Any regular reader will be know I have been a inveterate supporter of Scottish independence since I first became aware of politics as a teenager. For most of that time (38 years to be exact), I was a member of the SNP. Despite a parting of our ways three years ago, I still regard them as the main vehicle whereby the Scottish people will achieve that independence and do not foresee that changing.
But that does not make me see them as infallible, nor above criticism. Indeed, it was due to some serious disagreement on policies—handling of local government and justice briefs to be exact—that a minor spat triggered my resignation. While internal dissent is healthy, having a senior party member (I was Convener of ANC and an elected member of the National Executive) criticise ministers in public is clearly unacceptable.
But, with the exception of those two policy areas, this blog has been sparing in taking the present Scottish Government to task. Not only were they so much better than what had preceded them but our media wolf-pack that scents blood in the least peccadillo and holds politicians to standards that few humans can sustain is a distraction from recording real progress. Hence the selective criticism by this blog.
But the times they are a’changin’. Not only are a number of key areas of government displaying flaws that are more than just random chuntering from a dispirited opposition but a blinkered refusal to address valid criticism has become the norm. And now, a series of fiscal decisions have been taken that appear to have much more to do with symbolism and re-election than any long-term vision of securing happiness and prosperity for the Scottish people.
From some questionable moves in the Justice brief, things have started to look equally questionable in the two major areas of Health and Education which, between them, account for around 60% of the entire Scottish budget. In both cases, the ministers involved have (understandably) dismissed the weak criticisms made by Labour. But Robison & Watt have yet to take on board serious shortcomings appearing in health:
- No attempt to curb execrable efficiency performance of NHS Trust administrations
- Rampant abuse of ambulance and A&E calls which block real emergencies
- Fixation on waiting times (to detriment of good management) and using them as political football
- Ballooning over-prescription and hoarding of drugs at home from free provision
These are paralleled by equally urgent issues arising in education that are also being rather swept under the carpet by Constance & Allan and not being addressed:
- Actual abilities of school-leavers declining while exam results ‘improve’
- Fixation with university degrees when FE and vocational learning numbers drop
- Fixation on policy—GIRFEC/CfE/inclusion—to the detriment of real outcomes
- Massive over-centralisation so local circumstances ignored: Glasgow is not Orkney
In themselves, these are grave enough. But almost every area of government is now showing autocratic, out-of-touch traits not present when the SNP were first in power. And, rather than necessarily displaying ministerial hubris, it smacks of mandarins playing ministers like marionettes (c.f. Yes, Minister), as was the case with Kenny Macaskill at Justice before ‘going native’ caused his removal. These include:
- Fergus Ewing being too long under the thrall of Scottish Enterprise & VisitScotland
- Aileen McLeod weak on land access by bending consistently to the landowner lobby
- Derek Mackay taking iffy advice from Transport Scotland on strategic projects
- Margaret Burgess—far less effective at building affordable homes than Alex Neil
This should not be taken as personal criticism of anyone named. It’s always hard to push things through bureaucracy and their Labour predecessors (honourable exception being Malcolm ‘Jessie’ Chisholm) set such low standards they all look good by comparison. If the team moves forward as a whole, you can afford to have a few passengers.
But the last month has seen a watershed. The SNP Government moved from being an bolshie bunch who pushed the envelope with their ideals to become seasoned politicians keen on keeping their job & not rocking any boat. The litmus for that was John Swinney.
Even their opponents rightly credit both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon with being effective leaders and formidable politicians. Their ‘front-of-house’ image sealed SNP’s rise to power; recent teflon performance in polls confirms that. But the sober voice backing them up, putting gravitas into statements and plausibility into budgets was John’s. But, after nine years of running budget numbers like a pro, he has fumbled the ball.
Read the previous blog for an analysis and interpretation of his December 16th Statement. His was the SNP analysis of the budget for an independent Scotland. That held water until the Referendum. Since then, projections of oil tax have plummeted from £7.1bn to £0.1bn. Pertinent (if barbed) questions on this from the likes of Kevin Hughes have gone unanswered except by the more distasteful troll end of nationalist supporters. Because he has provided no counter, John’s deservedly high reputation has taken a knock as a result.
Now, unlike plodding unionist rentaquotes like Alex Rowley whom the SNP runs rings round in Parliament on a daily basis, critics like Hughes have done their homework and deserve answers. Otherwise, thinking people out here in the real world (i.e. far from the puppet show of FMQs) will make up their minds on factual argument and not on the blind inertia that sustained Labour long past its sell-by date.
What the SNP has done—through John as its budget front man—is to take that leaf out of Labour’s book, always a dangerous tactic. Refusing to acknowledge (let alone address) the growing litany of criticism detailed above, the Government sustains an aura of rectitude of the Emperor’s Clothes variety. Compounding this are populist policies, barely justifiable in good times but fiscally irresponsible if non-means-tested in bad, such as:
- Free prescription charges, eye tests and bridge tolls
- Concession free bus travel outside of local area
- Winter fuel allowance (not SG but falls under the same heading of unsustainable)
But the voice from the emperor-watching crowd—even if it does not happen before the May elections—is the confrontation with councils over their budget. Far from being the “Parity of Esteem” lauded by both sides back in 2008, the Scottish Government is foisting a 2% cut in council budgets against more than symbolic opposition. Sweetening it with a one-off £250m for health integration with social work is fooling nobody.
The real crux is the erosion of any council room for fiscal manoeuvre. The council tax system is antiquated; it is frozen; the eight years since 2008 have been wasted in terms of overhauling it. Councils must raise most of their own money and be left to make their own fiscal decisions. Given that Scotland is just about to have significant fiscal powers devolved, given a SNP landslide looming in May, it’s hard to see why John’s SNP colleagues could not find the cojones to bite this urgent bullet and avoid hypocrisy.
The net result will be several councils defying the government and raising council tax anyway. These are most likely to be four weighty councils who have already broken away from CoSLA out of frustration to form their own body: Glasgow, Renfrewshire, Aberdeen City and South Lanarkshire. This may seem like dilution but is more likely to lead to more variety of opinion and a headline-grabbing rammy in the run-up to May’s election.
But unlike the SNP’s short-term posturing, this is likely to lead to an ongoing dispute, a fragmentation between the SNP parliamentary group and their long-suffering (and far more numerous) council colleagues who have a much closer relation to the party rank-and-file. Combined with the flood of new members who owe little to the present long-serving party nomenklatura, expect the famously monolithic SNP party discipline to fragment once MSPs are back in power and SNP councillors are looking down the barrel of 2017 council elections, having been left holding the fiscal baby. Explaining to their voters swingeing cuts in schools and social work will not make them happy bunnies.