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David Miller: Taking The Risk Out Of Devolution

Taking The Risk Out Of Devolution

By David Miller

Devolved government in Scotland was supposed to bring democracy closer to the people. It was a risk to vested interests. As Members of the Scottish Parliament finally move into the newly built parliament this month, we can ask about the extent to which that risk has been averted.

Jack McConnell is notionally the most powerful or 'First' Minister in the allegedly democratic Scottish polity, bequeathed by the devolution settlement. But Jack is not really in charge. Jack is run; by New Labour in London, by the 'permanent government' of the British civil service. But behind the puppeteers stand the owners of the circus in which Jack's little dance is performed. The men and women of the business classes are the power behind the throne.

They are not unchallenged and they are not always able to get their way, but they rule through the three pillars of business power identified by political scientist Neil Mitchell in his book The Conspicuous Corporation. The first of these is the pro-business assumptions of policy makers and politicians, nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the physiognomy of New Labour.

Jack, for example is not shy about his penchant for profit, noting in March this year that: 'By being the party of public services, Labour has not always been the party of enterprise and growth, For too long Scottish politics has been dominated by a consensus that public services came before enterprise and growth. That enterprise was even something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. Scottish Labour must embrace enterprise. We must be the party of enterprise because a dynamic economy means opportunities for Scots and resources for schools and hospitals.' [1]

And embrace enterprise they have tried to do by diving headlong into the murky world of PFI and PPP, a policy that the Tories found difficult to get off the ground. It took New Labour to remove the legal barriers to PFI (within the first two months of taking office in 1997), which were largely to do with limiting the financial risk for the private sector, thus undermining its alleged 'dynamism'. [2]

The conversion of Labour to a party of business has also had significant effects on the machinery of government. Also following on reforms of the civil service set in train by the Thatcher administration, Labour has presided over an influx of business representatives into the machinery of governance and an increase in secondments from the civil service to business. Since the creation of the Scottish Executive, business representatives have had access as secondees to the Executive and civil servants have been seconded outwards to the private sector.

Companies involved include the biggest Scottish and Trans-National corporations, Inward: Scottish Power, Scottish and Newcastle, Stagecoach, Ernst and Young, PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Outward: Lloyds TSB Foundation, Scottish Power, McGrigor Donald (law firm and lobbyist), Scottish and Newcastle and business lobby groups Business in the Community and the Scottish Chambers of Commerce. [3]

The Scottish Parliament itself has a secondee from the big legal firm (and lobbyist) Shepherd and Wedderburn. The Executive also run a scheme to second staff from road building and consulting firms to their Road Network Management and Maintenance Division. The biggest firms in the area such as Babtie, Scott Wilson and Fairhurst bid to be included in the scheme in which they supervise road building projects and even assist with the procurement process for such projects. As Executive Minister Andy Kerr has noted inward secondments ‘foster and promote links, co-operation and a mutual understanding’ [4] Not to mention the financial benefits of helping to decide which consultants get which road contracts.

The Blair government has recently signalled that it wants to ‘open the way for former ministers and senior civil servants to accept lucrative jobs in private industry without having to wait months to take up the posts because of their inside knowledge of government decisions’. [5] This will weaken the already minimal and inadequate safeguards against the revolving door between business and the civil service.

The second pillar of business power is said to be the political activities of business including its sponsorship of party conferences, donations to parties, lobbying, PR, the creation and use of front groups, seemingly independent institutes and apparently enlightened business networks.One such that has emerged in Scotland in recent months if the creation of the Scottish steering group of the Business Council for sustainable Development- UK (BCSD-UK), itself an affiliate of the World BCSD ( Blair’s comment in a speech in 2000 that ‘Fifteen years ago, if you said business will help save the environment people would have laughed at you. Today, I believe this is a serious proposition’, simply shows the degree to which he operates in a parallel universe. [6]

In fact the WBCSD is at the forefront of corporate attempts to undermine environmental action, lobbying worldwide against regulation and in favour of voluntary ‘solutions’. In Scotland the environmentally conscious members of the BCSD include road building consultancy Scott Wilson, the biggest users of natural (Water) resources Scottish Power and the brewers Scottish and Newcastle and the oil giant Shell. Even more unsavoury is the membership of Pegasus-International, the debt collectors, hardly a sustainable business. Inchferry Consulting, amongst whose clients are BP are also members. The Scottish BCSD is involved with the Executive in the Scottish Waste Minimisation Steering Group, in the Scottish Industrial Symbiosis Programme and in the Scottish context of FutureBuild. Don't know what these are? Don't worry, you are not meant to.

The beauty of partnership working between government and industry is that you never have to tell the public what you are doing; you just get on with it in subterranean discussions and quiet agreements. Handily enough the Executive have invited the BCSD into its consultation on the Scottish Green Jobs Strategy. The WBCSD is a peak business lobby group dedicated to resisting environmental progress. In Scotland it is at the heart of the policy process. Indeed the Executive ‘agreed [BCSD Scotland’s’] programme of work’ and even ‘provided financial support to the initial stages of this, up to the end of March 2004'. [7]

Maybe this is quite routine these days, but when was the last time you heard of a business lobby group set up to influence government policy being funded by the very government being targeted?

For some pulling the strings the election of the parliament posed a problem since it had the potential to represent some elements of popular interests, thus there was lots of discussion about how the parliament could be 'educated' (read lobbied) about business. In particular it was argued that most MSPs had no experience of business and that their main experience was in the public sector.

To rectify this, the Scottish Parliament Business Exchange was set up to allow MSPs to be educated about the realities of business life. To ensure that education and not lobbying took place the scheme was required to be ‘non-lobbying’. But in practice three quarters of the business representatives taking part were lobbyists. The SPBE’s other founding principles were openness and accountability.

But as a public limited company it is not accountable to the Scottish Parliament. Its openness is compromised by its refusal to release any documentation or minutes of its meetings despite parliamentary questions and repeated requests. The latest position (July 2004) of the Exchange is that there are no minutes for any of its meetings. As a coda to this sorry tale, data released in July 2004 shows that the biggest single category of previous job experience of the 129 MSPs in the Scottish Parliament is in business (24 of them, with a further 9 in farming and 3 in Accountancy) [8] .

If anything it is these MSPs could do with broadening their social experience by being educated about living in poverty or suffering marginality. But there is no chance of a Scottish Parliament Poverty Exchange programme.

This was emphasised in April when the Scottish Parliament held a ‘Business in the Parliament’ conference. Over 100 business delegate trooped in and sat in the elected members seats. Amongst the delegates were all the key peak business associations representing big business including the CBI, the Chemical Industries Association, the Scottish Food and Drink Federation and the Scottish BCSD. The press release from the parliament announced that the delegates were ‘the people driving Scotland's economy.’ [9]

The trick here is to convince yourself that it is the business class not the workers who create the value in production. Otherwise you might come to the conclusion that the Parliament spin doctors are in the business of issuing corporate ideology dressed up as neutral official information. The final insult to the Parliament’s founding principles of openness was that the discussion sessions in the conference were held in private. Pro-business assumptions amongst policy makers and lobbying by corporations result in reflex secrecy.

The third pillar of business power, according to Mitchell, is the mass media. While political coverage may not always support business interests, it is worth observing that the core assumptions of even the liberal Scottish media do not encompass any serious regulation of business power. Indeed it is so much common sense that much of the mainstream no longer notices the pro-business assumptions in government policy. As testament to that, virtually none of the empirical data in this article has appeared anywhere in the Scottish mainstream.

The risk that the Scottish Parliament might bring democracy closer to the people and challenge vested interests has effectively been contained. Market democracy under business rule has been established.

1. cited in Alf Young 'Now here’s something you don’t hear every day', Sunday Herald 7 March 2004
2. Paul Foot, P. F. Eye: An idiot's guide to the Private Finance Initiative, free with Private Eye, 18 March 2004.
3. Written Answers, Scottish Parliament, S2W-07621, S2W-07622, 4 May 2004.
4. Andy Kerr, ‘Scottish Executive Staff’, Written Answers S1W-32529, 19 December 2002
5. David Hencke, ‘Plan to end Whitehall sleaze rule’ The Guardian
Monday August 16, 2004,9061,1284021,00.html
6. Address to the Green Alliance-CBI conference on the environment, 24 October 2000,
7. Scotland – Scottish Steering Group,
9. ‘SCOTLAND'S BUSINESS PEOPLE TAKE THEIR SEATS IN PARLIAMENT’ Parliamentary News Release, 026/2004, 22 April 2004.


<./a> David Miller is Professor of Sociology at Strathclyde University, Glasgow. URL

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