The media focus at the moment is on why the independence movement must step back while the war in Ukraine continues. Setting aside the merits and demerits of that argument there is a more fundamental problem we need to think about; how do we persuade Scotland we can build a new country when we can’t build a ferry?
It’s not just that the string of negative news stories about Scottish Government confidence seems to have no end, it’s that there has been a sharp shit in perspective. Where even a year ago the Scottish Government was viewed by commentators through a ‘lens of competence’ with failures being seen as the outliers, it is now being viewed through a ‘lens of incompetence’ with anything that isn’t a fail appearing to be an outlier.
If public confidence in government continues to hold up in the face of this it will be a miracle. And if confidence in government falls, confidence in its ability to deliver independence falls. Let’s look at some recent examples.
First, the Scottish Government has very few actual achievements and so the creation of the Scottish National Investment Bank is rightly raised as a major intervention. But this is a bank which is increasingly looking to be in crisis. Last month the Chief Executive of SNIB quit suddenly, unexpectedly and without an explanation. When an explanation was later provided it was entirely unconvincing.
Earlier this month the head legal advisor to SNIB also quit suddenly, unexpectedly and without an explanation (this time after only 17 months in post). This strongly suggests a major problem at the bank, the nature of which no-one is able to get to the bottom of because those speaking on its behalf are stonewalling on what is going on.
The Scottish Government created SNIB after a strong campaign by Common Weal which won over the almost unanimous support of its party membership but was not set up with conviction or any sense of vision on the part of government ministers. It was opposed by the financial establishment in Scotland and so in effect its set-up and running was handed to that establishment.
It now looks a bit like the bank may be being semi-merged by its governors with other financial interests they have and in particularly risks becoming a public risk-taking partner for Scottish Equity Partners. But this may have nothing at all to do with what is actually going on because no-one outside the bank seems to know.
This week the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster which was highly critical of differential state subsidies that went to the publicly-owned Prestwick airport in comparison to the other public airports. My problem isn’t that public money has been used to try and make Prestwick sustainable, it is that it has been used so badly.
Basically the SAC thinks that the free market must not be messed with via subsidies – and yet politicians are calling for subsidies and bail-outs for businesses all the time. This is really a bias against publicly-owned businesses. But the problem isn’t the subsidy, it’s the fact that the Scottish Government wanted to save Prestwick but had no idea whatsoever what that meant.
It took ownership but has had no coherent vision for what it is doing with Prestwick. It is an airport without an obvious purpose and a purpose does not seem to have been developed over its years in public ownership. Wanting there not to be bad news (Prestwick closing in an area of Scotland which votes SNP) is fine, but it is the responsibility of government to go a little bit beyond this…
If confidence in government falls, confidence in its ability to deliver independence falls
In a very similar vein, the extent of the mismanagement of the Ferguson Marine ferries contract has, from start to finish, been quite startling. At times it is difficult to see how the Scottish Government could have messed this up worse short of it demanding the ferries had wheels.
If you want to get to grips with this a simple way to visualise it is that in three years since the Scottish Government took direct control the cost of the ferries has all but doubled yet the number of problems with each of them has increased. It is turning into a national embarrassment (though ‘turning’ may be too optimistic and avoiding embarrassment may be the one ship that has sailed in this affair).
Yet another troubling issue is the fact that the Scottish Government spent £2.4 billion pounds on a Small Business Bonus Scheme without any measurable positive impact. This is probably not surprising – I’m struggling to find it just now but there was a report many years ago (I think it was Audit Scotland) that pointed out a previous similar initiative that also cost billions also had no measurable benefit
But there are less obvious problems as well. Since this administration took over, local government funding in Scotland has been cut by 4.2 per cent even though budgets overall have increased.
Even that doesn’t paint the full picture because over the same period local authorities have been forced to take over responsibility for more areas of delivery (the dumping of district heating responsibilities in local government but without any attached funding is typical of the ‘press release for us, headache for them’ approach).
God knows there are problems with local government in Scotland but it remains often the most important service for many of the most vulnerable in Scotland and it holds together our communities by supporting infrastructure and services. As more and more resources have been centralised it is communities and the vulnerable who suffer as the Scottish Government creates endless and pointless grant funds for people to bid for, again primarily to create press releases.
What is unsettling about all of this is this is only a small selection of things which have gone wrong or been reported on in March. It would not be difficult to increase this list three-fold for a comprehensive review of a month with a week still to go. You could do the same for February, for January, for December.
It is daft to pretend that there is not major fall-out from the Ukraine crisis for Scottish independence but it is also unwise to predict what that is until we get a better picture of what the outcome is
The independence movement is not ready to fight a referendum in terms of organisation and preparedness. The case for independence is in urgent need of work and those who think that the Scottish Government dedicating a couple of junior civil servants to this will fix it are almost certainly being over-optimistic.
There are increasingly few people who believe the Scottish Government has a workable plan for delivering a referendum next year and shifting to ‘actually it’ll be 2024’ would surely be pushing credulity beyond its limits.
It is daft to pretend that there is not major fall-out from the Ukraine crisis for Scottish independence but it is also unwise to predict what that is until we get a better picture of what the outcome is. The SNP’s ‘voices for war’ are bellowing at the top of their voices right now but there will be cooler heads when the heat of this crisis (hopefully) dissipates.
All of these are problems, but all can be overcome. What can’t be overcome is a seven-year disaster-show in government. Structures can be rebuild, prospectuses rewritten, some kind of peace will arrive – but the daily disasters are now hard-wired into government.
There is a lot of nonsense talked and written by people who have no information about what is preventing ‘undecided voters’ from shifting to Yes. As someone who has seen the results of serious public attitude research on this there isn’t much ambiguity in the answer to that question.
It is not that the next ten per cent of potential Yes voters don’t like the idea of independence (in principle they do). It’s not that they didn’t like the optimistic 2014 pitch (they definitely did). It’s that they worry about the reality of delivery.
Being more centrist, more militarily belligerent, more boring or more presidential is not addressing the real barrier of those unsure about independence. But being incompetent in government is making the problem much worse.
I warned about this in 2019 and now the problem is very much upon us. I’ve explained why this is all happening in some detail. I don’t think I need to remind the movement that referendums can be lost as well as won.
What we can’t afford is to dive into a campaign where the memes are ‘independence – from the people who couldn’t build a boat’ or ‘better flow at the border – just cut three inches off the bottom of the barriers’.
Getting independence as fast as is possible is my dearest desire in politics. At the moment it is going to be about this time next year before the whole charade that ‘we’re nearly there’ finally runs aground as it becomes clear we aren’t six months from a referendum. That is going to be another wasted year.
When we reach the point of no further pretence the cause of independence is going to have to take a long, hard look at itself and start to be honest about the scale of the repair job we’re going to have to do. I can see how to repair most of it, but how we overcome the record of this government is the most difficult question of all.