Saturday, April 14, 2007


The May election campaign in Scotland is well underway, and the polls are pointing to an uncomfortable time for the ruling Labour Party.

The suggestion is the Scottish National Party – proponents of independence for Scotland and the break-up of the United Kingdom - are on course for victory.

Not the outcome Labour had in mind when they introduced devolution after Tony Blair's first election victory.

With the campaign in full swing, the papers are full of predictions of what an SNP win would mean - ranging from the optimistic to the alarmist, as might be expected in a partisan campaign.

The truth is, I suspect, it doesn't much matter who wins the election. Nor does it matter who wins the impending Labour leadership campaign, nor the next UK election.

I've come to the conclusion that no politician, or political party, has the capacity to impose any meaningful good or harm on the electorate or the economy any more.

Such are the timescales for change, and so great the mechanisms in place to restrict the rate of change, that any political movement is a spent force long before any significant impact of their policies can be felt.

An excellent example of this comes from the world of transport. I am writing whilst travelling northwards on an ageing GNER 125 train, a model first introduced in 1976 – during the last Labour administration - and still in full service.

On arriving at Glasgow Central, the train will terminate – unable to travel further due to a missing link in the Scottish transport network – Glasgow Crossrail – which has been mooted for over ten years, still awaits approval, and probably won't be completed for another five years at least.

Similarly, should I wish to drive around the outskirts of Glasgow, I'd be unable to complete the circuit on motorway alone, since the 'missing link' – the final phase of the M74 – is once again mired in bureaucratic delays caused by endless legal challenges.

The projects are not flights of fancy, but core elements of the Scottish transport infrastructure.

The lifespan of these projects eclipses the lifecycle of any political movement – whether it be the Thatcher or Blair years.

Compare and contrast the fortunes of UK (or Scotland) plc with that of recent UK commercial success stories such as Tesco, Royal Bank Of Scotland, or the recovering Marks & Spencers, and it's clear that big organisations benefit from clear and decisive leadership where freedom of action is paramount for the success of the executive team.

Governments no longer have that freedom of action. Much as Tony Blair may be condemned for his Presidential style, he doesn't have the clout to force through change – whether good or bad – at a rate rapid enough to induce transformative changes on the course of the nation.

There are back benchers, pressure groups, unions, and lobbyists, all with sufficient clout to wield legal challenges and other tactics with enough vigour to bring the most radical ideas to a grinding halt within a morass of legal, financial, and administrative restrictions.

The planning system in particular slows progress to a grinding crawl.

Even if the SNP do win the Scottish election, and the inevitable independence referendum that would follow, the likelihood is Independent Scotland would simply inherit many of the legal and administrative mechanisms of the UK.

British civil servants would become Scottish civil servants, the judges would remain the same, the laws may change over time but would be founded on the same framework upon which UK law was built.

All of which lends the entire exercise an air of fruitlessness and wishful thinking.

For any change to be a success would require the sort of extreme surgery that veers so far from the accepted democratic norm it simply would be unthinkable for any mainstream politician.

What is needed is a root-and-branch reform of the entire political, legal, and administrative systems,

A wiping of the slate and rebuilding from the very foundations of the nation. The introduction of a political system where those chosen to govern were empowered to govern with the same powers of decision making and speed of implementation that a modern Chief Executive wields over their organisation.

Furthermore they should be given a mandate to govern not for four or five years, but for a minimum of ten. Enough time to make a genuine difference.

All of which may be music to the ears of Jack McConnell or Alex Salmond, but they are not the sort of people I have in mind for the post of First Minister, Prime Minister, President, or whichever other term would be chosen for the political head of an independent Scotland.

Instead, I'd want to see someone with the proven acumen to run a huge organisation successfully and innovatively. A Fred Goodwin, Terry Leahy, or Tom Farmer – given a framework to operate within and incentivised by clearly defined economic targets.

Take for example national Gross Domestic Product. The trend rate is about 2.0%. Why not a £1m bonus for each tenth of one percent the GDP exceeds trend by during each of their years in office?

Sure they would earn enormous amounts over their term should they beat the target by any meaningful margin, but the rewards for the nation would be dramatically in excess of their bonus, and spread throughout the land.

A good chief executive knows when to make decisions, and when to delegate them. The running of the major departments such as health, education, and policing would be delegated to professionals with the appropriate expertise, bought in from wherever necessary.

All of which sounds, I'm sure, more than a little fanciful, perhaps even delusional.

'So what?', I say. Years of mundane leadership, and mediocre thinking have dug us into a pit from which there appears little hope of escape at present. I find myself agreeing with David Blunkett when he says the world we live in is sinking under the weight of its own vomit.

Is what we have now the best we can genuinely aspire to? Is there not a better path to be followed?

What I'm proposing would be seen by some as dangerously close to an elected dictatorship, but in some ways that's just what is needed.

Politicians have an overwhelming imperative to get re-elected. When the initial medicine tastes bad, and the public patient baulks at the treatment, they lose the will to persevere with the full course.

Tough love isn't on their agenda; winning votes is.

A longer term, more empowered leadership would be able to force through initially unpopular policies with longer term beneficial effects. It could be bolder, more decisive, and unafraid of short term electoral demands.

Alas, I don't expect any of this to come to pass. Which means for now all I can do it continue to make the most of my own lot.

For now that means persevering with my own life plans to enable my family and I to set our own course outwith the traditional career and financial milestones.

At the moment I'm happy that I'm doing a pretty decent job of that, but it doesn't stop me wishing the country as a whole could step up a gear and improve the quality of the society we live in.

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