15 July 2010

A "Devolution distraction"?

Yesterday, Policy Exchange published a report entitled "The Devolution Distraction: How Scotland's constitutional obsession leads to bad government", composed by one Tom Miers. About the author, I can tell you very little. The document styles him thus:

After a career in finance and management consultancy, Tom Miers worked as Executive Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. Between 2003 and 2007 he ran the Policy Institute, a Scottish think tank. He now acts as an independent public policy consultant specialising in Scottish issues.

However, it is no secret that the publishing London-based think-tank is avowedly Conservative in orientation, well represented by the cluster of Tory testimonials on its about us page. They describe themselves as:

... an independent think tank whose mission is to develop and promote new policy ideas which will foster a free society based on strong communities, personal freedom, limited government, national self-confidence and an enterprise culture.

I mention this only for background detail, you understand, better to situate an understanding of the author's case - not as a cunning attempt to ad hominem Miers' arguments into illogical oblivion.  A hasty scan of the report sketches a pretty slim (or in the alternative, paired down) argument, running only to forty-odd spacious pages or so.  The pamphlet has already been discussed or at least reported on by elements of the Toryesque press and commentariat. I've not read the piece myself yet, but I wanted to draw your attention to it. If I find it sufficiently riling or sagacious (or some exciting combination of the two), expect a more concerted dissection in due course. Here's an abstract of Miers' argument:

Since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, Scotland’s politicians have neglected to address the deep-seated social and economic problems faced by the country. This report calls for a new approach to politics in Scotland, based on honesty in measuring performance, radicalism in policy making and a generational truce on the constitutional issue.

You can directly access a digital copy of "The Devolution Distraction" here.


  1. The Policy Institute, of which Miers was in charge, was bankrolled by the Barclay Brothers and had Andrew Neil and Bill Jamieson sitting the board.


    It seemed to produce little more than the sort of doctrinaire nonsense that you'd expect from a group of folk with the idées fixe that the state is too large, that Scotland is subsidised by England, and that any Scottish deviation from the policy agenda south of the border in some way represents backwardness.

    Miers himself used to write strange letters to the Herald and Scotsman during his time in post, which demonstrated a grasp of Scotland and devolution which was, to be charitable, rather idiosynchratic. He also seems to have a goldfish memory, since he argued against LIT on the grounds that it would remove local government control over tax [http://tiny.cc/pnsbp], yet today cites the notional ablitiy of the Scottish Government to abolish council tax as a measure of how fiscally autonomous it is!

    The Policy Institute merged with Reform Scotland a couple of years ago, having failed to produce the 'new Enlightenment' which they claimed to be bumbling towards, and to my knowledge Miers played no part thereafter.

    Interesting that the today's Scotsman editorial, which has Bill Jamieson's fingerprints all over it, seems to be puffing up Miers at the expense of Reform Scotland. It would be unutterably depressing if the Scotsman was to revert to the sort of Home Rule bashing we saw under the likes of Andrew Neil and Martin Clark by lending credibility to this sort of candyfloss.

  2. Quoted from the Scotsman's leader article today...

    "In sharp contrast to Ben Thomson's Reform Scotland and its bouncing caravan-in-tow, the Campaign for Fiscal Responsibility (Calman Extra Plus), Mr Miers represents that wing of Centre Right opinion concerned with the reality of political economy in Scotland rather than constitutional change."

    Ouch. That is some high-grade snideness and condescension. Thanks for furnishing a bit of background information on the author, Richard. I'm clearly less of a Scottish think-tank watcher than yourself!

    Personally, I blame the pervasive Romantic account of genius for these latter-day would-be Enlightenment re-enactment societies.

    A philosophical focus too often decontextualises the historical literary field which these "great men" of letters actually contributed to, the arguments they responded to, the books they read. What is left is a mysterious Thinker out of History - his philosophical wisdom accessible through the disembodied text, too regularly read without a pause to ensure that we're reading them historically intelligently and understanding the concepts of state and economy and society (not unproblematic descriptors themselves) referred to. Hence, heaven knows what they're aiming at with a "new Enlightenment" - since they've no real historically developed idea of what the "old" Enlightenment actually was. [/end of massive digression]

    Hopefully I'll get around to taking a closer look at Miers' arguments in a day or two.

  3. Have to confess, I didn't think of it like that - cynical old me just put it down to a bunch of crabbit Scottish Tories trying to disguise their 'same old' prescriptions for privatisation and deregulation under an outrageous intellectual conceit :-)

    Gerry Hassan has an interesting take on Miers' pamphlet today over on his blog. Having listened to Miers on Newsnicht last night, I have to say I have some sympathy with his arguments about the complacency of the small 'c' conservative establishment in Scotland.

    However, many of what he identifies as being problems also existed pre-devolution, so to blame the existence of devolution for adverse outcomes such as sluggish growth is clearly plain wrong. For him to pin the blame on home rule and ongoing constitutional debate for this suggests that he set out with those conclusions in mind and decided to shape his argument from there.

  4. Ha! I admit, your diagnosis is probably more immediately justified. Maybe I'm taking them too seriously. Nevertheless, I think the notion of pushing on towards a New Enlightenment is largely to fashion and float a rudderless craft, without maps or charts or any developed sense of a destination.

    What I primarily object to is the idea that we can unproblematically pick up an 18th Century text and find universal prescriptions for a good life and a hale and hearty social order. Let's not forget, after all, that many of the sagacious creatures of the "Enlightenment" period produced fallacious dross and claims to knowledge and truth which are at best bumptious nonsense.

    Indeed, this detail and tendency significantly irritated me when I recently read M Russell's (2006) Grasping the Thistle - which incidentally, shares in Miers' critique of conservative Scotland, and in many respects, his identification of "neo-liberal" solutions to their apprehensions of the static or degenerate Scottish social order.