The State Scots Are In

By Douglas Fraser
BBC Scotland Business and Economy Editor

Image caption,
Douglas Fraser examines why Scotland has become so attached to state provision

When a London think tank said last year that Scotland is on track to have the third largest state sector in the world, after Cuba and Iraq, it wasn't intended as a compliment.

Yet the evidence is that Scots rather like their state to be big. That's what they vote for.

Given the opportunity to do things differently over 11 years of devolution, the dominant theme of successive governments has been to extend the reach of the state, to provide more services, to more people, for free.

The big ticket item was free personal and nursing care for older people, seen by some as attached to a slow-burning demographic fuse. Added to that was free bus travel for pensioners throughout the country.

Fruit was provided free to a wider range of school children, as was school meals.

Student tuition fees were at first replaced with an endowment to be paid after graduation, and later that was abolished.

The price of a prescription has been cut back, with the intention of falling to zero next year.

Car parking charges have been removed at most hospitals, bridge tolls removed, and subsidies extended to some Hebridean ferries.

That's what MSPs voted for, so you've got to assume that was wanted by the majority of their constituents.

But is that correct?

If you look at the most recent Scottish and British social attitudes survey, Scots are much more supportive than the English of the provision of free personal and nursing care for the elderly.

That's perhaps because it was highlighted as a point of distinction from England and a source of national pride, just as the Welsh are strongly supportive of free prescriptions, on which the Cardiff Assembly led the way.

But it's not clear whether Scots are so keen on providing free tuition to all students.

The most recent surveys show 63% of people north of the border think students should pay at least something towards their tuition, while in England, it's 66%.

Only 30% of Scots agree with the Scottish government that no student should pay towards tuition, while that's true of 25% in England. So not much difference across the border there.

Nevertheless, this protection and extension of free public services has become a key part of Scotland's political consensus, post-devolution.

After protection of public services became a rallying point for Scottish politics in reaction to Margaret Thatcher rolling back the frontiers of the state, it became a rallying point for the Conservatives' rivals, and that's the way it remains three decades on. It's become The Scottish Way.

But now, facing unprecedented spending cuts, that consensus is now under intense pressure, to roll back that provision and to find new ways to provide more targeted support for those who most need it.

Scots pioneers

In a BBC Scotland investigation, I've been looking back at how it is that Scotland became so attached to state provision.

It's a story that has took us back to the 1696 Education Act passed by the Scottish Parliament - a pioneering move that required a school in every parish with a qualified teacher.

Rooted in Reformation theology, it cemented the role of standardised, common provision and at least the intention of equal opportunity.

The story took us to the growth of the cities in the Victorian era.

Common provision was found to have dramatic effects on public health when water was first piped into Glasgow.

That part of the story still flows through Scotland today, with Scots standing out from the rest of Britain in a determination to hold on to public control of the nation's water supply.

But the self-confidence of Victorian Scotland was shattered by the First World War.

The story of 20th Century Scottish government was about a sharp move from local provision to a centralised state that not only provided schools, water and libraries, but health and widespread nationalisation of Scotland's dominant industries.

By the time Margaret Thatcher came to power, it was hard to find a part of Scottish life the state didn't reach.

So Scots were pioneers in inventing the modern state, and they remain global leaders. But where does that legacy leave Scotland, at a time when the retreat of state provision no longer looks like an option?

In The State Scots Are In, I've been looking forward to where that heritage could take us next; higher taxes to protect services, or lower taxes and the need for more business growth; and the possibility of looking to voluntary action to replace those services where the state's financial straits will force it to retreat.