Now a price will be paid

by | 9 Jun 2022

The Scottish Government's austerity budget was not inevitable - it is the price Scotland will pay for seven years of poor quality, visionless government

I was out the country over the weekend and returned with a horrible virus of some sort which has flattened me for the week. It all means I’m very late coming to the Scottish Government’s medium-term spending plans.

Yet it is now inevitable that I and everyone else in Scotland will be coming back to this subject on an almost weekly if not daily basis for much of the next four or five years. The public sector in Scotland is to be “reset” (in the government’s words) in the way Mary Queen of Scots had her head ‘reset’.

The brutality of the cuts which are ahead will change everything in Scottish politics. The cause of independence is now two separate causes. The vast majority of the movement’s membership see the cause of independence as a chance to escape the right-wing politics of the British state.

The Scottish Government, on the other hand, sees the cause of independence as a means of prolonging the right-wing politics of the British state. That this continues to surprise people amazes me – the Scottish Government threw its lot in with Charlotte Street Partners (key ‘fixers’ for Scotland’s right-wing establishment) from the beginning. But the movement and the media commentators refused to believe what they were seeing.

Because there was an absolute flurry of airborne fluff surrounding the government which, if you didn’t focus too hard, gave it an aurora of radical social democracy.

Attainment gaps were to be closed, Universal Basic Incomes would be piloted, four day weeks would be trialled, wellbeing economics pursued, child poverty sharply reduced, leading environmental targets would be set, Scotland’s woeful local democracy would be reviewed, Council Tax reformed, publicly owned National Energy Companies would be set up, a step change in land reform would take place and so on and so on.

None of this happened. Not a jot of it, it was all a con. The attainment gap promise was recently dropped altogether, the UBI pilot was never possible in the first place, four day weeks came to nothing much, wellbeing economics were redefined by the government as being what they were already doing, child poverty and environmental targets were routinely missed, Council Tax reform was dodged.

The local democracy review was designed to go nowhere and didn’t, the National Energy Company was dropped. And on land reform – I was told absolutely reliably by two Cabinet sources early on that Sturgeon personally told them there would be no serious land reform on her watch as she wasn’t going to be branded as ‘a Mugabe’.

But all the right-wing stuff really did happen, the outsourcing to private consultants, the fire-sales of energy resources, the appalling ‘free ports’, the indefensible subsidies handed to the richest landowners, the party-bought-and-paid-for-by-Heathrow crap and so on. To this day I find it startling that no-one properly picked up on the fact that, during Sturgeon’s first term, almost all the economic policy was passed in a coalition with the Scottish Tories. They were the natural allies.

The public sector in Scotland is to be ‘reset’ in the way Mary Queen of Scots had her head ‘reset’

Of course the Sturgeon apologists claim there was nothing she could do. But (and I can’t emphasise this enough) I and everyone else at Common Weal has spent the last seven years showing that there really was lots and lots she could have done.

This is the fundamental problem with Sturgeonism – she wanted to bask in the glory of being ‘bold’ and ‘radical’ but she would absolutely under no circumstances make structural changes in Scotland, and certainly not if those structural changes tip the balance away from the rich and powerful and towards ordinary people.

If, over the last seven years, the Scottish Government had presided over a mass public rental housing boom rather than the developer-boosting ‘affordable homes’ nonsense or the price-inflating ‘help to buy’ idiocy, housing would be a lesser factor in our cost of living crisis.

If we had a public energy company up and working and it had been taking over ownership of generation capacity, the enormous energy profits in Scotland would be flowing into the public purse now. If we had undertaken proper Council Tax reform one of the most inequitable taxes in Scotland would have become sharply more progressive, spreading the burden towards those that could afford it.

If we’d pursued a proper industrial strategy we’d have built an economy with growing domestically-owned productive businesses creating better jobs. If we’d reformed land to make it more available to potential land-based businesses we could have seen a renaissance of the rural economy.

I’m so sick of hearing that the poor Scottish Government ‘did it’s best’ and that it didn’t have any options. This is a gross distortion of reality. It did something else completely; it bribed a professional management class into silence and complicity.

Scotland is now a cartel of public agencies, NGOs, private interests and consultants and a host of ancillary services all willing to keep their mouths shut in return for generous payment. If any of you get the Scottish Government’s daily news digest you will know exactly what I mean. There is barely a day goes by when the government doesn’t announce another vat of gravy for the train.

If the STUC is getting difficult you turn up at their Congress and just given them £150,000 and expect them to spend the rest of the week thanking you. If you want any given group of public sector insiders to start telling the media that your government is doing a good job you simply create a £50 million fund and ask them to ‘bid’ for it. These bids never go to anyone not already soaked in gravy.

One senior officer in a major NGO of my acquaintance was asked to write a review of a government policy. The review was damning. She took it to her CEO (who had just been recruited from the civil service) who told her they’d just received £5 million in funding from the government and that this review was ‘almost literally biting the hand that feeds us’. It was binned.

That is the real motto of the Sturgeon era – be the hand that feeds and demand no biting. As I’ve pointed out before, the very prominently-announced Poverty Tsar simply disappeared when it became clear that Naomi Eisenstadt didn’t get the ‘no biting’ memo. It was a clear and chilling warning from the beginning – cower and I will bestow riches upon you, rise against me and you will be destroyed.

This brutal budget was anything but unavoidable. It is a direct and inevitable outcome of what history will soon firmly conclude was a period of Tammany Hall misrule. The Sturgeon machine sold everything for the purpose of creating an image and that image was always a mirage. Underneath it, things have been falling apart in slow motion and far too few people noticed.

But they will most certainly notice now. Kid at school? Eight per cent cut in their education. Parent in a care home? Prepare yourself for the KPMG asset-stripping model for a ‘care service’. Reliant on any kind of local government service? Even just expecting the swings in your local play park to, you know, swing? You would be wise not to bank on it.

Were it not for the constitution Scotland would be marching to the cries of ‘Nicky Nicky Nicky, Out Out Out’. I don’t think anyone should rule out that possibility when the remainder of the independence movement discovers there is no referendum next year.

Were it not for the constitution Scotland would be marching to the cries of ‘Nicky Nicky Nicky, Out Out Out’

The implications of all of this are pretty terrifying. Poor public sector workers are going to be the first to suffer – them or the 20-somethings for whom an affordable home will become even more of a joke as their spending power starts dropping by 10 per cent a year. Or of course those who already live in poverty may find their lives may become untenable. Suffering brings consequences for those who are identified as imposing it.

The independence movement now has work to do to persuade the public that we were not complicit in covering all of this up. And sadly the payroll part of the indy movement really was deeply complicit so it will not be easy to shake off the sense that we were willing to sacrifice the poor for ‘our cause’.

But even more work is going to be needed to restore confidence in a corrupted public sector. This is almost wholly the fault of a senior management class who played Sturgeon’s court politics very willingly, happy to bow and scrape and put out media releases about how great she was return for ever-growing empires and every-greater remuneration packages.

Strangely, I do agree with Kate Forbes that a reset is now a priority. But my reset is quite a different proposition to hers. She wishes to slash the public sector and let her friends in the consultancy sector take final control of Scotland. We will become Ernst, Young, Scotland and Deliotte PLC.

Me? I think we need to reset the corrupt forces of finance consultancy out of the system altogether. Then we need to reset the public sector, get its senior officer salaries and self-enrichment schemes under control and it’s revolving doors glued shut. An entire strategy will be required for persuading people that Scottish public service isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme for mediocre middle managers.

The indy movement certainly needs a reset, a reset which now looks like a brutal awakening sometime later this year or next when it can no longer believe the ‘referendum is coming’ myth.

But above all we need a reset of political leadership. Tories are Tories – they will enrich the rich and impoverish the poor as certain as day follows night. Shy of independence only structural change in Scotland can insulate us from this. They’re Tories so this financial settlement was inevitable. What wasn’t inevitable was the seven wasted years that left us as vulnerable to this as we ever were.

Glueing ourselves to London’s economic doctrine was a choice made by Sturgeon and Forbes. It is they and they alone who must answer for how we are weaker after seven years of their rule than we were before they got ‘started’.

But a larger price will be paid for all of this. It is time for each of us to take a minute to think carefully about what that price should be and who should pay it.

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