Consensus and sensibility

June 21, 1996

After the outcome of the 1992 general election, there are few people bold enough to state that Scottish devolution is a certainty after the next one. But there is increasing public debate of the home-rule proposals drawn up by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, supported by a broad range of organisations including the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green parties.

The most recent debate, at a working conference organised by the Convention and the Educational Institute of Scotland, focused on education. Education would be a key policy area under a Scottish parliament, and those who decry the current funding cuts would have the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is: the convention scheme gives the parliament the power to vary United Kingdom tax levels within the limits of plus or minus 3p in the pound, which could yield some Pounds 400 million a year.

The goal of the convention is to establish a new set of constitutional principles, jettisoning the combative Westminster model for a more consensual approach. This need not be dismissed as a pipedream. Scotland's small size lends itself to such an approach, as has been demonstrated by the devolved higher education system, which has avoided the antagonisms evident south of the border. The major players all know one another, it is easy to meet regularly and there are strong links with industry, commerce and the local community.

Education is genuinely valued across society, and while current funding problems must not be minimised, Glasgow's principal, Graeme Davies, this week acknowledged that institutions have a breathing space to plan for impending difficulties, thanks to the adroitness of the Scottish Office and the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.

Last week's conference showed a heartening determination not to get rid of babies with the bathwater. There was recognition of the expertise in the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department and SHEFC, and the concern was that they should exercise their skills in the open, helping to inform public debate, not that they should be weakened or abolished.

But tensions remain, notably over subsidiarity, which the convention argues, should be a founding principle of the parliament. There may be strong pressure to bring further education colleges back under local authority control, a pressure that would certainly be resisted by the colleges themselves. A similar debate may emerge over higher education despite its international role, making institutions' much-vaunted links with local communities a double-edged sword if it is then deemed that decisions should be taken as close to these communities as possible.

Undoubtedly Scottish self-confidence has been boosted by the framework of the European Union. Scotland does not face a solitary existence if it casts loose from England and it sees the success of other small countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands. But in the modern world, their success is bound up with the success of the EU itself. The UK Government's current damaging policy of noncooperation could have the unintended side-effect of boosting support for Scottish independence.

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