Alan Cochrane, Daily Telegraph, 21 April 2009
One of the few positive things to have come out of the much-maligned – at least by this correspondent – "devolution industry" has been the emergence into the public glare over the past year of the independent think tank, Reform Scotland.
Not apparently short of cash or clout, it has produced a series of, in the main, well thought-out observations on how we are governed in Scotland. A measure of its influence can be ascertained by a brief glance at its adherents, most of whom are extremely eminent in their chosen fields.
It has always been a mystery to me why people give their time and often money to think tanks instead of getting involved in politics proper. Their usual excuse is that they do not have the time, although I suspect that the real reason is that they don\’t want to get their hands dirty. That is a pity, as party politics could do with an injection of fresh blood.
Still, I digress. This think tank\’s latest offering has focused on the issue that is fast becoming an almost perpetual thorn in Alex Salmond\’s side – the country\’s declining educational standards.
It found that in spite of a doubling in the amount of cash spent on both primary and secondary school pupils since 1999, standards have fallen over the same period. Reform Scotland\’s report recommends giving parents more choice over where their children are taught and giving schools more autonomy as the best way forward.
Their conclusions in this direction were extremely sound and chimed well with another weekend report. This document was drawn up by a former special adviser to successive Labour First Ministers and concluded that devolution was not working.
However, having praised Reform Scotland for their attitude towards our schools, it is only fair to upbraid them for their woolly thinking on the most controversial of the constitutional changes being mooted for this country. I refer to fiscal independence or full fiscal freedom, or the "Three Fs", to give it but three of its many monikers.
The demand for Scotland to be allowed to raise and spend all of its own taxes is at the very top – second only to full independence – of the SNP\’s political agenda. But it is also supported by the Liberal Democrats, many Labour MSPs and several Tories in the Scottish Parliament.
Reform Scotland came out with a report that was wholly supportive of this case last November and its arguments in favour are frequently called in aid by nationalists.
We heard renewed calls for fiscal independence at the SNP\’s spring conference in Glasgow at the weekend and one television report featured some of the think tank\’s experts adding credence to the argument.
However, where I take issue with Reform\’s report is that Amanda Harvie, one of its illustrious trustees, explained that they had reached their conclusion on the taxation issue without taking a stand on the independence issue.
This is surely a stunningly naïve position to adopt. Can you really have a completely separate and different taxation regimen on either side of the Border and still have a United Kingdom as we know it today? Don\’t the changes advocated by Reform Scotland, as well as the SNP, make a fundamental shift in Scotland\’s constitutional position inevitable?