There is a typically pithy American phrase about losing focus:
“When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember that the original plan was to drain the swamp.”
Unfortunately, governments seem particularly prone to suffer such distractions, perhaps because they are so fixated on popularity and appearing competent. Their short-termism can be even worse than companies whose horizons seem limited by the next quarterly results.
In this context, the Covid-19 virus appears to be having a particularly malevolent effect on the UK and Scottish governments in equal measure. Neither appears able to even recall matters on which they were fixated less than six months ago. For the UK government, four years of obsession with Brexit seems to have submerged beneath their attention like a blue whale diving, leaving only ripples on the surface. This may turn out to be a tactical ploy, concealing from public gaze a deliberate willingness to suddenly present a no-deal fait accompli as we approach the cliff edge of December 31st.
The Scottish government’s virus fixation is less easy to explain. Not quite following the UK government approach to exiting lock down without demonstrating a clearly superior strategy to do so gives more of a rabbit-in-headlights inertia, rather than any smart and effective alternative. More than that, they have yet to strike a credible pose to counter the obvious intransigence of Boris and his phalanx of a unionist majority who can look forward to another for years of stonewalling any constitutional adjustment, which is the raison d’etre for Ms Sturgeon and her impatient legions of party members, living on a thin gruel of hope for the last six years.
Other than among SNP faithful, independence is not on everyone’s lips and she is smart to accept that. Meanwhile, her senior team seems swamped. .Jean Freeman bumbling over health and John Swinney unimpressively passive over education look like dutiful deputies out of their depth.. Weakest of all is Fiona Hyslop fluffing the key economy brief. Former SNP MP Geirge Kerevan was scathing about her efforts:
“Setting up an advisory commission looks like activity when not a lot is happening”…” more a PR person’s attempt to pretend there is a strategy when there isn’t”
The impression of strong leadership that would drive Scotland toward its own sunlit uplands of prosperity when this is all over is sorely lacking.
Westminster and the Tories who run it have an abysmal record of seeing anything outside London as happy provinces in awe of the imperial Capital. Their record of understanding their needs, let alone taking any action to meet them, is abysmal too.
Exactly a century ago, the Fourth (!) Home Rule Bill was marched through Parliament. This was for Ireland, not Scotland but indicates just how obtrise Westminster can be when it wants to drag its feet. By the fourth time, you’d think they might get it right. But this resulted in revolt, repression by the Black and Tans, the entire cohort of 128 Irish MPs elected in 1921 refusing to go near Westminster and setting up the Irish Free State. The only part of the Bill that did not crash and burn even before take-off set up Stormont and the Six Counties as a sop to Protestants. That lopsided artificial institution limped along until disabled by the Troubles fifty years later and was finally put out of its misery by the Good Friday Agreement.
So, even if Boris the Blusterer and his Cabinet of Clones were to have a Damascene conversion and acknowledge that Scotland’s elected government reflects Scots’ aspirations with as much authority as his reflects England’s, his track record on this is bad. As my grandmother would say smacking my spoon away as it neared what she was cooking: “If you can’t be a help, don’t be an unhelp!”
So, Nicola’s Nats may have a majority, even of MP’s… but they’re on their own. With Westminster fixated on the minutiae of the pandemic in England, this is Nicola’s big chance to seize the initiative beyond lock down. Today is the time to rise above the humdrum daily dose of statistics and homilies. It’s time to get radical, rally the troops and reach out for friends who can help. If she sticks to her present caution, not only will May 2021 be unwinnable but so will any Indy referendum in the next decade—assuming she can conjure one.
So, how does Nicola drain the swamp? Wake up the slumbering place-holders around her who have the nerve to draw salaries as members of her Cabinet. Specifically
- Put John Swinney back at Finance/Economy and give him his considerable numeric head to exercise fiscal powers to fund economic recovery. He is a disappointment at Education.
- Replace John at Education with Mike Russell. He has the necessary experience, urbane nous and articulation. With a mandate to hold EIS’s feet to the fire to co-operate finding public spaces to get the maximum number of 15-pupil classrooms by mid August, staffed by retirees, trainees and disclosure-certified volunteers. Create a good cop/bad cop’ team with Kevin Stewart, who should round up the more creative Council directors of education and use COSLA as a forum for developing best practice in commandeering libraries, sports centres, halls, etc. for school use. Working with John to revise Council tax should occupy his spare time when he is not working with;
- Joe Fitzpatrick on a wave of council house building to rival the post WW2 period. Not only would this undercut private property speculators but would help bump-start the building industry.
- Lock Fiona Hyslop in a room with Fergus Ewing and let them out only when they have come up with a way to salvage the 2020 summer tourist season before mid-July. This must include indoor and outdoor attractions (with testing at entrance), as well as economic levels of occupancy for B&Bs and hotels. This should be in conjunction with;
- Jean Freeman and NHS targeted testing to declare Covid-19-free areas. That aside, Jean must implement a rigorous and widespread test and track system including the app used in most of Europe because we’ll all be dead before Boris’ “world class” one is effective. In her spare time, she should get proper media training so she can look credible. To date, she acts wooden and starts every response to a question she does not want to answer with “So…”
- Stop being so tribal, confiding in just an inner clique. The SNP is in desperate need of a proper think tank like Fraser of Allander Institute. There isn’t even the Business for Scotland outside experience advice Alec had 20 years ago when the stakes were not so high.
- Send a high-powered delegation (preferably from the aforementioned think tank) to Eire, Denmark and Norway to learn how similar countries successfully dealt with the pandemic. While there , forge trade and cultural links for the future. The modern equivalent of Neil MacCormick, Stephen Maxwell and David McCarthy of 20 years ago (not fresh-faced SPADs on a jolly) are what is required. Use the info gleaned to forge innovative policies to trail this winter—and also upstage Boris and his incompetent minions in as statesperson-like a manner as possible.
After 13 years in power, it’s easy to lose perspective and focus on holding on, rather than moving on. Given the carnage in Labour support and ineffectiveness of a series of Leaders of the Opposition (Ruth Davidson being an honourable exception), there has been little incentive for the SNP government to stay alert, innovative and on its toes.
If the future is not brought into sharp and dynamic focus this summer, regret at a decimating election result this time next year will do little to salve the conscience, lat alone the cause.