Opinion

If you’re correcting, you’re failing

by | 15 Apr 2024

What does the fact that the Scottish Government's supporters seem to spend most of their time telling the public they're wrong signify? Serious trouble for the SNP.

Let me return to the subject of ‘when will the SNP accept there is a real problem and do something about it?’. I want to give anyone reading this who is in two minds a reason to stop being in two minds. It’s a comparatively simple rule of politics; if you’re spending 80 per cent of your time telling your audience they’re wrong, you’re in trouble.

It’s a variation of Ronald Regan’s “if you’re explaining you’re losing”, but substantially worse. If you’re explaining or clarifying, you’re not telling the story, you’ve been pulled into details. Details are for wonks; if you’re putting the public in a position where they need to understand the details to understand the story, you’re making a mistake.

The easiest way to compound this mistake is to explain detail to people by telling them that what they think is incorrect. Now not only are you failing to tell the big story, not only are you drawing the attention of the public to things they shouldn’t be having their attention drawn to, not only are you wasting their time, now you’re insulting them too.

This rule applies equally whether the public is right or wrong; if you’re talking about your policy proposal and you need to explain it by going into technical details of the policy, and if you’re telling people that they aren’t intelligent enough to understand the details, it doesn’t actually make that much difference who is in the right. Either way you’re flailing.

And at this point in time, supporters of the Scottish Government seem constantly to be telling everyone they’re wrong. And I really do mean that other than ‘breaking off only occasionally to blame the unionist media or throw some shade at a Tory’, all I see SNP activists doing these days is explaining why someone else is wrong about something.

The two policy issues which are currently the focus for this are the Hate Crime Act and the ban on biomass (including log burners) in new buildings, but you could pick almost anything done by the Scottish Government in recent times. When someone raises concerns, they get a little lecture.

The best version of this is ‘if you go to section four, subsection seven, clause fourteen, I think you’ll find there is an exemption’. The worst version of this is ‘in the event of a power cut you can back up your heating with solar’. Both are bad.

I can explain why this is happening. I’ll give a very short summary here, but I’m not sure it makes much difference. The problem is personnel, and if they can’t see why this is happening by now, me explaining it to them won’t help – but it might help clarify in some party members’ minds why they need to start taking this much more seriously.

The policy is wrong because it is produced with the kind of paternalistic control-freakery that for decades prevented anyone in a council house from painting their front door.

So basically if you’re explaining or telling people they’re wrong, it’s because of some combination of ‘you’re not legislating properly’, ‘you’re not implementing properly’ or ‘you’re not communicating properly’. (Of course there are hostile actors on the other side, which is the point of a plural democracy. You’re meant to circumnavigate them through competence, not moaning.)

The Scottish Government is legislating badly. It’s position on log burners is partly right for the wrong reason, and partly just wrong. The error is in the drafting. Very, very few new builds (actually, none) would use log stoves as their primary heat source. They would be for occasional use. In the short term this increases carbon emissions, but there are limited uses for lower-quality wood and if it isn’t used or burned it biodegrades and releases the same carbon anyway.

And over longer timeframes it is carbon neutral. No, the reason to ban log burners in urban locations is particulate matter producing air pollution. That is sound policy. Likewise a presumption against large-scale biomass is something Common Weal has supported for a good while – there are just better ways to generate energy in almost all circumstances (though not if linked to waste produced by another process).

But in rural areas the local heating market is heavily shaped by the supply of logs (I have numerous local sources of logs for our stoves), it is cheap, renewable and not of the scale which makes short term carbon emissions worth worrying about – and there is no external particulate matter issue (it’s not great in the house, but again, these are for occasional use).

All that was needed was an exemption for rural areas, but the Scottish Government has instead opted to give itself direct power over who is exempt. They constantly do this; Scotland’s policy-makers are trying to micromanage Scotland, which is why it is going wrong.

In return the government’s supporters say things like ‘well just use solar as a backup’. For anyone who knows anything about this, that’s positively embarrassing. A log burner might cost you £400, a solar setup with enough battery capacity to last you even 24 hours of basic heating would cost you the other side of £15k – and wouldn’t really work in the winter anyway.

The policy is wrong because it is produced with the kind of paternalistic control-freakery that for decades prevented anyone in a council house from painting their front door. This is self inflicted. It is bad legislation, not because the idea is wrong but because the legislation is badly written.

In the case of the Hate Crime Act, the legislation is also flawed, not least because it wasn’t necessary since the police already had all the powers needed. As an exercise in ‘tidying up’ it’s created a lot of mess. But here the problem is mostly implementation.

How do I know? Because this has been running for two weeks and the police still can’t explain what the threshold for registering a ‘not-crime hate incident’ is, and is now ‘reviewing’ it. As I explained last week, so desperate is the Scottish Government to shove through legislation which has at best lukewarm support, it doesn’t seem to have the time or energy to focus on proper implementation.

If the SNP leadership is capable of not making all the unforced errors it has made in the last year, what in god’s name is it doing?

Finally, look at any of it and ask if this is competent communication. I mean, the Cabinet Secretary responsible for the Hate Crime legislation doesn’t like the Hate Monster campaign. Has she no say in the communication of her own policy? (And Angela Constance is undoubtedly one of the more accomplished government ministers.)

So the Scottish Government just doesn’t do well in any of these tasks. Only introduce legislation when it is really necessary and make it as clear and concise as you can. Listen to criticisms of it and change it before you pass it. Then put proper effort and planning into implementing it, and get someone who knows the basics of communication to actually explain it to people.

(The Scottish Government’s habit of getting inadequate junior ministers to act as fall guys for Cabinet Secretaries on controversial issues is totally counterproductive, simply making the whole situation worse. It’s also vaguely cowardly.)

The problem is that these are all human error. None of these are things beyond the control of those in charge. Yes, a lot of this is to do with the civil service (how a group of people on those salaries have made this many grave mistakes I don’t understand), but then again I’ve tried to explain that good governments shape their civil service and manage them effectively. Failing to do so is another human error.

The Scottish Government team is not up to the job, and their core advisers seem even less up to the job. I read with interest the reaction from sympathetic voices to First Minister Yousaf’s first year in office. They didn’t phrase it exactly like this, but basically all the sympathetic advice could be summarised as ‘try to be less bad next year Mr Yousaf’.

(They phrase this as ‘show more passion’ or ‘focus more on good government’ or ‘try to sound more authoritative’ seeming to assume that Yousaf is dull, running government badly and is an unnatural communicator through choice, and that he could make a different choice.)

I think I started to detect a change in sentiment from SNP sympathisers last week. Unless I’m mistaken, I get the impression that many of them are kind of sick of constantly having to explain to people why they are wrong, all on behalf of a Scottish Government they don’t have any say over. I’m pretty sure 99 out of a hundred would wish the Hate Crime Act had never happened.

And I can’t work out whether Labour overtaking the SNP in an opinion poll is a shock for them or a cold, dawning realisation of what they could already sense. Either way, I do think they sense it now, and some of the entreaties to the party leadership to do something different than what they are doing are becoming sharper daily.

The reality is that, just a little over a year ago, the SNP chose a leadership team not because it was the best team for the party but because it was the best team for one faction of the party. It was done with little enthusiasm and a lot of ‘I’m sure it will be OK, somehow’.

I could explain to them why they’re wrong, but that would just mean I wasn’t making tea for the kids. If the SNP leadership is capable of not making all the unforced errors it has made in the last year, what in god’s name is it doing? And if its main figures aren’t capable of not making those errors, why is the party still letting them?

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