Mandarin slams Scots' colonial status

September 5, 1997

Senior civil servants are notoriously circumspect, even after they retire. But on the eve of the devolution vote, James Scott, former secretary of the Scottish Office Education Department, has broken the traditional silence to claim that the Scottish Office is "virtually part of a colonial administration".

Scottish educational interests have suffered because of domination by Westminster and Whitehall, and the Scottish Office's legislative and administrative auto-nomy is largely illusory, he said.

Mr Scott has been a non-active member of the Scottish National Party for many years, but last week offered himself as a potential SNP candidate for a Scottish parliament. Seats based on proportional representation will broaden the range of candidates, he believes, which he hopes will include educationists.

"Devolution will also allow a direct dialogue between interests such as education or industry and parliamentary representatives, so that the people in the legislature know what the concerns are at first hand, and can be held to account if they ignore them," he said.

"At present, legislation is at the hazard of Westminster, totally and utterly, both in terms of whether there is time for it, and its content. It is picked over to make sure nothing is being done in Scotland that might lead to people in England and Wales saying 'us too', and that the Scots don't undermine politically important things being done in England and Wales by saying 'not for Scotland'."

Mr Scott, who also headed the Scottish Office industry department and the Scottish Development Agency, said that during the 1980s, Whitehall vetoed an SOED proposal to end a teachers' strike by setting up an independent inquiry into pay and conditions.

"We were left with no response to offer, and it seemed to me the strike could go on for ever. Eventually it was brought to a conclusion because teachers in England began to strike and suddenly an independent inquiry became not only possible but desirable. We had two years of disruption because we could not devise solutions for our own circumstances."

Mr Scott acknowledged that Scotland's influence had been greatly enhanced through the new Government, with Scots in many ministerial posts, and a Scottish secretary backed by a "solid phalanx" of backbenchers.

"But the basic situation still exists, that legislation and administration can't be truly disengaged from the needs and aspirations of ministers in England, and all it takes is another general election and another administration, and we're back where we started."

Scottish education minister Brian Wilson has echoed Mr Scott's concerns, saying that maintaining and improving the high standards of Scotland's distinctive education system demand parliamentary time, which can rarely be provided at Westminster.

"The Scottish parliament will be able to act quickly and effectively without having to wait for a gap in the Westminster timetable," Mr Wilson said.

"Devolution of the responsibilities for the universities is also a major change since the proposals of the 1970s. This reflects the administrative devolution that has already occurred, and will give a sharper focus to the needs and priorities of Scottish higher education."

Mr Scott, a member of Heriot-Watt University's court, said that a decade ago, the Scottish universities had opposed higher education devolution.

"The majority of principals thought that the heavens would be rent asunder if they were expelled from the cosy embrace of the University Grants Committee. Funnily enough, it doesn't seem to have had the appalling effects they all predicted," he said.

"They are clearly more active in building up their local relationships with industry, and applicants from south of the border don't appear to be in the least deterred by the notion that the universities are within the aegis of a foreign power."

Both the Association of University Teachers Scotland and the Educational Institute of Scotland support a Scottish parliament. But they clash over the future of higher education, with the EIS backing parliamentary control of education at all levels, with the day-to-day running of the system devolved to institutions. The AUTS wants a more representative successor to the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council as a planning and funding buffer between institutions and the parliament.

"In a more compact nation with a distinctive higher education system, SHEFC has been doing a different and arguably more efficient job than the Higher Education Funding Council for England," said AUT assistant general secretary David Bleiman.

"What is missing is the accountability of SHEFC to a democratically elected parliament. We do see the potential for the Scottish parliament to take a strategic view of the higher education system Scotland needs, and perhaps especially the role higher education can play in economic regeneration."

Both unions see tax varying powers as essential. Otherwise, said EIS deputy general secretary Fred Forrester, the parliament will be nothing but a talking shop.

Mr Bleiman said the second yes vote would be crucial to decisions made long before a parliament was set up, giving a signal to Scottish secretary Donald Dewar of attitudes towards public expenditure as the Scottish Office prepares its autumn spending plans. Funding projections bequeathed by the last government leave Scottish higher education facing a 6 per cent cut in real terms next year.

"We would regard that as politically unacceptable as well as unacceptable in terms of job losses and the quality of teaching and learning," Mr Bleiman said.

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