Opinion

The Scottish Government’s tomorrow problem

by | 2 Apr 2024

Tomorrow always comes - which is why screwing it up today is a bad idea. Why can't the Scottish Government see that its actions have consequences?

A quote I came across recently is one I particularly like since it tackles head-on one of my personal failings – an ability to dwell too much on something I didn’t get right yesterday. As with many of the best quotes, American humorist Will Rogers uses few words to say what needs said: “Don’t let yesterday take up too much of today”.

Well of late, through observation of the Scottish Government, I’ve been reversing that quote a bit. I keep thinking to myself ‘why not gift a little bit of today to tomorrow?’ This is a Scottish Government that seems to think winning and not losing are the same thing. They’re not – because of the tomorrow problem.

I think enough has been written on the Hate Crimes legislation, except to consider the long-term politics of it. Put simply, passing this legislation hands its operation over to third parties (the police and the courts) but maintains a tight grip on the blowback. Like ‘transwomen in female prisons’, it is not the body making the decision that will pay the price for the decision made.

The Scottish Government has a horrible habit of saying anything to get a piece of bad legislation through. There are too many examples of this to go over but big assurances are given at stage one that problems will be addressed in stage two, until stage two arrives and the promised fixes are now in stage three… And then in the implementation phase…

It’s the next ‘and then’ where the problem lies. I’m losing count of how much bad legislation is being passed on the basis that the Scottish Government thinks pushing a bad idea through is better than letting a bad idea be made better through engagement with others not on their payroll.

The Care Service Bill was hated by everyone so it was paused. The pause turned out to be a bit of a fraud and the same legislation was reintroduced. The promise was that it would be amended at stage two. The relevant parliamentary committee demanded to see these amendments, and on Friday the deadline for that passed.

The Scottish Government get-out was the establishment of a new ridiculously cumbersome ‘working group’ (60-plus members) to consider amendments. This isn’t in any sense a better process but a worse one, which can really only be read as ‘one more delaying technique to reduce democratic scrutiny while we push through what we were always going to push through’.

If you take away local government’s capacity to respond to cost pressures, you become responsible for those cost pressures

This is going to be a disaster and everyone is telling the Scottish Government that just now. I can’t be sure of all the dynamics, but the real nub of the Care Bill is really to centralise care in a model which opens the door to mass privatisation. That’s all it is really possible to derive from what it’s meant to achieve.

Basically care will turn into a ‘commissioning game’ with the control over which operators deliver care in Scotland handed over to very senior civil servants. You just know they’re going to get lucrative board positions with whomever they outsource to.

But what do the politicians get out of this? As usual, Sturgeon had heard others talking about a National Care Service and wanted to own it as her innovation. Everything was then about the least work that could be done to bluff that outcome. From there, the only possible explanation of what the Scottish Government is doing is repeating over and over to itself ‘don’t get beat, don’t get beat’.

The thing is, if they get their way and this legislation passes, it’s going to fail and they’re going to carry the can. You can’t have a scheme this hated by everyone who actually has to deliver it which is this badly thought-through without consequences. Expect almost every indicator of care outcomes to decline over the next five years.

Or let me give you another example where a little more consideration of the nature of tomorrow would help. The current public finance situation right across the UK is dire, in large part because the Tories (and to be honest New Labour) have done so much harm to the tax base through policies which fuelled inequality.

That means money is tight everywhere, not least in local government – and that is largely (and legitimately) a Westminster problem. Or it is until you announce a Council Tax Freeze. If you take away local government’s capacity to respond to cost pressures, you become responsible for those cost pressures.

Had the Scottish Government give local government the extra money it did and asked them for restraint in increasing Council Tax rates, it would have put intense political pressure on the local authorities not to increase the tax too much. That would have been a result – the Scottish Government would have been lauded for it, and rightly so.

But the Yousaf administration manages to turn that upside down and pull all the blowback from that policy onto themselves instead. They did precisely the same over the Michael Matheson iPad affair, a small scandal they escalated to a big scandal through incompetence. I mean, if you’re going to ask for a formal investigation you better be clear you haven’t done anything wrong first.

Alternatively, knowing Matheson had made an ineligible expenses claim and then knowing he had lied about it, do not ask for an inquiry. There is no upside – they were never going to find him ‘not guilty’ – and loads of potential downside. Now we know he lied to the Presiding Officer too. Congratulations SNP strategy team.

The only way I can make this make sense is if you assume that they just say things to get through the day without worrying about tomorrow at all. ‘Taking the high ground and demanding due process will get us to tea time’ followed a few weeks later with ‘oh fuck, is that what due process means?’

So here is my question – how shortsighted are Team Humza really? There were lengthy assurances given at every stage of the passing of the Hate Crimes legislation, each designed to get the legislation to the next stage. At the last stage there were very significant commitments made to police force training given how much of this is about the nuance of implementation.

That got the legislation passed, but now we know absolutely no-one thinks the implementation training was anything like adequate. Now, with any foresight at all the Scottish Government must recognise (surely?) that it will inevitably be judged based on implementation. It is not the legislation which will give them bad headlines but rather how it is implemented.

It is all of yesterdays’ lax consideration of today which fills the newspapers with such bad news for the Scottish Government in the mornings

Which means if ‘jiggery pokery and parliamentary games’ might make sense to get the legislation through, it makes no sense to skimp on implementation. The Scottish Government needs this legislation not to generate a constant string of negative headlines, as they received after the Gender Recognition/Isla Bryson affair.

Perhaps the Scottish Government is utterly convinced that everyone is blowing this out of proportion and so there is no need to fret and fuss over implementation. But the fact that, as I write, breaking news is coming through that Police Scotland have spent the day looking at JK Rowling’s tweets and concluded they’re not criminal, this is already failing.

And so we move into the brave new world where this is normal, where it is normal for police to spend a day looking over your tweets every time someone makes a complaint. And given the way the legislation is framed it doesn’t really have any choice but to do that. To lessen the administrative burden the police would have required clear guidelines on when they can summarily dismiss a claim.

That would require a lot of training, and it seems that didn’t happen. So we’re almost certainly going to get poor interpretation of the legislation from under-resourced and under-trained officers, leading to outcomes which will generate more newspaper front pages (and not the good kind).

This is all cumulative. It is all of yesterdays’ lax consideration of today which fills the newspapers with such bad news for the Scottish Government in the mornings. It doesn’t seem to have worked this out. It is doing more things, now, which will shape the course of the coming year for the SNP, and the things it is doing all spell danger to me.

When SNP loyalists complain (they do this a lot) that the media is reporting on bad statistics like its the Scottish Government’s fault, they seem to struggle to see the extent to which the Scottish Government made themselves to blame. People warned them at every stage that they were doing this, but on they tanked anyway.

Which means that yet another Care Service showdown is now almost inevitable (STUC is soon likely to vote for the whole thing to be scrapped and restarted), endless tales of closed local authority facilities will dominate the year, Michael Matheson needs to show his face some point, the Hate Crime legislation will be misapplied (new, ill-defined legislation always is), on and on we go.

Normally a government has at least a handful of grown-ups who will say things like ‘you know we will now need to deliver this?’ or ‘are you conscious of the likely fall-out if we take this step?’. These grown ups seem completely absent in the Sturgeon/Yousaf era.

So brace yourself; the bad news will keep coming – because the Scottish Government is making it happen.

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