind and wave energy.

Proportional representation, introduced in Scotland in 1999, is to be extended to local government next year. This has changed the character of electoral politics by forcing parties to work together in coalitions. The council tax is also likely to be reformed first in Scotland. Free personal care, as recommended by the Sutherland Report, has been well received in Scotland, despite the expense.

But it is, above all, in resistance to New Labours market-based public sector reforms, with their focus on competition and choice, that the Scottish Executive is embarking on a very different social journey. For Tony Blair, the need for reform is a self-evident truth. This is not the case in Scotland.

At the Scottish Labour Party conference last year, the prime minister delivered a calculated snub to the Scottish government and First Minister Jack McConnell by loudly proclaiming the success of English health reforms that have cut waiting lists, such as walkin diagnostic and treatment centres. McConnell took it badly. He isn't impressed by the PM's habit of holding Scotland up as a warning of what happens when public services go unreformed. The FM subsequently made it known that communication had largely broken down between himself and the prime minister.

This year, when Blair came to the Scottish Conference in Aviemore on February 24 he went out of his way to praise the Scottish Executive. He cited its total smoking ban and its Hungry for Success programme for improving the diets of Scottish schoolchildren, which the prime minister said has been copied in England. Blair also highlighted the Executive's work on antisocial behaviour orders and the Fresh Talent initiative for attracting foreign students to Scotland.

Departing from the PMs public service message was a bold move for the Executive. On the face of it, Scotland isn't a great advert for the old one size fits all* state, in health at least. It gets around 20% more in funding per head than England, yet life expectancy for a male in Glasgow remains around 11 years lower than in the south of England. …

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