Jim O’Neill says the SNP’s lack of a consistent political theme or alignment means they are in a constant cycle of creating and then trying to solve problems of governance, and the excuse that independence would solve everything is wearing very thin.
We have spent too long calling the SNP “Tartan Tories”, usually when they and the Tories vote together to block a Labour proposal such as the withdrawal of the Abellio contract. Such a comment presumes that they have a consistent ethos like that of the Tories, a kind of laissez faire approach that does not allow state interference in people’s lives.
The SNP, however, see themselves as a centre-left party, socialist in the way that Blair was a socialist, with state intervention where he thought he knew better than anyone else. Such an approach was visible in the early Labour/ LibDem coalition, often held back by LibDem populism, but which introduced a number of public health measures which meant that Scotland led the world in public health. One of those was bowel cancer testing, for which I will be eternally grateful, having had my own bowel cancer first identified by the screening and then cured by our wonderful NHS.
But the SNP are neither Tartan Tories nor the Blairite left. What they are is a reactionary party; they react to events and issues without any single political theme to their decisions. This can create serious problems, since it is self-evident that it is more expensive to put things right that it is to predict and prevent problems.
This has been highlighted by the Ferguson Marine saga. First they allowed a government contract to run wildly out of control. Then, when it looked like the CalMac ships would not be completed, they brought in one of their pals, a Brexiteer who enjoys living in low-tax Monaco, and then when he failed they announced that they were going to nationalise the yard. Even then they allowed three private companies to bid for the company and only when the administrators, knowing that the government had backed themselves into a corner, rejected the bids, the SNP reinstated their decision to nationalise.
When Clem Atlee’s great Labour post-war government nationalised coal, steel and the railways and created the National Health Service, they did so to help rebuild an exhausted Britain by controlling the commanding heights of the economy. The SNP have nationalised Ferguson Marine, not to save jobs, but to ensure the two Caledonian MacBrayne ferries are finished. And remember, Caledonian MacBrayne is also owned by the Scottish Government.
This lack of foresight is also seen in the Scottish NHS. I do not hold the government responsible for every medical decision made in our hospitals and GP surgeries. I do hold them responsible for managing the governance of the sector. Yet we have seen from one minister after another, from our current First Minister to the current carpetbagger, that they neither have the capacity nor the ability to ensure that Health Boards manage the service effectively. And we have seen crisis after crisis in the financing of the Boards and also in their responses to the difficulties they have faced.
Most recently this has been seen in the response of Tayside, a serial offender, to the crisis in mental health in the area. There was only one key recommendation in the interim report, which the Scottish Government accepted fully. But Tayside have done nothing to implement that recommendation, and the Scottish Government have taken no steps to ensure that they do. This has all the signs of the last Tayside crisis when local MSP Shona Robinson was in charge. You would have thought that she would have known what was going on in her own back yard.
Another recent question from the SNP ranks at FMQs was a demand that all welfare powers be devolved. This would be welcome if not for the fact that the SNP government have rejected many of the powers that they already have. How can they implement more powers when they say they do not have the capacity to deliver the powers they already have? Indeed, what would happen if they suddenly had to implement a welfare and benefit service in an independent Scotland.
And there’s the rub. I said that the SNP do not have a governing ethos. I may be wrong in that, because every time Nicola Sturgeon gets into trouble at FMQs she resorts to the shibboleth that everything would be different in an independent Scotland. That is their governing ethos. But they will have to show that they can manage Scotland in the many areas they already have full powers. And in that they have consistently failed, in education, in health, in transport, in welfare and in financial management. I suggest they go back to the building blocks of governance and rethink a coherent ethos. Independence contains no Harry Potter magic.