The political class: The UK is more than one nation, but you wouldn't know it from think tanks

Michael Harris /   June 29, 2015 at 8:36 PM 1,216 views

The BBC’s weather map annoys me, and I don’t even live in Scotland. When the whizzy new 3D version was introduced in 2005, it attracted thousands of complaints from Scottish licence fee payers because the steep perspective (the UK is seen from the south) made Scotland appear much smaller than it is. The map was subsequently re-tilted, albeit only slightly, but the obvious bias towards the south of England still remains. The same goes for how London-based think tanks view the ‘UK’. We took a quick look at recent reports on social policy issues from ten prominent London-based think tanks. The reports were chosen randomly, covering four devolved policy areas (health, education, criminal justice and the way government itself works) – that is, policy areas for which the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish governments have responsibility as opposed to the Westminster government. The think tanks we looked at were: Reform; Policy Exchange; the Centre for Social Justice; the Institute of Economic Affairs; the Centre for Policy Studies; the Adam Smith Institute; CentreForum; the Social Market Foundation; IPPR; Demos; and the new economics foundation (nef). We looked at 38 reports in all, comprising between three and five reports from each think tank, depending on how frequently they publish in these policy areas. We found little mention – let alone substantive comparative discussion – of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in most of these reports. In other words, these think tanks frequently ignore the fact that when they refer to ‘schools’, or the ‘NHS’, or ‘the justice system’, there exist different systems, organisations and policies in the different UK nations in these areas. When Wales is mentioned, this is often only because the authors are referencing data sets that cover England and Wales. Of course, these think tanks also sometimes publish reports on devolution, Scottish independence etc – but at the same time often fail to acknowledge devolution when they look at social policy. There are a few exceptions. Two reports covering substance misuse had strong coverage of Scotland (and Wales to a lesser extent) – the Adam Smith Institute’s report on alcohol pricing (The Minimal Evidence for Minimum Pricing), and the Centre for Social Justice’s No Quick Fix: Exposing the depth of Britain’s drug and alcohol problem. The IEA’s Sock Puppets report also had a pop at both the Welsh and Scottish Governments for funding charities such as ASH and Stonewall. So, substance abuse and the waste of public money – hardly a flattering portrait of Scotland and Wales as seen from the south. Four pamphlets covering these policy areas in Reform’s ‘Ideas Series’ – meant to “illustrate new ways of thinking about policy problems and encourage debate on controversial and current issues”fail to mention the devolved administrations at all, other than Wales in the case of private prisons (again, Wales is included data sets alongside England). Similarly, the Centre for Social Justice’s Requires Improvement: The causes of educational failure and Demos’ Ways and Means (on end of life care) ignore the UK nations outside of England. Others do better. The IPPR’s Who’s Breadwinning report includes Scotland and Wales, and the SMF’s A Future State of Mind: Facing up to the dementia challenge includes references to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The IPPR has also launched a programme of work examining the Condition of Britain. In some cases, reports reference Scotland or Wales to make a point about England – marginally better but again betraying a Westminster and England focus (for example, the issue of women’s representation in Parliament, as discussed in IPPR’s The Sandwich Generation: Older women balancing work and care). One think tank we didn’t focus on, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has a much better record in covering different parts of the UK, perhaps in part because it is based outside London. There are think tanks dedicated to Scotland and Wales of course, including Reform Scotland, the Centre for Scottish Public Policy, Scotland’s Futures Forum (established by the Scottish Parliament), the Fraser of Allander Institute at Strathclyde University, the Constitutional Commission and the Scotland Institute; and in Wales the Bevan Foundation, the Institute of Welsh Affairs, Gorwel (the Welsh Foundation for Innovation in Public Affairs), and the recently-launched Centre for Advanced Studies in Public Policy at the University of South Wales. Whatever the quality and impact of their work however, it’s probably fair to say that they are little known and rarely acknowledged by the highly insular Westminster think tank world. This also reflects a broader London and Westminster-centredness in the political class, for example as reflected in media coverage. According to a survey conducted for the BBC Trust published in July, less than half (48%) of people in Scotland believe the Corporation is good at representing their lives through news and current affairs, the lowest proportion of any of the UK nations. The Trust’s advisory organisation Audience Council Scotland also said there had been slow progress on implementing changes prompted by the 2008 King Report, which called on the BBC to make clear how different policies applied in the different devolved governments. Similarly, in a report in May from Holyrood’s education and culture committee, MSPs questioned whether the BBC was ready to deliver the “comprehensive, authoritative” coverage it had promised for the referendum and major events such as the Commonwealth Games. Many years after devolution, and only a year before the referendum on independence for Scotland, it appears as if the Westminster political class remains reluctant to acknowledge that the politics of the UK has changed significantly. Indeed, the way that the London think tanks view the UK is indicative of how the Westminster political class as a whole tends to ignore the other UK nations, and likely contributes to the sense in Scotland and Wales in particular that their future lies outside the UK, whether in the short or medium-term. The irony is that most of the London think tanks, particularly those on the right, believe in retaining the union. Given this, like the BBC’s weather map, it’s surely time they corrected their rather odd perspective on the UK.

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