Listen to this article
England, Wales and Scotland have always been different countries. Their health and education systems have long differed and – irritatingly for those wishing to make comparisons – they have always measured their successes and failures in slightly different ways.
But in the eight years since devolution in 1999, their paths have diverged more markedly.
In health, Scotland initially set out to prove that the pre-1989 version of the National Health Service could be made to work – that, in effect, all the NHS really needed was more money. NHS Trusts and the internal market were abolished and Scotland refused to have anything to do with brutal English targets for waiting times, or the introduction of competition, choice and the use of the private sector.
Wales, likewise, rejected targets. Instead, it put its investment into community health and prevention. Both initially saw waiting times rise, sometimes sharply, rather than fall. English Labour politicians tended, as a result, to feel superior.
But Scottish waiting times are now falling and some English health policy analysts are starting to see merit in Scotland’s more integrated healthcare, fretting about the fragmentation that the English competition model risks.
In Wales, Richard Wyn Jones, director of the Institute of Welsh Politics at Aberystwyth, says professionals remain more trusted than in England, and “they certainly feel that Wales has done well to avoid the distorting excesses of English target mania”. That applies in health and in schools, where Wales scrapped both league tables and some of England’s heavy testing regime.
The difficulty, he says, is that measurement of the impact “is an inexact science”. England has done better on waiting lists. But the effects of prevention in Welsh health policy are intrinsically hard to measure, and longer-term. And comparisons of school outcomes are distorted by the fact that there is much less middle-class flight to private schools in Wales.
Scotland’s two other big changes – free university tuition and free personal care for the elderly – look significant. But tuition is, in practice, to be paid for through a graduate tax, rather than up-front fees. And the free personal care that English campaigners now demand has brought waiting lists in Scotland.
The surprise may be that there has been so little divergence in policy over eight years, rather than so much – with much of it driven by Labour’s Liberal Democrat partners, rather than by the Labour-led administrations.
Both Dr Jones and Robert Hazell, head of University College London’s Constitution Unit, expect the differences to get bigger over time. “Lots of little differences will add up to substantial ones,” Dr Jones says, while Prof Hazell adds that if and when – possibly from Friday– the political colours of administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh differ more sharply from that in Westminster, the variations will become much more marked.
But he notes that this may be easier to handle within the UK than in other federal systems.
“Because Scotland and Wales make up only 15 per cent of the UK, that makes it easier for Westminster politicians to turn a blind eye to policies they think are a bit wild. Because the devolved administrations are relatively small, the tail doesn’t wag the dog, with their policies then demanded in England. That is very different to Canada, where Ottawa worries that anything Quebec does will be demanded by the other provinces.”