Six months to save Scotland

by | 7 Dec 2022

The illusion that we can accept Scottish Government failure because a referendum was round the corner must now come to an end - radical change must be forced upon it

Since the Supreme Court decision on a Scottish referendum was handed down, the majority of the commentary and debate has been (predictably) about what this means for the cause of independence. But that is not the only consequence of the decision.

Because it means something else too, it means there is no ‘after’ on the horizon. ‘After’ has been one of the Scottish Government’s ‘protection spells’, shielding it from scrutiny and criticism based on the idea that everything was always ‘temporary’ because there was an after, a point at which we could leave the temporary state.

If you put forward a big idea, it was continually rebuffed on the basis that ‘that is an issue for after independence’. Many SNP activists seemed to have been drilled in this line – we all want to do these big and exciting things, was the implication, but it can’t distract from the pursuit of independence.

Likewise, when the Scottish Government got things wrong (which it does a lot), the expectation was that supporters of independence would not be critical, that we’d ‘wheesht for indy’. This was a similar message, an implication that the speaker ‘agrees there is a problem but we just need to be disciplined for another 18 months and deal with it after independence’.

Some people are still clinging to these arguments, because (amazingly!) it’s only 18 months to a ‘plebiscite, de facto referendum’. One last wheesht, one last year-and-a-half of pretending that things are fine based on the promise that soon we can get them fixed.

But what if there is no after on the near horizon? What is the impact on Scotland of more wheeshting? In trying to answer that question I urge you to look at the news. And as you do, please drop that other ‘protection spell’ that anything in a newspaper is automatically false because they’re unionist stooges. It’s not all fake news, an awful lot of things are exactly as bad as it looks.

The issue I’d encourage you to focus on today is the Climate Change Committee’s latest commentary on the Scottish Government’s actions on Net Zero. It is hard to overstate how damning this is. It says that on almost every target in almost every way, we’re not even within touching distance of doing anything like enough.

The Scottish Government has been beyond cynical. It set targets for pure PR purposes but, having got the praise, didn’t do anything much to pursue them (other than sell the right to Scotland’s renewable energy resources cheap and then wait). The level of anger you should feel about this is substantial.

The next ten years are absolutely crucial in terms of the future of humanity. The Scottish Government is relying almost completely on carbon removal technologies which don’t work. But worse, they’re not even implementing the technologies that don’t work (presumably because they don’t work). They’re just claiming that they can fight climate change without doing anything.

The next ten years are absolutely crucial in terms of the future of humanity but the Scottish Government is relying almost completely on carbon removal technologies which don’t work and which they’re not implementing anyway

I pick this issue because it’s so obviously important and because the Scottish Government is so obviously failing – you don’t often get reprimands quite as clear and unequivocal as that the Scottish Government has just received.

But I could have picked anything. I could have picked the way that cutting and undermining local government since 2014 while also loading more responsibility on it has brought it to the verge of serious crisis. Or I could have picked the NHS and explained again how the Scottish Government’s decision to cut 4,000 beds in the same period (since 2014) has toppled the NHS into structural crisis. It is now really, seriously bad.

When they pull out the other protection spell of ‘but it’s Westminster cutting our budget’ I could explain how that is true, but it is also true that a significant part of the ‘fiscal squeeze’ is because the Scottish Government refused to listen when people begged it not to sign up to the Smith Commission package of measures which are also hammering Scottish budgets.

(This issue is pretty complex but perhaps all you need to know is that this hapless decision by the Scottish Government was already leading to three quarters of a billion pounds being lost to the Scottish public sector in 2019/20 and it is going to get much worse.)

That is only a selection of three stories appearing in one newspaper today alone. I could add so many more – the privatisation of our energy resources, the ever-mounting problems in the education system, the dreadful National Care Service plans, the ferries scandal, the repeated refusal to obey the basic rules of being in government, like having civil servants present at crucial meetings and taking minutes of them. The list is pretty endless.

The response is nothing if not consistent; after indy, it’s London’s fault, silence for approaching referendum, we’re marginally better than England, we will learn lessons, it can’t be anyone’s fault because no-one admits to remembering anything, we make mistakes but we’re still the good guys so don’t ask questions, if you do ask questions you’re a unionist plant…

A month ago you might have been able to tell yourself that this litany of excuses was a price that had to be paid in pursuit of independence. But what now? Do we just keep making excuses until local government starts slashing remaining services, the NHS seizes up altogether and all climate change commitments continue to be treated like the con tricks they are?

You need to wake up to the implications of all of this and you need to wake up quickly. There will be an ‘after’ but it is unlikely to be in the next four years. Those four years are utterly critical. The following are some timescales.

The ever-present promise of a moment round the corner when we didn’t have to accept bad government any more was like a virtual reality headset that convinced us we were sailing in a luxury liner when in reality we’ve been sitting in Hull 802

If serious climate action (especially home insulation) is not scoped and started at scale before the end of this parliament, you can forget Scotland meeting its commitments and prepare your goodbyes for St Andrews and Falkirk which will largely be under water.

The time we have to prevent the collapse of the NHS as we know it is shorter – the next two years will be decisive. There is even less time available to prevent the care reform package from progressing any further in its current form. Local government will be making irreversible decisions over the next 18 months just to survive. By the Holyrood election in 2026, it will be too late.

Don’t kid yourself on that the Scottish Government is currently turning any of this around. Far from it, it is digging deeper down into the same hole. Nor should you kid yourself on that it is capable of turning things around in its current form, because it’s not. It doesn’t contain personnel of anything like sufficient capability to do it alone but it refuses to listen to anyone because of its top-down, command-and-control attitude.

Without change, Scotland is in serious trouble. Within six months it’ll be too late for that change. Unless Scotland does something now we will pay a price. Here are some of the things that ought to happen.

The SNP’s Holyrood group should follow the lead of the Westminster group, tap people on the shoulder, tell them the game is up and demand radical change. The chairs of SNP constituency associations should write a joint letter demanding root-and-branch reform of the SNP’s Holyrood operation. Members of the SNP should indicate clearly that they have no confidence in the direction of the Scottish Government.

NGOs and agencies in Scotland should stop taking government money if it requires them to stay silent about how much is going wrong and should instead speak out and themselves demand change. Civic Scotland more generally should be talking among itself about letters of no confidence in the direction of government. Media commentators should go beyond highlighting failure and demand change.

If none of that happens in the next six months and the Scottish Government continues on its path of incompetence and cover up, the groups above should come to accept that they are part of the problem and not the solution. At that point even more radical things will need to happen if Scotland is to be prevented from irreparable damage.

(I struggle to bring myself to mention the Scottish Greens these days but the sell-out by that party is so great and its complicity in this litany of incompetence so complete that the internal rebellion that should be taking place just now should be significantly greater even than that in the SNP.)

The ever-present promise of a moment round the corner when we didn’t have to accept bad government any more was like a virtual reality headset that convinced us we were sailing in a luxury liner when in reality we’ve been sitting in Hull 802, rusting in a Port Glasgow shipyard.

If those who could do something about this refuse to, they will pay a price in the medium term. Sadly it is the people of Scotland who will pay the price in the short term.

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