Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Changing Scotland for good

Despite recent problems, devolution is delivering – and will achieve more, argues Jack McConnell

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While preparing for this month’s Labour Party Scottish conference, I realised that the Scottish Parliament marks its 1,000th day on 4 February. So much has happened, it is hard to believe a mere three years ago the Parliament didn’t exist.

There is little doubt that recent months have been tough. We have gone through testing times, and there will be testing times to come. But as each session passes devolved government in Scotland will mature and increasingly be seen to touch the lives of ordinary Scots.

The mark of Scotland’s Parliament was always that of its legislative powers. It has the authority to create new laws – and change Scotland for good. Twenty-two new laws have been passed in 32 months, on almost every issue you can think of: laws that get rid of the worst excesses of Tory deregulation of bus services; a law that gives Scotland its first National Park; an act that makes it a legal requirement for schools to place the child at the heart of teaching etc. Each of these laws, created and contracted in Scotland, makes a difference – and makes devolution worthwhile. Major legislation on education, housing, transport and land reform is dealing with the real priorities at the right time.

Scotland chose devolution, not for some misplaced sense of nationalism nor as an end in itself. People know that the way in which a decision is made impacts on the decision itself. Devolution should be judged on what it has done, rather than the fact that it exists.

Of course, running Scotland’s domestic affairs is about more than creating laws. An historic agreement with Scotland’s teachers that raises their status, improves the conditions in our schools and demands higher standards in their profession; a public health drive, the like of which has never been seen before in Scotland; and free central heating for every pensioner in Scotland – no matter who they are, where they live or what wealth they have.

There are more doctors and nurses, more operations than ever before, and new hospitals and modern equipment to make sure Scots get the healthcare they deserve. Every three year-old in Scotland from this year has a nursery place, more young Scots of all ages are attending further or higher education. On transport, we have begun the investment everyone knew was required in roads, railways, air and ferry services. Bus use has increased and, from October this year, all our pensioners will have free off-peak bus travel.

There are record numbers of police officers, offences are going down and more crimes are being solved. Perhaps most importantly, all Scotland’s police forces are attacking the drug dealers where it hurts, locking them up and going after their assets. And on jobs, more Scots are in work, and modern apprenticeships and the New Deal are providing new hope for young people who otherwise would have faced the dole.

All this is deep-rooted in Labour’s core founding values of equality, redistribution and social justice. While we have already achieved much, I want to do much more.

We need to do more to drive down waiting times for patients. We need to modernise and upgrade our cancer services. We need to raise morale amongst health service staff. And for the long term we must build a healthier Scotland in which people worry more about what they eat and how much exercise they take.

Levels of literacy and numeracy are still too low. Too many children in care leave school without qualifications. And our school buildings need continued investment. Scotland’s transport systems still let too many people down: so we must push ahead with the investment in our transport systems. And I want Scots to live without the fear of crime. Criminals must be prosecuted and convicted quickly, and we need more police officers out in the community, rather than sitting at a desk.

Casting a shadow over our ambitions is the concern that in 2002 our economy will face major challenges. In electronics, tourism and other areas, changes at home and abroad threaten job security and economic growth. The ‘boom and bust’ economics of the Tory years, which devastated Scotland’s industrial base, are in the past. We now have a strong and stable economy, better placed to weather the global economic storms than many of our competitors.

Scotland’s economy is strong because of our place in the United Kingdom – not in spite of it. As passionate as Scots can be about the devolved Parliament, the vast majority of people believe in the United Kingdom. Our strength is taken from the collection of nations and long may it remain like that. The Scottish separatists feed the most basic of prejudices – that anything wrong should be blamed on someone else. They want independence and isolation at a time when everyone else wants co-operation and collaboration.

Scottish Labour members in Westminster, Brussels and our local councils work together – for Scotland’s fisheries, welfare, and grassroot services. The right action at the right level – a partnership for good. This will help us achieve our ambitions in the five priority areas I have identified for Scottish ministers: health, education, jobs, transport and tackling crime. By focusing our efforts on these areas we can build a fairer Scotland, in which we continually close the opportunity gap into which too many still fall.

Meanwhile, the Opposition parties in Scotland will doubtless continue with their cul-de-sac policies. The Tories remain opposed to devolution and do nothing to make it work, while the Nationalists prefer talking about tinkering with the constitution, rather than making the current arrangements work for the people of Scotland. The best we can expect from either party is knee-jerk criticism. Frankly, it is not good enough for them to continually tell us what can’t be done. It’s time to focus on what must be done.

When I was elected First Minister it was clear to me that the record levels of resources in our public services had not yet delivered enough improvements in patient care, schools and transport. We can always spend more money, but the system needs to work too. The quality and breadth of public services is what marks our nation as a decent and civilised society. We must have public services that are excellent, improving, or both – to create a Scotland that is full of opportunity. Public services at their best provide a springboard for citizens to lead fulfilled and happy lives, help the strong look after the weak, and add strength to local communities.

But public services at their worst can exaggerate inequality and devastate families by failing those who need it the most. That is why we politicians must spend more time talking and listening to frontline staff and those who use our public services. We must hear the problems first hand and learn of the blockages in the system that need to be tackled; then we can act to ensure the highest ever public spending in Scotland’s history delivers the best ever public services. That is Labour’s historic challenge. Changing Scotland for good.

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Jack McConnell

is a former first minister of Scotland and now a Labour peer

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