Common Weal’s Renewal Proposals

CommonWeal has entered the post election fray by publishing a collection of proposals, Renew, which it wants the Scottish government to adopt. The rationale for this is that the election showed “some clear signs of discontent about the risk of stagnation and a perceived lack of ambition.”

While the authors no doubt want to be helpful, I am not so sure that this is the way to go about it. Firstly their stated reason – “some signs of discontent” – does not warrant such a drastic change of direction on part of the government. It is important to remember that this was a UK election and that just over a year ago the SNP won the largest number of seats and votes in the Scottish election. To ditch that manifesto on the basis of “some signs of discontent”, during another election for another parliament would seem to be a sign of panic and not renewal.

Secondly as the report acknowledges, “Common Weal has been publishing policy papers on domestic policy throughout this parliament”. Why should the Scottish government suddenly adopt this particular collection of six policies now? Publishing them now just seems to be a reckless publicity stunt by Common Weal. Major changes of direction in a democracy should come about as a result of public debate and voting in an election. Not at the behest of a think tank, however illustrious.

The six collections of polices seem a bit of a mishmash and very few can be implemented in the near future. The creation of a National Investment Bank (NIB) for example will take some time to become a reality and will require significant funding from the Scottish budget. The main difficulty though, in setting up a NIB is that it will require the consent of the UK Treasury to changes in the way the UK measures public debt and to changes in the budgetary rules for the Scottish government. Both of which may happen or may not. But the fact that the creation of a NIB for Scotland depends on UK government approval does demonstrate the extent to which Scottish government initiatives are constrained by our membership of the UK.

This also applies to the proposals on housing. The extra funding for housebuilding is to come from the newly established NIB. But as noted if this does not get UK government agreement to work in the way Common Weal want, these additional funds will not be available.

Changes to our democracy is high on Common Weal’s agenda. However their priorities for action amount to – setting up two commissions. One to design a new system of local democracy and the other to investigate the idea of creating a second ‘Citizen’s Chamber’ of the Scottish Parliament. Wow, this will have them jumping for joy up and down the country! Why do we need either commission? The report makes lots of assertions but nothing in the way of evidence that either would improve decision making in Scotland nor that either is wanted by more than a handful of policy wonks.

When it comes to local tax reform the report doesn’t mercifully want another commission, but just wants the government to adopt Common Weal’s proposals for replacing Council Tax with a property and land tax. A lot of merit in these proposals. Just a pity that they were not supported by the electorate last year.

The report includes a very strange section which isn’t about big initiatives, but rather about Sending the right signals. These signals are to cover land reform, fracking, education and the arts. Why these four and not others is nowhere explained. The recommendation on arts is almost a joke. The best that Common Weal can come up with is that, “the Scottish government should consider how investing in arts can create a sense of a confident Scotland.” Wow, another one to get them rocking in the aisles!

The serious bit in this section concerns education. Here the report calls for the government to downgrade or shelve its reforms and calls for a full review of the implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence. So the current reforms are to stop and be replaced by ????? What is to happen with the implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence while the full review is undertaken? Is the implementation to be halted? For how long? The report also calls for considerable additional money to be spent on teachers, teaching assistants, libraries and IT support, without any indication of where this money is to come from.

The proposal to fund extra childcare by scrapping the planned reduction in Air Passenger Duty is one of the few practical recommendations that could be implemented without delay. The same cannot be said of most of the others.

All in all I remain perplexed as to what Common Weal hope to achieve by publishing this report. For a democratically elected government to make so many radical changes to its manifesto just one year into its term of office, does not strike me as good governance. To do so at the behest of an unelected think tank would be just absurd and about as undemocratic as one can imagine.

Changes of the kind proposed by Common Weal, some of which I agree with, need to be properly debated and scrutinised in the public sphere and then voted on in a general election. For Common Weal to suggest otherwise is an affront to democracy.

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