Issues with Scottish covid app stem from hoarding power at Holyrood

Written by Alastair Cameron, director of Scotland in Union.


Most people will be aware of the recent botched launch of Scotland’s covid passport app. Many will also have read how the SNP turned down an offer to extend the app which appears to be working in England and Wales, preferring to spend £600,000 of public money with a Danish IT provider to develop Scotland’s own app. Leaving aside the fairly significant question of whether a medical ID card managed by the SNP is a good idea, I’d like to focus on a likely reason for why the England and Wales app was turned down.


Adopting a UK-wide, or at the very least a Britain-wide, app would generally seem to be a good idea, not least when there is free movement between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Of course, there could be differences across the UK if the app interfaces with different databases, but re-using an already-working application appears an efficient approach for the Scottish Government to take. One can only assume that Humza Yousaf imagined a distinct Scottish app would be superior in some way; at least in its first few days, that does not appear to be the case.


I have seen some people on social media suggesting that this debacle shows that devolution doesn’t work, because the mess was caused by the Scottish Government going their own way. There is a valid discussion about whether there is the right level of devolution from the UK level to Scotland. It could even be contended that the increased devolution of the ‘Smith Commission’ should be re-examined, but I’m not going to go further with that discussion here. I don’t want to re-write the past; I want to move forwards from where we are now.


I don’t see the issues with the ‘tartan’ app as a failure of devolution. I do see them as a symbol of SNP hubris and incompetence. Perhaps most importantly, though, I seen them as a failure of the principles that decisions should be taken at the appropriate level, and that power-sharing is generally preferable to power-hoarding.


The right level for power can be international, for example when states agree appropriate EU or international quality standards; give NATO commanders control over combined forces from member nations; or affirm a binding multilateral approach to tackle transnational issues such as climate change. In these international cases, countries give up some of their power to act alone, believing that doing so produces a better solution – a donation of powers ‘upwards’, as it were.


In other cases, decisions are best made at the local level. This could be codified, such as through formal powers of local authorities, but it can also be voluntary and ad hoc, for example when a council sets up neighbourhood groups to determine priorities within their localities.


In between these international and local extremes, the patchwork of devolution within the UK enables appropriate decisions to be made at regional levels, with the Greater Manchester region probably being the best-known and most effective regional example; or by the Northern Irish Assembly, Welsh Assembly or Scottish Parliament. The key is to recognise when and where the right level is, and to remember that there is no single level which is ideal across all areas – and for elected representatives to be prepared to share power to get better results.


The SNP currently appear to want everything at the ‘Scotland’ level. They are reluctant to engage in the ‘upwards’ donation of power which I mentioned earlier, as it would entail admitting that the UK is working and that the UK is the right level for a decision. Therein lies the root cause for the covid app chaos.


Similarly, the SNP seem equally reluctant to allow more decision-making at the local level, as this would detract from their projected ideal that Scotland is the perfect unit. A current example of this syndrome is the proposed Scottish National Care Service, which seeks to centralise power at Holyrood rather than devolving to a more local level the decisions which affect people directly. Scottish nationalists often talk of wanting more levers, but they never seem so keen to let councils have some of that leverage. They like to think of Scotland as homogeneous, and fail to acknowledge the diversity across and within Scotland.


The SNP, and their fellow nationalists who are currently leading the Scottish Green Party, appear always to think they know best. They seem obsessed with grabbing power and having everything at the level at which they feel able to exert that power. Devolution within the UK can work, including to city regions and to Scotland. We have seen some good examples of this here, such as when the Scottish Parliament used its power to lead the way for the UK with the smoking ban in public and working spaces.


We need more devolution within Scotland; and we need the Scottish Government to be ready to share power ‘upwards’ as well. I believe that the SNP and the Scottish Greens are actually undermining devolution by their unwillingness to embrace the concept of sharing power upwards and downwards. Hoarding power at Holyrood and guarding that power as jealously as they do seems to gets in the way of making better decisions at the right level, and results in inefficiencies and disempowerment.


I hope that soon we get a government in Holyrood which works maturely and constructively with the UK Government as well as with local authorities, giving ground and giving away power where appropriate, for the sake of everyone in Scotland. Sharing rather than hoarding is almost always the most effective approach.