In my personal experience, Michael Matheson has proved himself to be an excellent minister. As Holyrood’s transport minister he engaged productively with the UK government’s review of the rail industry, in which I played a part, offering help and advice that was not remotely partisan or encumbered by the nationalist prejudices or rhetoric of which his party is so often accused.
Which is why I felt somewhat ambivalent at the most recent scandal to envelop the Scottish Government, a grim tale of iPads, expenses claims and a mea culpa that seemed to avoid any culpa whatever. Having wrongly claimed for the reimbursement of £11,000 of data fees from the public purse, Mr Matheson, who was moved from transport to health at Humza Yousaf’s first reshuffle, subsequently admitted that when he told reporters that his iPad had been used soleley for constituency matters, he was already aware that his sons had been using it to watch football during their family holiday in Morocco.
Setting aside the prospect of a less-than-festive atmosphere around the Matheson dinner table this Christmas, his future as a minister remains in doubt. The Scottish media is not prepared to let this one go, and it’s unlikely that the First Minister can, with any plausible excuse, hold onto his health minister for much longer. Misrepresenting the facts to a journalist may not be quite as bad as doing the same thing in the Scottish Parliament, but the charge remains the same.
What would his removal mean for Scotland’s NHS? Ah, but there’s the rub. Such is the political pessimism around these days that no one expects a new health minister to be able to change much for the better. Matheson’s replacement will plod ever onwards, issuing regular press releases about how, according to this or that measure, things in Scotland are still a smidgeon better than in England, which is the only measure most nationalist politicians seem to care about, after all.
And there, right there in that preceding sentence, is the ultimate condemnation of the devolution experiment. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, the prospect of the creation of a Scottish Parliament was hailed as the cure-all for everything that ailed Scotland. Hospitals over-stretched? Devolution will fix that. Local councils under-resourced? Don’t worry – devolution will be along soon. Schools under-performing? No problem – a Scottish parliament will know how to improve standards.
But it hasn’t quite worked out like that, has it? In fact, 25 years since the Scotland Act was passed, there is virtually nothing in the “plus” column of devolution’s accounts, and a great deal in the “minus” column, including unbuilt (and very expensive) ferries and millions spent on activities that are strictly not even in the remit of the parliament (like foreign affairs and international development).
Yet the defenders of devolution continue to assert their case: things would be better if we had more powers, more money, more freedom. But all those utopian claims made in the ’90s were based on the blueprint for devolution drawn up by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, a cross-party body that included civic society, the churches and the trade unions. Its final recommendations were transferred wholesale into the Scotland Bill. The claims for devolution were made with the full knowledge and understanding of what a Scottish Parliament’s powers would be and what it could do.
So to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, do Scots feel better off today as a result of devolution than they did a quarter of a century ago?
Is anyone going to step forward and admit culpability for the dashed hopes that the devolutionists engendered? If the rhetoric of Donald Dewar had been aimed merely at stating the case that Scotland should take responsibility for its own failures, then that too has been proved wrong. Devolution hasn’t just failed to produce the promised transformation of public services; it has also led to a collective political denial of politicians’ own culpability in that failure.
The soap opera of Michael Matheson’s travails and the question marks over his ministerial career are simply irrelevant to the service for which he’s responsible. National expectations of what devolution can actually achieve have sunk so low – in health as in every other area of devolved policy – that the enthusiasm for devolution in 1997 has now been transformed into one giant, nationwide, apathetic shrug of our collective shoulders.
That is devolution’s greatest failure.