Devolution and the myth of Westminster control?

There’s a curious amnesia in modern Scottish history about just how Scotland worked within the United Kingdom before devolution. For the most part, it’s a remarkable story of consistent decentralisation in a unitary state, and nowhere is this better seen than the history of Scotland’s primary education system. 

What makes Scottish education exceptional is that it has remained in Scottish hands for more than 300 years despite the creeping centralisation that has become the staple criticism against successive Westminster governments. Scotland only began receiving primary education funding from Westminster from the early nineteenth century onwards, and even after that Scots always controlled the system in its various incarnations.

The Scottish Office (later succeeded by the Scotland Office after 1999) once administered most of the portfolios now devolved to the Scottish Parliament and those pooled functions, such as defence, were controlled directly by their respective UK Government departments. The two make for very different stories when weighing responsibility for the successes and failures of the Union.

The primary education framework has deep roots, stretching as far back as the Parliament of Scotland Education Act of 1696 that ordered schools built in every parish, paid for by local landowners and the Church of Scotland. The subsequent pre-Union, Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Act of 1707, enshrined the Church of Scotland’s role in Scotland and guaranteed the continuation of Scotland’s parish school system in the Acts of Union and that followed.

For more than a hundred years after that, the UK Government operated as a ‘night-watchman’ state in Scotland. The original position of Scottish Secretary was abolished in 1746 after the Jacobite rising of 1745 and matters about Scotland became the responsibility of both the Lord Advocate and the Home Secretary who was appointed to ‘look after’ Scotland in 1828. Scotland held autonomy by the stark absence of legislation pertaining to it.

Only in the nineteenth century did the British state adopt a more interventionist strategy to modernise and improve the quality of life in Scotland. Various boards across Scotland arose to govern issues such as public health, poor law relief, roads, education, hospitals and town planning. They were run from Scotland and staffed not by professional Westminster civil servants but by experts and individuals drawn from Scotland.

From 1830 the UK Government began to fund school buildings with grants, and from 1846 it was funding schools by direct sponsorship – the funding increased throughout the nineteenth century. As historian Tom Devine notes “the contributing role of the state, even before 1872, in the improvement of literacy should not be underestimated.” As early as 1833, capital grants were available from Westminster for those schools that accepted school inspections, which followed an improved curriculum and that recruited state-certified teachers.

By 1846, pupils over the age of 13 that taught at their schools while studying would be eligible for state subsidised scholarships for undertaking professional teacher training. By 1855, again by significant central funding, Scotland boasted some of the highest levels of literacy in Europe with 89 percent of men and 70 percent of women compared to  77 percent for men 70 percent for women in England and Wales respectively.

The Scotch Education Department was established by the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act and formed from the Church of Scotland’s Board of Education for Scotland. Based in London, it was the only board to have civil servants and to be accountable to a Minister. 

The legislation brought in by Prime Minister William Gladstone’s Government – whose Liberals held 51 seats out of 58 in Scotland at the time – stipulated the introduction of state-sponsored free schools, run by local school boards and made schooling compulsory for 5 to 13-year-olds, removing control from the parishes. Within 30 years of its passing, illiteracy was eliminated from both the Highlands and Lowlands, and by 1910 Scotland had more pupils in primary education than all other advanced European countries.

Previously in 1869, Scottish MPs had asked Gladstone to restore the position of Scottish Secretary to take responsibility for the boards. When the Secretary for Scotland Act did come in 1885, the most long-lasting constitutional impact of the 1872 Act had been for it to begin the process of centralising Scottish functions. The Scotch Education Department eventually came under the responsibilities of the Scottish Office established in 1885, and in 1918 the department moved to Edinburgh. The name changed to the Scottish Education Department.

By 1926 the Scottish Secretary post was upgraded to a full Secretary of State appointment, and by 1939 the functions of the previous boards were vested directly in the Secretary of State and the Scottish Office, divided into departments and dealing with specific matters including agriculture, education, home affairs and health. The Scotland Office was transferred in 1937 from London to Edinburgh’s St Andrews House where it now houses the offices of the First Minister, Deputy First Minister and various Scottish Government Directorates.

Even as recently in the years leading to the 1998 Scotland Act, Scottish devolution operated in all but name. Scotland’s educational system was mostly autonomous from the rest of the UK with its own curriculum, examinations and legislative framework managed through the Scottish Office until 1999 when the old structure passed into the hands of new Scottish Executive. Department names, ministers, and of course, governments have changed hands in subsequent years, but the constitutional framework has remained statically within the Scottish Parliament.

So why has this amnesia happened? Firstly, politics has outstripped history for the public interest. Until the 1960’s, all UK oil supplies were imported, and it was the 1964 Continental Shelf Act that first authorised the exploration of North Sea for oil.  Major oil finds bolstered an overriding sense that not only could Scotland do financially better, but that somehow Westminster had always inhibited Scottish prosperity. 

The growing success of the SNP who ran on the slogan ‘it’s Scotland’s oil’ in the 1970’s – achieving 22 percent of the vote at the February 1974 UK General Election and 30 percent at the subsequent October 1974 General Election. The issue has remained at the forefront of the independence question ever since.

Allocated block funding, however, is yet another myth never fully explored. Indeed, it was only from 1888 that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Goschen, introduced what was later dubbed the Goschen formula in the calculation of how much public money Scotland would receive from total UK Government expenditure. 

The formula-allocated funds on the proportion of 80:11:9 to England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland and continued to operate until 1959 after which Scottish Office expenditure was determined by bilateral negotiation in the same way as that of other government departments. 

From 1978 – in preparation for a vote in favour of a Scottish Assembly at the 1979 Scottish referendum – the Labour Party introduced the Barnett formula that calculated expenditure allocation as a proportion of the population. The system remains to this day.

Education is but one of several policy areas like law or local government where a high degree of ‘self-rule’ or ‘night-watchmen’ self-sufficiency operated in tandem with a ‘Union dividend’ – what we would call devolution today. 

If nothing else, the complex intertwinement of Scotland in the UK has, as with education, created a national identity and history that cannot be taken out of its historical context when assessing the successes, or failures, of Scotland within the United Kingdom.

In his maiden speech to the House of Commons in 1945, the first SNP MP, Robert McIntyre, famously asked: “Do we want education to breed a race of docile North Britons?” The answer, then as now, is a resounding no. 

But when considering a response to the question, we must disregard the implication that Scottish education has never stood on its own two feet. To the contrary, it is a portfolio that retained a distinct identity and has left an indelible mark on Scottish character in the framework of the UK.

McIntyre added that: “In Scotland, you can have either Scottish education or an education which is a poor imitation and copy of the English product.” It would seem, upon closer inspection, we have always had Scottish education.

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