Sunday Times (Ecosse), 20 April 2008
The Caves, a labyrinth of subterranean vaults in the heart of the Edinburgh’s Old Town, is commonly employed as a venue for raw-boned guitar bands and late-night club gatherings. But last week it was the unlikely location for the launch bash of Scotland’s newest think tank Reform Scotland, attended by a select guest list of politicians, business leaders and journalists who would have been forgiven for thinking they had mistakenly wandered into a junket for the new Edinburgh Comedy Festival.
This was no joke though. Reform Scotland , the sister organisation of the London based right of centre think tank started by the Shadow Justice Secretary, Nick Herbert in 2001, has arrived on the scene in a bluster of public policy rhetoric and heading-grabbing figures. Brandishing a 52-page report called Power to the Public, Reform’s Director, Geoff Mawdsley, a former adviser to David McLetchie, apprised us that Glasgow was a more dangerous place to live than New York and that Scottish female cancer sufferers have the poorest survival rates in Europe.
But before his organisation can influence the public policy debate with grim statistics and the clarion call of decentralisation, Mawdsley must negotiate the mire of scepticism, not just of his political background but of the widely held assumption that think tanks are about as useful as Naomi Campbell in a crisis.
In Westminster think tanks are part of the political canvas, the impetus behind strategic policy thinking. In Scotland, they have been kept at a distance. Projections that policy institutes would thrive in eth wake of devolution were short of the mark. Too few in number to joust their way onto the agenda, they have been criticised for pressing the centre-left consensus and lacking innovation. George Reid launched the Futures Forum in late 2004 as a resource to inform cross-party thinking. Demos, the research institute, and the Scottish Council Foundation have been vocal, but it amounts to a relatively puny policy community. Mawdsley is confident Reform can spark the debate where other have failed and has already had meetings with Jim Mather, the SNP enterprise minister, and Wendy Alexander.
Reform Scotland has positioned itself as independent, non-partisan and committed to the “the traditional Scottish principles of limited government, diversity and personal responsibility”. It has an impressive array of support from the business community, which always approves of a little competition. Its advisory board includes Sir Richard Sykes, former chairman of GlaxoSmithKline, Lesley Knox, Chairman of the Alliance Trust and David Milne, founder of Wolfson Microelectronics.
Its next projects will propose solutions to the problems in health, education and policing the last report highlighted.
Mawdsley is inspired by the way America has tackled the social problems Scotland needs to overcome.
“In New York the elected Mayor provides a focal point. The Mayor says “I’ve been elected on a platform to tackle crime so this is how we are going to do it.” He appoints a police commissioner with a specific job to put officers back on the beat. You tackle low level crime because that breeds trust. You then get the contacts with the community which gives you the information to tackle both those crimes and more serious crimes. It’s creating a virtuous circle and making sure the public are seen as being on the side of the law-abiding majority.
“We’re not saying you can transfer every aspect of what they did in New York but the statistics are pretty damning. What they have done has led to a 67% fall in crime since 1993, which is now less than in Glasgow. New York is clearly doing something right. We can learn from that.”
Mawdsley appreciates that his Conservative background will cause some to make the wrong assumptions about what he is driving at. “Reform is not about public versus private. The public sector can be reformed as well,” he says. “The key change that we looked at in terms of policing is not about privatisation, it’s about how you make public service more accountable. In an area such as policing, which is always going to be a core public service, it’s about localising solutions.
“In the past certain elements have been wary of debate for fear of going down the privatisation route. But what we are trying to say is that diversity of provision doesn’t always mean the private sector.
“There’s a huge voluntary sector in Scotland and I don’t think we’ve begun to tap the potential there. If you look at the role the voluntary sector plays in many other European countries it provides services very effectively in different and valuable ways to the sate.”
“You’ve got countries that we would regard as social democratic such as France, Germany or Sweden that are successfully introducing reforms that here are seen as right wing.
“It’s not a question of transplanting a system lock stock and barrel, it’s about looking for common features. We’re dealing with a Scottish context and we have traditions and structures. But if other countries perform better than outs in certain areas then we have to learn some of those lessons.”
Reform has its office in Edinburgh’s North St David Street and Mawdsley believed it will soon be informing the political life of the nation. “The beauty of a think tank is that it’s independent of a party and can say what it thinks without worrying about upsetting the party or voters,” he says.
“If you look at what the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) or Reform itself has done in London they have huge influence on the agendas of the parties and have improved the level of the debate. We need to do that in Scotland.”
The precedents are poor. In a damning report published last year by Hartwig Pautz of Glasgow Caledonian University, Scotland’s think tanks were criticised for their tendency to “lead a rather isolated existence”, and to produce “research which is hardly ever original”.
“In Scotland, think tanks will always find it hard to develop as successfully as in London,” says Pautz. “Something like IPPR or even Demos isn’t suitable in Scotland, let alone academic think tanks such as the Centre for Economic Performance at LSE.”
Mawdsley insists, nevertheless, that since the SNP came to power there has been a subtle but perceptible change in the attitude towards independent policy advice. “The difference in there’s a minority government which creates a more open policy environment,” he says. “There seems to be a desire for new ideas amongst all political parties which I think is very healthy.”