Strange choices tell a confused story

by | 2 Oct 2023

Four decisions recently made by the Scottish Government appear to have the main effect of contradicting the story it set out in its recent Programme for Government. Why?

If ‘governing is about choices’, what kind of government do we have in Scotland? There are decisions being made at the moment which seem to bear little relationship to the stated purpose and missions of the Scottish Government. Why?

I’m in particular thinking about four choices which have either been made or have been revealed over the last week or so. They don’t make immediate sense. Or they don’t seem to. They seem to contradict the entire narrative the government is trying to set out about itself. They seem like a very strange set of choices indeed.

Let me start with the one that got me looking at this in the first place; the cut to the arts and culture budget. I have been somewhat bemused by the fact that the Scottish Government has had a reputation for being arts-friendly over the last decade. This was verifiably not true. In fact arts funding has been cut by about 40 per cent in real terms since the SNP came to power.

As far as I can see, no other spending department has had cumulative cuts of that scale. It might reasonably make you think that culture is the absolute bottom of the Scottish Government’s priorities. In fact, it really should lead you to that conclusion.

As a choice, this seems decidedly odd. Cultural figures carry a lot more media weight than the size of arts funding suggests. Piss off a business leader and the chances are the public won’t know who it is; piss off a Holywood actor and the public will definitely notice. Plus cultural figures are usually seen as crucial to a nationalist movement – the SNP was virtually born out of poetry.

So when you’re introducing a devastating cut, are forced to think again and reverse the cut, reversing your reversal within weeks doesn’t seem like good policy and it definitely seems like dreadful politics. I know quite a few people in the arts community and they are spitting mad.

There is a lot more to be written about the very strange relationship between the Scottish Government and the arts and culture sector (a relationship that looks a bit like Stockholm Syndrome on the part of the culture sector), but it is not the only strange decision.

Another is the reversal of a much-heralded part of their poverty plan which has… simply been ditched without anyone really being told it was ditched. The Bright Start, Best Futures initiative was an employability project which was supposed to help poor parents get back into work. (I have misplaced the link stating that this is not now going ahead).

Again, without going into whether it is good policy to drop this proposal (it doesn’t look like it), the politics seem very odd. It is, what, two weeks since the First Minister made clear that his number one priority was poverty. One wonders what happens to the budgets of his number two priority.

The choices you make tell a story about you and while I can’t imagine there are any good choices to be made in government just now, you have to choose the story you tell

Then there is the substantial cuts being made to the budget of the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency. That is certainly bad policy, but again, if you’re going to claim to be a climate leader and if you’re going to jet off to New York to lecture the world about its duty, you really shouldn’t be undermining that message by hobbling the enforcement of environmental regulation.

But, before we go any further, it should be acknowledge that this is a period of incredibly tight budgets for the Scottish Government. The three cuts I’ve highlighted above come to a little bit less than £40 million and as the consequence of the Scottish Government’s rather chaotic approach to pay negotiations filters through, new money has to be found. It’s just arithmetic, right?

Except… Decision four is to throw yet another load of money at ferry-building and the sum this time is about £40 million. And that arose in the space of three months. It is hard not to see the parallel – that poverty initiatives, the arts and environmental protection are being sacrificed to save face on ferries.

Naturally this read-across is not accurate and there are a whole load of reasons why the Scottish Government is scraping around to find budget to free up. But that’s what I mean about choices – these seem like bad choices. The choices you make tell a story about you and while I can’t imagine there are any good choices to be made in government just now, you have to choose the story you tell.

Why are these choices being made? I’m pretty sure each of them is ‘bespoke’, as in they’re not being made in relation to a bigger picture but just in relation to what problem is right in front of them. Ferries seem to have been chosen as a ‘mark of credibility’, a ‘gravestone to avoid’. It seems that the number one priority is ‘these must sail under any circumstance or we look daft’.

That’s a decision almost certainly being made in one corner of government. And my guess would be that whenever the call goes out to trim other budgets to find money, it will in part come down to which Cabinet Secretaries have fought hardest to protect their territory. That is why I suspect the arts budget is getting hit.

Because Angus Robertson has been a remarkable failure in his first proper governmental role. He doesn’t have anything like the confidence of the arts community and, as far as I can tell, he’s not been trying to generate that confidence. He seems more interest in his ‘ambassadorial’ role.

I’m afraid this may just be the price of continuity – this administration is ploughing ahead, seemingly focussed on pushing through vanity projects created by the previous administration

My guess would be that the poverty decision is down to the fact that the First Minister (during the leadership debates) appeared to make a commitment to increase the Scottish child payment. If there are two initiatives, one owned by a prominent politician, one created as a co-design process with poor people, and one is to be lost…

The defunding of Sepa is harder for me to understand. I’m hoping the current Ferret investigation might tell us more. As best as I can tell, Sepa is really very corporate-captured and it may simply be that there is strong lobbying behind the scenes to reduce enforcement. Reductions in Sepa funding are clearly not justified based on the role it plays (when you consider the money being thrown at some other pet agencies).

Whenever I’m advising anyone on strategy one of the things I’ll always advise is to think constantly about what story you’re trying to tell and what story you seem actually to be telling. The Yousaf administration is telling one story with its Programme for Government (poverty, liberalism, pro-business) but is telling a different story with its actions (keeping the ferry story alive indefinitely, opening easy hits on poverty and the environment, getting into a war with the liberal arts community).

Everyone I’ve spoken to who knows anything about it seemed to be of the view that the second it was clear the progress of the ferries was a mess, the Scottish Government should have drawn a hard line underneath it, sold off the hulls and started again on a simpler, better design. That would almost certainly have worked out much cheaper. It would have meant one bad news story rather than hundreds.

Likewise, the Scottish Government should have really sat down and taken an all-public-sector approach to pay negotiations to make sure that what was finally agreed was doable. Instead the previous First Minister settled a first, generous claim (seemingly to make it go away when it became embarrassing for her) and the knock-on consequence of that is being felt now.

I’m afraid this may just be the price of continuity. This administration is ploughing ahead, seemingly focussed on pushing through vanity projects created by the previous administration (why no-one has scrapped ‘The Promise’ and put the funding into proper early years social work where it belongs is a mystery to me).

And this seems to be placing an increased squeeze on everything else. Which means the Scottish Government is struggling to tell a coherent story and it seems to me to be leaving itself open to unnecessary attacks from all kinds of directions. What it is not doing is reducing the amount spent on the ‘gravy train’. The poor are taking a hit, public sector bureaucracies are not. They should.

These are tough times in government (exacerbated by the budget squeeze resulting from the poorly negotiated Fiscal Framework). I don’t want to give the impression that dealing with these issues is easy. It certainly isn’t after the last decade of choices (particularly to local government and arts funding).

Yet still the Scottish Government is trying to project and image of radical investment in virtuous causes (in the Programme for Government) while slashing core funding to substantial parts of the public realm. If it keeps trying to square-off these two opposing stories, it is at risk of looking like it has no story to tell at all.

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