The McNanny State: Scottish exceptionalism - and why Holyrood was born to be a bully

The McNanny State: Scottish exceptionalism - and why Holyrood was born to be a bully

by Brian Monteith
article from Wednesday 18, July, 2018

THE SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT was born to be different. Of course it was always intended to bring a greater degree of scrutiny and accountability to the elected ministers of the parliament’s new executive, who replaced ministers formerly appointed by the prime minister to the Scottish Office. But while there were some idealistic campaigners who believed in government being closer to the people, what really drove the political and chiefly partisan support was the belief that a Scottish Executive, later rebranded the Scottish Government, could be different politically to the UK government. 

In the context of the 1990s this meant anything halting ‘Thatcherism’ at the border and then, ironically, in the new millennium ‘Blairism’ although he had enabled the parliament to be recreated. The Scottish Parliament inhabited a world where politics was dominated by nationalism and the need on both sides of that debate to prove a belief in Scottish exceptionalism, or be seen to be anti-Scots. 

Having created the Scottish Parliament, a question often asked was what to do with the powers it brought. There was an initial flurry of activity in the first administration but these mostly involved improved pay settlements for teachers, doctors, nurses and other public sector workers rather than institutional reform. The major departures from Westminster practice were the introduction of a graduate endowment system, whereby university tuition fees were waived in return for a compulsory but modest contribution to a bursary scheme for poorer students, and the introduction of ‘free personal care’ that extended aspects of NHS healthcare provision for elderly patients.

While much legislation was passed, arguably justifying the need for a Scottish parliament, a great deal of heat was expended on issues such as banning fox hunting, the initial stages of land reform, and unexpected events such as the Higher exams’ crisis and the ballooning cost of building the new parliament building. Pressures for legislative changes in public health, while gaining column inches for campaigners, had not yet attracted a great deal of political support, but that all changed in the second administration despite no party advocating significant interventions in public health in their 2003 election manifestos.

The move by the Republic of Ireland to ban smoking in all enclosed public places had attracted a great deal of interest in Scotland, putting pressure on the Labour-Lib Dem coalition to travel some way down the same path. In July 2001 SNP member Kenny Gibson had proposed a Regulation of Smoking bill, with the cross party support of Dr Richard Simpson (Labour), Bill Aitken (Conservative) and Robert Brown (Liberal Democrats). Gibson lost his seat in 2003 but the issue was taken up by a new MSP, when Stewart Maxwell introduced a private bill to ban smoking in pubs and restaurants where food was served. It didn’t have the support of Jack McConnell’s government but it attracted a great deal of interest as it went through the parliament’s committee process. Following a brief visit to Dublin in August 2004 to see for himself the impact of Ireland’s smoking ban, McConnell (now Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale) let it be known he was considering similar legislation in Scotland.  Crucially, the lack of an immediate and robust response from other politicians or businesses that would be affected directly, indicated that a ban was possible politically and in 2005 McConnell confirmed he would introduce his own bill that would go even further than Maxwell’s private bill.

If passed Scotland would ‘denormalise’ smokers by banning them from all enclosed public spaces, including bus stops and even private members’ clubs. Maxwell consequently withdrew his bill and McConnell was cheered on by the current first minister Nicola Sturgeon who was then the SNP’s shadow health minister. As Scotland’s two largest parties joined ranks it was clear there would be little problem obtaining a parliamentary majority.

As a member of the Scottish Parliament myself I had no problem with banning smoking in some enclosed public places, but I objected to the extent of the proposals and the tone of the campaign. First, making smokers pariahs would not have been acceptable had they been any other minority group. Second, I didn’t agree that private businesses such as pubs, bars and clubs were ‘public places’. They were, and are, private domains where the proprietor should be allowed to permit or prohibit smoking according to the interests of the business. During the parliamentary procedures, when I was being lobbied by campaigners on both sides, I attended a one-day seminar hosted by the Scottish licensed trade at a hotel right next door to the Holyrood parliament. All 129 MSPs were invited to come and meet publicans and hoteliers from their constituencies. Such was the lack of concern for community pubs and bars I was the only MSP to turn up. Forcing publicans, hoteliers and club owners to eject a substantial number of their customers on to the streets, to be huddled in Scotland’s often cold and inhospitable climate, was legalised bullying. It was officially endorsed coercion and today those responsible are still extremely proud of it.

The defenders of lifestyle control and social engineering – the Labour and Liberal Democrat administrations and the Scottish Nationalists – told us to ignore the economic threats the hospitality trade feared would engulf them. They claimed the fall in smoking rates and the consequential improvement in the nation’s health would be worth it. It hasn’t turned out that way. Extravagant claims about the health ‘benefits’ of the ban continue to be repeated even today, yet they would struggle to stand up in a court of law.

It is sometimes asked why Scottish politicians – tacitly supported by a compliant media that rarely questions public health professionals as robustly as it does football managers, for example – are quite so happy to push the nanny state agenda? Is it something to do with Scotland’s Presbyterian history? Is health the new religion, replacing the influence of the Protestant or Catholic churches? Or is public health socialism in a new guise? 

Frankly I think it’s neither of these things. Neither Calvinist Presbyterianism nor conservative Catholicism has much influence in modern day Scotland. Each has their flock but few if any politicians draw on theological or scriptural influences when developing new policies. While uncompromising public health policy does at times appear quasi-religious, I prefer to see its growth as rent-seeking. It is always in the interests of the professionals to justify more research and more intervention and this requires more control. There is never enough money and never enough laws. More of both is always demanded.

Whatever is required will always mean further employment for ‘experts’, more resources for their departments and quangos, additional laws to police, but Scotland is no different in this respect from the rest of the UK, which has experienced a similar burgeoning of such demands, or other democratic regimes with public sectors pumping up the clamour for more and more regulations. Where Scotland is different is that it has a nationalist dimension, even amongst unionists who on many occasions ape the nationalists to try and cut across their support.

Thus we have the Scottish Parliament competing against other UK parliaments and assemblies to be the firstto introduce some new prohibition or restriction. When, for example, the minimum unit price for alcohol was introduced supporters boasted that Scotland was the first country in the world to adopt the policy. Faux patriotism doesn’t measure if the policy is good in itself. It merely proclaims Scotland to be the first to try something as an example of exceptionalism, particularly from the rest of the UK. There is rarely any trepidation that there may be good reason why no other country has gone down that road.

In time, when the evidence is weighed up objectively and we are able to admit that all their claims for their neo-prohibition policies were counter-productive, Scottish politicians will hopefully come to terms with the fact that being the first to introduce bad policy is not in itself a good thing. Instead the passing of the Smoking, Health and Social Care (Scotland) Act 2005 was celebrated by politicians and campaigners and many still claim it to be the best thing the Scottish Parliament has achieved after nearly twenty years of its existence.

A year after the smoking ban was enforced in March 2006 a seminar was organised in Edinburgh to tell the world how Scotland was leading the way in tobacco control. Trumpets sounded (metaphorically at least) when it was announced that the number of admissions for heart attacks had fallen by seventeen per cent since the introduction of the ban. If it sounds unbelievable it was  unbelievable – because it wasn’t true. Nor would it be the last half-truth to be told as the devolved Scottish Parliament strove to be different.  In my next article I shall look at the failure of the smoking ban – and how that has inevitably led to demands for even more interventions into our lives.

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