It's time to call it corruption.
The ferries scandal is worse than the usual SNP incompetence.
Are the SNP avoiding straight answers on who is responsible for the ferries fiasco because that is their habit, or is it because there’s something worse than incompetence here?
So far the scandal over the SNP’s handling of the ferries has been a story told through the frame of incompetence. Little wonder given the calamity around what should have been a simple procurement exercise. Here are just a few of the mishaps that the nationalist government has presided over since the ferries were awarded at an original price of £97million in 2015.
According to the then-owner of the yard, Nicola Sturgeon announced the contract for the ferries before negotiations about the specifications for the ship were completed. Fergusons were told to start building the ships before the design for them was agreed.
In November 2017, surrounded by children who had been handed saltires, Nicola Sturgeon then launched the uncompleted first ferry MV Glen Sannox. Famously the windows were painted on to disguise the fact that it was nowhere near ready. In addition to the fake windows, there were also fake funnels, and the bulbous bow of the ship was flat rather than rounded.
By the summer of 2019, the SNP Government had paid £128.25 million to the yard even though the ferries were largely incomplete. Despite such a huge injection of our money, the yard then went into administration and was nationalised.
By January 2020, with one boat rusting in the water and the other on the slipway, the design had *still* not been agreed with the SNP Government. The yard reported that an *additional* £100 million would be needed to complete the ferries: more than the original cost quoted for starting from scratch.
A corporate fixer was appointed to sort out the mess earning an eye/mouth-watering £2500 a day. He left the project in February, reportedly having received £1.3 million without having delivered the ferries.
It was discovered that the ferries couldn’t be used in Ardrossan where they are supposed to sail from, but even the multi-million-pound extension required to that harbour is delayed - though that may not matter as so are the ships.
At the time of writing, the two ferries, are four years late, with more delays announced last month. The ships are set to cost us at least a quarter of a billion pounds, two and half times more than the original price. One former shipbuilding adviser has warned they could cost us £400 million.
Meanwhile, the Port Glasgow yard has missed out on 8 years of work contributing to the building of Type 31 frigates for the Royal Navy. The Scottish Government-owned yard will also miss out on building additional ferries for CalMac, with the work going instead to Turkey.
And of course, most importantly at all, as the SNP has more than doubled the length of time it takes for ferries to be replaced, our island communities are living with the impact of more and more breakdowns and cancellations. Last week, for example, fewer than half of ferry routes were running a normal service.
Despite all of this, the Finance Secretary isn’t interested enough to have asked even the most basic questions about how we got here.
If this was simply a story about incompetence, it would surely be enough. Increasingly though this is becoming a story about abuse of the power held by the SNP rather than inept wielding of it.
I was a Special Adviser in the governments of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. A SpAD is a political cuckoo in the impartial civil service nest. Like a government Minister, your job is both administrative and political. There is a tension between those two roles and it takes people of good faith, both in governing parties and the civil service, to make sure that the power entrusted to you is not abused for partisan purposes.
It isn’t always easy to define when government becomes improperly infected by party politics. After all, the basis of democracy is that if people believe you govern well, they reward it at the next election. The incentive to govern in the public interest is, in this sense, deeply political.
The important principle is that those entrusted with power should avoid any violation of the public interest in order to gain special advantage. If you pursue policies that are good for the people and hope that voters will reward you at the ballot box for it, that is proper. If you pursue something you know is not sound policy in order to gain political advantage, that is improper. It is a corrupt use of power.
That is why various stories around these ferries over the last few days have been so important.
Let’s start with the key passage from the damning Audit Scotland report.
“In September 2015, FMEL [Fergusons] confirmed that it was unable to provide Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL) with a full refund guarantee, which was one of the mandatory requirements of the contract. Although CMAL subsequently negotiated a partial refund guarantee with FMEL, it remained concerned about the significant financial and procurement risks this created. CMAL had the option to reject FMEL’s bid at this point and informed Transport Scotland that its preference was to re-start the procurement process. Transport Scotland alerted Scottish ministers to CMAL’s concerns and the risks of awarding the contract to FMEL. There is insufficient documentary evidence to explain why Scottish ministers accepted the risks and were content to approve the contract award in October 2015.”
In short: Ministers were warned there were not proper financial safeguards for taxpayers but went ahead anyway, and there is no paperwork to explain why.
Jim McColl, the former economic adviser to Nicola Sturgeon, who took over the yard in 2014, has the answer. He makes the extremely serious charge that the SNP knowingly signed off on a contract without safeguards because they wanted a good story for their party conference:
“The audit report has revealed we were given the contract for political purposes. Everything was about the optics and timing the announcements for political gain..”
If this were a one-off, you might continue to believe that it was only a matter of SNP incompetence rather than SNP corruption, but there is a pattern of behaviour here.
The 2017 launch by the First Minister was pure Potemkin, but launching the incomplete vessel at this point knowingly threw away even more taxpayers’ money. The theatrical launch triggered a milestone payment of public money to the yard, despite the ship being in no fit state to launch. Fitting real windows, real funnels, and fixing the faulty bulbous bow, would be far more expensive once it was in the water. The First Minister, and those around her, must have known they were wasting more taxpayers’ money but they prioritised the political advantage of a photo opportunity over prudent use of public funds. That is corrupt.
This week the former political editor of the Daily Record claimed that the original deal back in 2014 for Jim McColl to take over the yard was pushed through by Alex Salmond to meet the print deadline for the edition of the paper the then First Minister guest-edited. It confirms the SNP culture that Jim McColl has blown the whistle on.
From the earliest stage of this saga, political advantage has been the overriding concern of the SNP, not better serving islanders, engineers or taxpayers.
When politicians know the decisions they make are squandering public money but carry on regardless for partisan advantage, that is corruption. It is important that the SNP’s opponents call it what it is.
The ferries story is now something to roll our eyes at when the latest delay or cost-overrun is announced. It has become a national joke. That isn’t the correct emotional response. We should be incensed not embarrassed.
Instead of expecting voters to untangle the mess of unaccountable ministers, compromised civil servants, worthless contracts and cutty cables we should keep it simple. This is a corrupt government that has knowingly wasted hundreds of millions of pounds to win political advantage.
Much energy will be expended in the coming days trying to pin blame on whoever exactly it was that made the key decisions. Whoever it is should not just be held responsible for their incompetence in power, they should be held accountable for their corruption of power.
In case you missed it…
I enjoyed appearing on Matt Forde’s Political Party podcast. It was strange being on a podcast that I’m a fan of but we had a great conversation. If you’re interested in an in-depth discussion about the internal mechanics of the 2014 campaign, it might be of interest.