Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Big Read: The centre cannot hold

Bookmark and Share

25 Sep 2014 | Tony Leon | Times Live

I saw Alex Salmond, the "loser" of last week's exciting Scottish independence referendum, in action when I went to Britain in May 1997 to observe the country's shape-shifting general election campaign, which resulted in the Labour Party sweeping out 18 years of Conservative Party rule.

"It was as though David Cameron's gift box had been wrapped by Pandora herself"

Tony Blair would do nothing in that election to alarm "Middle England" and provided carefully scripted sound bites of thudding dullness as he marched to power. But it was during a campaign stop that Salmond - leading the then obscure Scottish National Party, with only three seats in Westminster - aptly captured, in his "cheeky chappy" way, the haplessness of the incompetent administration of Prime Minister John Major.

He declared that attacking the Tories was "as difficult as shooting fish in a barrel", before reeling off a list of their perceived sins.

His party's number of seats doubled in that election, although he could only have dreamed then that 10 years later he would be installed as first minister of Scotland, a post equivalent to our provincial premiers but with powers that make the local equivalents drool with envy. The Scottish parliament, under the very generous terms of Britain's devolution arrangements enacted in 1998, controls its own policies and practices on law and order, health and social services, the environment and education and, under the Scotland Act of 2012, controls 10% of its income tax revenue.

Though not even the "prophet" TB Joshua could have divined the 10% margin by which Scottish voters would reject Salmond's proposal for Scotland to go it alone as an independent state, a few weeks ago a poll suggested that he would, in fact, win and that the 307-year-old United Kingdom would split apart.

Prime Minister David Cameron, alarmed by this poll, then did what his stockbroker father's profession knows best to do when the market starts to slide: when it's time to panic, make sure that you panic first.

Two weeks before the first vote was cast, and backed by the leaders of the two main opposition parties, Cameron offered further concessions to keep Scotland in the union. With an unspecified package called devo max, he basically made it clear that, other than reserving foreign affairs and defence for Westminster, Scotland could pretty much do its own thing if it stayed in the UK.

But as though his gift box had been wrapped by Pandora herself, he would win on Thursday only to find that he had unwound the basis of Britain's constitution. On the basis of the sauce for the Scottish goose is sauce for the English and Welsh gander (never mind Northern Ireland), it became apparent that similar powers would be demanded by the rest of the kingdom.

So while Salmond, in an act rarely seen in these parts, took personal responsibility for the failure of his campaign by announcing that in November he would quit his government and leadership posts, in fact he won much of the argument and more of the power, even as he lost the poll.
Coincidentally, Friday's high-drama announcements in Edinburgh happened on the day on which the South African Police Service announced its annual crime statistics.

For Western Cape, it was mostly an unremittingly grim, gruesome picture, with murders up 12.8%, aggravated robbery increasing 16.7% and rises in car thefts and drug-related crimes.

Strangely enough, in terms of his extremely limited powers if not his title, the province has a cabinet-ranked MEC for safety and security, the aptly named Dan Plato. But in comparison with his opposite number in Scotland (or any province in Canada, for example), in constitutional terms, he lives on another planet, able to do little more than issue statements of concern.

Despite the opposition controlling this province there is little it can do in terms of innovative policing to change anything. Power is exercised from Pretoria.

Once upon a time in South Africa, the ANC had a compelling slogan, "The people shall govern". After 20 years of its highly centralised rule, one could today add the caveat "except where the ANC does not".
And so any ideas of localism or devolution are not entertained.

Even the lowly matter of the province commissioning an inquiry into the multiple policing failures of crime-infested Khayelitsha (one of the province's hot spots) was wrung from the national authorities only on pain of an adverse court order. And, of course, Pretoria is free to ignore its recommendations.
In this age of personal devolution obtained from the click of a computer mouse or an app of a smartphone the world, and not just Scotland, is moving inexorably in the direction of "local is lekker". The idea that "one size fits all" will soon go the way of the woolly mammoth.

Is Pretoria listening?
More pertinently, does it care?

Leon is the author of Opposite Mandela (Jonathan Ball) Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

 

No comments: