Scotland Needs a Referendum
The local elections are an opportunity to pass judgement on an unaccountable, incompetent and increasingly conservative SNP Government.
Nicola Sturgeon said this week she would resign if she lost a referendum on leaving the UK. That helps explain why accountability in Scottish politics is so broken.
The First Minister saying she would walk away from politics after failing for a second time to achieve her life’s ambition is hardly surprising, although it does bring into context the failures that don’t constitute a resigning matter for the SNP.
The things that don’t matter.
Nicola Sturgeon’s “personal defining mission” of closing the educational gap between rich and poor pupils was discussed yesterday at Holyrood’s Education Committee. When the First Minister pledged herself to this cause she awarded funds to the local authorities with the biggest challenge on the attainment gap. That money is now being cut and given to other areas. At the committee our biggest teaching union, the EIS, didn’t mince their words:
“we have been absolutely appalled actually at the level of funding cuts at six of the original challenge authorities, it beggars belief to us as to why those cuts would be made at a time when poverty is rising and the pandemic has absolutely bludgeoned some communities”
The head of the School Leaders Scotland is a former head teacher from Dundee where funding for helping the poorest kids is being cut by 79%. He was damning:
“We know the number of young people impacted by deprivation in these nine challenge areas, surely it’s immoral to take away that funding.”
Another teaching union, the NASUWT shared the concern:
“it’s clearly not right to be making those swinging cuts that you're talking about and that will certainly have a negative impact in those areas.”
If this is how Nicola Sturgeon treats the thing she claims to care about more than anything else in the world, I’d hate to be on the receiving end of her neglect.
But of course, the life chances of our poorest kids aren’t what really matters, so nobody would ever resign over this.
In a week when the ageing ferry serving as the main route to Arran broke down again, the Auditor General appeared before the Scottish Parliament to express his frustration at a lack of documentation around the decision to procure the rusting hulk that was supposed to have started on that route four years ago:
“Our judgment is not that evidence has been withheld from us during the course of our audit work, but rather that an important piece of documentary evidence wasn’t prepared to arrive at the judgment that ministers arrived at – to accept the scale of risk so unusual in the scale of this contract and contrary to the advice of the public body (Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited) which oversees the contract.
Let that sink in. There is no record of the Ministerial decision that forced through the decision on these ferries, in the face of a warning from CalMac about the risk to the taxpayer.
Meanwhile, it is clear that for all the talk of ‘learning lessons’, the SNP leadership still view proper government processes as a political inconvenience rather than an essential safeguard for taxpayers. It was revealed that Finance Secretary Kate Forbes tried to keep secret the notes of a meeting she had with the shipbuilders working on the ferries after they complained about the incompetent management of the project and expressed concerns about the future of their jobs.
But the jobs of shipyard workers, the hundreds of millions of lost money, and the ferries island communities depend on aren’t what really matters, so nobody would ever resign over this.
Yesterday it was revealed that the Chief Executive of the publicly funded Scottish National Investment Bank, launched by Nicola Sturgeon as the centrepiece of the SNP’s economic policy, was paid £117,500 after she resigned. This is despite the board member responsible for remuneration at the bank giving this response to the Scottish Parliament in response to a pretty clear question:
Jamie Halcro Johnston: My next question might be on an area in which you are not able to comment; I am comfortable with that. You said that Eilidh Mactaggart resigned on 27 January. Was an enhanced severance package or anything like that made available?
Carolyn Jameson: No. There was no severance package at all.
They may argue that technically this was not severance, but it hardly meets a basic standard of openness and transparency.
But growing our economy and being transparent and accountable to our parliament aren’t what really matters, so nobody would ever resign over this.
These are just the things that have come up in the last twenty-four hours. Every area of policy under the SNP’s control is experiencing similar levels of failure, or far worse, without any accountability. Because they don’t really matter.
If the only thing you value is leaving the UK, then the only thing that constitutes failure is defeat in a referendum. That is what is behind the crisis of accountability in Scottish politics.
The SNP are now a conservative party.
All parties become more conservative the longer they are in government. More time is spent defending your failures than attacking the problems people face in their lives. As the SNP approach 15 years in government, this trend is unusually pronounced because of Scotland’s unique circumstances.
The SNP’s dominance of all areas of society means they don’t face the same challenge as other governing parties might. Council leaders defend the budgets that cut the hearts out of the communities they are meant to defend. Our artists are comfortable members of the establishment they should rail against. Our satirists sing songs in praise of the leader they’re supposed to mock. Abuses of power and incompetence are ignored for the sake of “the prize”.
On an ideological level, party, government and nation are synonymous. So any criticism represents not just a political attack but a lack of patriotic pride. “Talking Scotland down” has become the unthinking mantra of a movement with the lowest of ambitions for our nation.
Positive change is an existential threat to the grievance they depend on - so it can’t be allowed to happen within the Union. A party that claims the banner of change perversely must argue that change isn’t possible. The leadership whose strategy is based on convincing voters that they are powerless to do anything without leaving the UK appears to have swallowed its own lie.
Their long incumbency, their suffocation of dissent, their never-ending campaign, their nationalism, and their self-imposed impotence have left the SNP as a deeply conservative party.
Like the counter-culture hippies who aged into Thatcherite baby boomers, the SNP still imagine themselves to be revolutionaries but now exist only to protect an establishment they have created.
We need people in government who understand the change Scotland needs.
Two-thirds of the local authorities facing brutal cuts to the funding for the poorest kids in their area are run by the SNP. Every child that will have their support removed is represented by SNP MSPs and MPs. But still, the cuts continue. Every community that relies on Cal Mac Ferries has been represented by an SNP MSP and MP for a decade. But still the fleet ages, reliability falls, and cancellations continue. Scotland’s electoral map is awash with yellow, but still, our nation is in decline.
Nicola Sturgeon seemingly can’t stop cutting the support for the kids she claimed were her animating cause even though she dominates council chambers and both of our parliaments. If she can’t deliver on her most important priority with the backing of more than five hundred elected SNP politicians, what need do we have of them?
Maybe we’ll get better results by electing more politicians who believe their role is to challenge Sturgeon and fewer who think they are elected to cheerlead for her failing government. We won’t solve the SNP failures by electing more SNP politicians (and certainly not more SNP politicians of this quality).
For too long elections in Scotland haven’t been used to pass judgement on the record of the governing party, or on the running of local services, but have been a proxy fight for past or future referendums.
Scotland desperately needs a referendum, but not the one that Sturgeon’s appearance on Loose Women confirms is her only real priority. We need to use the local elections as a referendum on this incompetent, unaccountable and conservative SNP government. The alternative is years more of Scotland’s decline.
Speaking of politicians who avoid responsibility for their failings… Alex Salmond faced a tough interview from the BBC’s Martin Geissler who asked him if he regretted having been in the pay of Putin for the last few years.
Salmond’s argument to Geissler is that it only really became unacceptable to work for the Russian state in the last few weeks. He argues it was still acceptable to take Kremlin money after the annexation of Crimea, or after the chemical weapons attack in Salisbury because it was the recent invasion that provoked a Western policy response. However, after Crimea, Russia was expelled from the G8, had its voting rights in the Council of Europe suspended, and faced the largest package of financial sanctions since the fall of the Berlin Wall. After the Salisbury attack, there were further sanctions, including the expulsion of 150 Russian diplomats.
It’s not that Salmond didn’t know any of this, it is just that enriching himself and engorging his ego mattered more to him.
With his paymaster, Margarita Simonyan, on Russian TV every night cheering on war crimes and supporting totalitarianism; and with the station that employed him now banned; Salmond needs the fiction that his TV show came to an end because things are different now than they were then. However, his presence on a channel that gives airtime to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, Holocaust deniers and white supremacists was always immoral. The roubles he received from a regime that routinely harasses, murders and imprisons its critics were always dirty.
The stink of that tainted money should follow Salmond for the rest of his life.