There is no workaround for competence

by | 23 Oct 2023

Until the SNP realises it can't spin its way out of having a substandard first team, it stands little chance of regaining support. And since it keeps making major errors, things will only get worse.

I’m not a great singer but I can carry a note. At the top end I can hit a ‘G4’, a strangulated ‘A4’ on a good day. That technically puts me in the baritone range (though I can’t even pretend to sing classical). I could train and practice for as long as I want, I’m never going to hit the ‘C4’ that is the top of the range for the tenor. I can’t do it and I’ll never be able to.

During and after the SNP conference there has been a concerted, well-organised campaign to rebrand Humza Yousaf as ‘growing into the role’ and to argue that his shortcomings can be overcome because he is ‘decent’ and charming. The latter of those points isn’t in dispute – it’s the former that is going to sink the SNP if it doesn’t wake up.

This is tough to write, but like I can’t hit a ‘high C’, Yousaf doesn’t have the skillset he needs to solve the myriad problems that lie ahead of him. Charm and decency don’t make him a good First Minister any more than some musical training and an enthusiastic desire make me a tenor.

I’m going to use the example of his announcement of a Council Tax freeze to explain why, but before I do (and because this is inevitably going to be a bit personally critical), can I reiterate as I have from the moment he announced his candidature – Humza Yousaf is a good man. He really does have reserves of human decency that aren’t always that easy to come by in a British politician.

He really does mean well and he really does want to make life better for people. He has the easy charm of the privately educated and is bright enough to do a solid job of ‘modern British politician’ in exchanges, debates and interviews. But, like my ‘A4’, that’s it. There is no further to go.

Running a government isn’t about charm or decency, it’s about knowing what you’re doing. The SNP isn’t toiling because of lack of emphasis on charismatic messiah figures but because of the legacy of the last one. You can cut it any way you want, but the foundation for the doubts about the SNP which have built up among voters is poor performance in government.

And yet with his first real political intervention (there was next to nothing of note in the Programme for Government), Yousaf has created another disaster. That his speech would create that disaster was beyond knowable, it was absolutely, screamingly obvious. To have failed to note that you were pulling the pin out a grenade is to fail to demonstrate job competence.

To rest your credibility so visibly on a policy you don’t know if you can actually deliver could be described as bold but would be much better described as fucking stupid

Because the headline story from his conference speech was a Council Tax freeze. What we know about this so far is remarkable. It was made up ‘between 24 and 48 hours before the speech‘, the lack of specificity of which leads me to believe it was late the night before when someone said ‘this is a bit thin’.

No civil servants knew about this or were involved in the decision. Neither was Yousaf’s own local government team or cabinet. That means it wasn’t modelled, measured or accurately costed. No impact analysis was done, no cost-benefit analysis, nothing.

But nor did any of the local authorities know. This is beyond disrespectful. The Scottish Government has a whole sub-brand as ‘saviour of the sanctity of the powers of the Scottish Parliament’, springing with alacrity on any example of Westminster overreach. That rings hollow given that a unilateral Council Tax freeze is Holyrood overreach.

It isn’t totally clear to me that they knew that they don’t actually have the power to introduce a Council Tax freeze. All they can do is bribe, blackmail and cajole local authorities to agree to it. Which means it’s a very, very long way from being clear that they’ll actually be able to deliver the promised freeze. The local authorities can simply say ‘get lost’.

To rest your credibility so visibly on a policy you don’t know if you can actually deliver could be described as bold but would be much better described as fucking stupid. If Yousaf can’t get all the local authorities to go along with this he’s going to look stupid.

Plus it is deeply disrespectful. Relations between central and local government were already deteriorating and this has made them worse (people in local government are furious). That Yousaf has admitted that in a grovelling apology to Cosla in a meeting two days after making the speech, the minutes of which were then leaked, goes so far beyond ‘unfortunate’ that it just shouldn’t happen under any circumstances.

And that’s just the presentation. The actual policy itself is equally hair-brained. The Fraser of Allander Institute has basically done our work for us. The fact that no-one knows what ‘freeze’ and the subsequent promise to fully-fund the freeze actually means complicates matters – is this ‘no inflation rise’ or ‘replace the income you had budgeted for based on the Council Tax rise you were going to set’?

So the cost is at least £150 million and it could very easily stretch well over £400 million. Two weeks ago the Scottish Government was scraping about to find cash to the extent that it cut £6 million from arts funding. Audit Scotland predicted that, on its current spending plans, it was going to be £1 billion short of the money it needs next year.

With this extra commitment, a standstill spending programme could now basically mean having to cut a billion and a half pounds from somewhere else. This seems to be tipping over into the realms of fantasy. And presumably this is now the new baseline funding, a sum to be stumped up every year forever (unless this is just a one year reprieve and we’re going to get two years’ worth of Council Tax rises in one go next year).

If Yousaf and his team don’t know this stuff by now, they never will

On top of all of that, it’s a god-awful stupid policy in the first place. This is to ‘help with cost of living’, but that’s a problem that is more acute the lower down the income spectrum you are – and those in most need will gain little or no benefit whatsoever from this because they are already exempt from Council Tax. In fact among the group most in need of all, fewer than 70 per cent will get any benefit of any description.

So who does benefit? Those with higher Council Tax (which is to say those who are wealthier). Which is to say that this is a very expensive subsidy for those who need it least which will do next to nothing at all for those who need it most. At a cost of £400 million.

And what do the ‘big winners’ get out of this? At best a bung of £75 a year. Seriously, that’s what the biggest winner out of this move will make, those with the very, very biggest houses. That’s a few bottles of wine. Across the whole population this will save only about 0.1 per cent of income.

But it could be a big cut for local government again. Let’s not beat about the bush – there are services provided by local government which save lives, and some of those services could be in peril. Local government is on its knees. The Scottish Government should not be aiming further kicks at it.

All of that is why you model policy and do impact assessments. There is a reason big policy like this isn’t meant to be made up between you and a couple of your pals late one night because your conference speech is a bit dull.

To get a sense of how incompetent all of this is, remind yourselves of this; all the benefit of this announcement has already been gained in a few headlines. Everything else from here-on out is going to be bad news after bad news. That’s precisely why the SNP is screwed. It keeps doing this. It keeps thinking that smart-arsed PR can make up for due diligence.

There is no excuse for this. None at all. If Yousaf and his team don’t know this stuff by now, they never will. It’s not up to it. It’s not capable of dragging the party out of the mess it is in. Worse, it’s actively expanding and worsening the mess. Worse still, a semi-competent policy team should have identified every single argument I’ve set out here in under six seconds from someone saying ‘why don’t we freeze the Council Tax?’.

Someone I know who was at the SNP conference told me eight separate people had come up to them and basically recited the same speech almost verbatim – ‘growing into the job’, ‘doing amazingly’, ‘so decent and charming’, ‘things are changing’. Meanwhile, in some hotel suite that evening a team of people were doing absolutely everything they possibly could to disprove the first two statements.

Sometimes you just hit a barrier. Sometimes there are things that are just too far outside your grasp to be something you can aspire to. Sometimes you can’t spin your way out of the razor-sharp bite of reality. Sometimes things actually are precisely what they look like.

Humza Yousaf is one of those things. He is exactly what he looks like – a nice man who has been promoted way, way out of proportion to his abilities, and has then just adopted a team which was clearly not up to the job it was already doing.

There is one more immutable reality that the SNP needs to face – time. The party is in total denial, and unless it can shake off that denial and instigate real change, it is the reality of time which is going to be next to plunge in its razor-sharp teeth.

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