Overdue Scrutiny

     Among the unfortunate aspects about Scotland in recent years has been the apparent stasis in which the country finds itself regarding the politics of the constitution in general, and the fixation on the issue of independence in particular, as opposed to day-to-day issues such as education and health, which are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, which is controlled by the SNP – now in its ninth year in government since coming to power in 2007.

     Since that time, the political spectrum in Scotland has changed dramatically from the traditional Left-Right battles between Labour, the Conservatives, and Liberal Democrats to the new pro-Union and pro-separatist clashes between the SNP and almost everybody else. Thanks to the referendum last year and the residual energies emanating from it, politics in Scotland has become defined by whether you support maintaining the United Kingdom or support Scotland breaking away and ending the Union.

     Thus far, the SNP has been the only party to benefit from this political shift, with its clarion call of “standing up for Scotland” and all but campaigning on the idea that independence will solve all the ills facing Scotland, which is a fanciful notion, but one in which its members and media acolytes believe. Further, as Alex Massie pointed out in The Times, SNP members not only believe that “everything [will] bloom after independence”, but that “it is unreasonable to expect anything to bloom before independence.” One Nationalist with whom I have come in contact personified this thinking when he basically said that Scotland could not go back to Left-Right politics until independence was achieved.

     This somewhat narcissistic comment gives a window into the thinking of many a Nationalist: come what may, nothing gets in the way of the cause of Scottish independence, which effectively means that for some people, critical matters such as education and health are of little relevance in the grand scheme of achieving their ultimate goal. It also means – to the frustration of the opposition parties – that the SNP seems to get a pass on its record as a party of government, despite legitimate criticisms regarding A&E waiting times, mortality rates being 19% higher than in Northeast England, over a third of S2 students not attaining expected numeracy levels, and several ongoing issues with the newly centralized police force which was created by the SNP government.

     Time and time again, the opposition parties at Holyrood – the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats – have pointed out these deficiencies in the SNP’s record, which under normal circumstances, should see the SNP paying a price at the polls. As of yet however, nothing has stuck as the SNP has become a Telfon party which has propagated the idea that Holyrood needs “more powers” on top of what it already has, as well as the powers already coming into force via the 2012 Scotland Act, and the powers that are on the way via the Scotland Bill currently going through the political processes.

     Eventually, it wants complete separation from the rest of the UK, but until such time, is perfectly content with blaming others for the performance (or lack thereof) of the government under its watch for the past eight years. After all they say, Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom and therefore not in charge of its destiny, and if it’s not in charge of its destiny, then of course, they will continue to lay blame at the UK Government for anything that goes wrong in Scotland (but claim credit for what goes right in Scotland), despite the UK Government not having any direct influence on Scottish policy in several areas.

     However, the blame game is not just reserved toward the UK Government and Parliament at Westminster; it is also used against individuals such as oil baron Algy Cluff, who asked Scottish Government ministers if their moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking” for short) applied to his plans to extract coal gas from underneath the Firth of Forth and then warned of the “potentially devastating” consequences of the moratorium on his company’s plans for investment in Scotland (to the tune of £250 million). As told by Massie in his column, both the Energy Minister Fergus Ewing and Communities Minister Alex Neil gave Cluff their blessing on the grounds that coal gasification is not the same as fracking. This led to a vilification of Cluff by SNP MP’s and members who accused him of “guilt-tripping” the ministers involved, but apparently sparing criticism against the ministers themselves for making the decision.

     This is but only one instance of the SNP getting a pass from its own members even when it goes against their wishes, but it also shows how the SNP – far from being a party led by committed idealists, come what may – is actually pragmatic when it comes to certain things, such as clearing away a potential obstacle for Cluff to invest in Scotland and therefore create jobs. Indeed, the reason why the SNP came to power was because it positioned itself as a moderate party that would provide competent and pragmatic administration, which Scotland’s middle classes would find acceptable. It talked less about independence and more about bread-and-butter issues facing people every day, and it gained trust along the way, especially as the other (UK-wide) parties lost trust.

     This was especially true of the Labour Party, which dominated Scottish politics before the rise of the SNP, and which was the primary casualty of the SNP’s march to having 56 of Scotland’s 59 MP’s during the General Election in May. A common refrain from some former Labour voters is that the party (despite winning three successive elections and keeping the Tories out of government for 13 years) longer represented them, had abandoned its left-wing principles, became Tory-lite under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and worse – had stood “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the Tories as part of the Better Together campaign to save the Union. Labour in short, had left them, not the other way around. In its place came the SNP, which claimed that it was the true alternative to both the Tories and Labour – offering up a bold anti-austerity platform against the Tories which Labour had failed to make. Not only that, but the SNP was said to be committed to preserving and expanding the welfare state Labour had largely created, against privatization, for increased government spending, and a more robust and activist government.

     The SNP in short, was the bolder and more idealistic version of what Labour was supposed to be, which stood for socialism/social democracy and did not compromise itself for the sake of power, or even it seems, political or economic circumstances.

     But just last week, it was revealed by The Guardian that the Scottish Government was turning toward more (not less) private financing and private control of several high-profile capital projects, including a bypass around Aberdeen, because it had run afoul of EU rules which are designed to measure public spending and prohibit governments from using “private finance and private contracts to avoid putting major public assets on their national accounts, potentially as a backdoor route to cutting government liabilities.” Based on the rules coming from the EU’s statistics agency Eurostat, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) classified a bypass road around Aberdeen – the biggest project at £1.5 billion – as a publicly owned and controlled project ‘due to the Scottish government’s share in the economic rewards.’

     As a result according to The Guardian, Finance Secretary John Swinney was forced to seek “a £300m contingency loan from the UK Treasury and set aside £150m of Scottish government money to cover Holyrood’s potential liabilities until the [Aberdeen] project is moved off the public books”, as well as to launch a review of his government’s overall private financing scheme, known as the Non-Profit Distribution (NDP) model, which allows private contractors to fund large-scale capital projects, but also allows Scottish Futures Trust (SFT) – a public corporation of the Scottish Government – to cap private sector profits and feature lower fixed interest rates. But with the ONS ruling, along with its determination that Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) companies set up by SFT to run and control these projects are not private entities, the “new model will increase overall costs and public-sector debt, and increase private-sector control of the schemes for the lifetime of every project, which can last for 32 years or more.”

     Altogether, this was an embarrassing moment for the SNP – not only because its funding scheme is in tatters for running afoul of EU rules to suit its political interests (i.e., being able to spend more without going to the taxpayer or taking on debt) – but also because it now finds itself actually turning to more private financing and control of big projects – the very thing it had criticized previous Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition governments of doing at Holyrood.

     However, I can imagine that the SNP will simply say that this is just another example of Westminster failing to stand up for Scotland’s interests (never minding the fact that the ONS ruling has similar implications for UK Government projects throughout the country). In this case, it would be Scotland’s interests with regard to the EU (because these are EU rules, after all), the organization which the SNP claims Scots embrace more lovingly than the rest of the UK – so much so, that they have threatened to use the potential withdrawal of the UK from the EU without a majority of Scots as a wedge issue to create an excuse for holding another referendum.

     Meanwhile, many of their supporters likely won’t protest for much of the same reason – Westminster’s fault, not Holyrood’s – as well as for the reason that they probably believe that this is a distraction from their foremost agenda: securing independence. After all, this is a life-long cause for some people, and the cause justifies almost anything, which runs counter to the idea of the SNP being a progressive party of deeply-held left-wing social and economic principles, and shows itself to be like any other party which will make necessary sacrifices to achieve its aims. The membership will forgive the party, so long as they are on the road to independence.

     Indeed, some have become so converted to the cause that they are now upset at the idea that the SNP has to focus (or at least, is seen to be focused) on things other than independence, like governing at Holyrood and having its 56 MP’s at Westminster concentrating on UK-wide matters, especially when they effect Scotland. Former SNP member Delia Forrest told Buzzfeed that she decided not to renew her membership after the party broke its stance on voting on English fox hunting. She complained that it had become a “mainstream UK party even apparently recruiting English memberships”, had too many career politicians, and was “playing a game of one-upmanship with David Cameron and neglecting independence.” For her and others, the SNP is not pro-independence enough, and another person believed that if Nicola Sturgeon fails to offer another referendum on independence in the party’s manifesto going into the Holyrood elections next year, thousands will desert the party and Sturgeon risks splitting the SNP and overall independence movement.

     The reality however – much as it may prove uncomfortable for some people – is that while the SNP may be popular, its landmark policy and raison d’etre is not, or at least not popular enough for Sturgeon to call for a second referendum on it with the realistic expectation that the SNP will win next time around. Most polling since the referendum (providing it can be trusted) has shown either a pro-Union majority or a tie, and with those odds, it is unlikely that Sturgeon will call for another referendum so soon after the last one, which was held less than a year ago. Such a move may prove to be reckless and if the Union wins out in a second referendum within the next five years, it may also prove truly fatal for the independence cause for a generation at least.

     Becoming aggressively fixated on independence also risks taking the SNP back to the days when it was a fringe single-issue organization, not a legitimate party of government, and the leadership of the SNP knows that this will likely lose them votes in Middle Scotland. 

     For now though – whether on coal gasification, the mess of private funding for public projects, or the issue of another referendum – the SNP has thus far proven remarkably effective in keeping its members in line, from MP’s on down. “Internal dissent” claims Massie, “is all but non-existent because dissent might compromise the quest for independence.”

     It is for this same reason that if left-wing MP Jeremy Corbyn is elected to succeed Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party, Kenny Farquharson believes that the SNP – having made a career of excoriating Labour for “abandoning” its left-wing and progressive principles – will simply change the narrative to say that Labour is unelectable as a legitimate party of government throughout the United Kingdom. Forget all the rhetoric about “Red Tories” and Labour failing to take a progressive and anti-austerity stance because this would not likely apply under a Corbyn leadership. Instead, they will raise the prospect of perpetual Tory government from Downing Street beyond 2020, and this may prove to be too much to bear for some Scottish Labour voters, who will be greatly seduced into believing that the only way to get away from the wicked Tories is independence.

     It would certainly takes some chutzpah for the SNP to basically forsake and deride a “truly” left-wing Labour Party as having no chance of getting into Downing Street, so as to further their own political ends. But as Massie points out, this is a party that has proven its ability to shape-shift – abandoning inconvenient rhetoric or policies – “without embarrassment once they cease to be the best available means of advancing independence.”

     This is the party that once advocated dropping corporate taxes to encourage business investment to create jobs and spur economic growth, and therefore result in more tax revenue to fund public services – a very “Blairite” idea which they only threw out in time for the election in May to prevent Labour from outflanking it on the issue. This is also a party that laid out a prospectus for independence based on oil being $110+ per barrel, but now has gone all but silent on oil because of the recent collapse in prices. And of course, this is the party that has U-turned on the once in a lifetime, once in a generation referendum.

     It is therefore no wonder that Massie refers to the SNP as a faith-based organization, for it seems that nothing will dent the enthusiasm for the SNP amongst its loyal supporters or the wider electorate, who seem to be prepared to give them a third term in government, despite its less-than-stellar record as a governing party.

     Perhaps there is an impulse on the part of the electorate that says: “Well, we know the SNP aren’t great, but at least they’re better than the other parties and stand up for Scotland.” On this point, there is nothing wrong with giving people and organizations the benefit of the doubt, for it is a natural human impulse to do so, and the SNP’s emotive rhetoric allows for such feelings.

     However, with the stakes being so high for everyone – whether in Scotland or elsewhere throughout Britain – it is imperative that the SNP be challenged on its record of the past eight years, and not be allowed to get away with the standard line of, “well, if only we had powers over (fill in the blank)” or “only with independence can we (fill in the blank).” No, the SNP must be challenged on the basis of what it can do now and what it can do with the powers it will soon have at its disposal, and must face scrutiny for its proposals and policies. They cannot be assumed to be doing what’s best for Scotland, and must be taken to task on that assertion.

     For too long, the SNP has been allowed to run rings around everyone else. They have used issues such as health, education, and poverty as mere talking points for advancing their cause of independence and to beat down and condemn the pro-Union parties collectively as “Westminster” – as if to say that they aren’t really Scottish or don’t have Scotland’s interests at heart. They have accused those who disagree with them of “scaremongering” and “talking Scotland down”, and they have decided that the media is “biased” for having the audacity to ask difficult questions (sometimes aggressively) of the SNP.

     Along the way, they have claimed the mantle of being the national party of Scotland – almost synonymous with Scotland and the Scottish people, and they have arguably avoided, or have been immune to, the kind of scrutiny deserved by a party that has been in government since 2007. 

     The opposition parties need to step up their game in leveling their criticisms against the SNP and also come up with their own polices to present to the electorate. They should do all they can to focus attention on the bread-and-butter issues facing the people of Scotland and explain what they would do with the powers already available and the powers currently on the way to Holyrood. They must boldly tear down the facade of the SNP and explain how after almost nine years, the SNP has failed to improve critical areas of Scottish life, and that blaming Westminster will not do a thing to improve health outcomes, waiting times, reduce the achievement gap, increase educational attainment, or reduce poverty. Force them to not just bang on about poverty, but explain how they will tackle poverty and lift people out of it in the here and now. 

     Above this, the opposition pro-Union parties must develop a confident and compelling narrative of Scotland’s potential as part of the UK, and how they want what’s best for Scotland within the greater context of what’s best for the UK as a whole. These things need not be mutually exclusive, and on the constitution, all parties should commit themselves to holding a UK Constitutional Convention for a long-term governing settlement for the entire country, for the debate on constitutional issues have spread throughout the United Kingdom and have manifested in the folly of EVEL and other short-term political quick-fixes which will not sustain the Union.

     The opposition at Holyrood must explain that independence is not the answer to Scotland’s problems (which are not mutually exclusive to the problems faced by the UK as a whole), and do all they can to avoid discussion of a second referendum, which is nothing more than a distraction from the SNP’s record in government. If they are so trusted, that trust must be tested with greater and more skeptical scrutiny, and they cannot continue to get away with the dubious idea that Scotland has to wait for more powers or independence in order for things to get better. No, Scotland deserves better now, and can do better with the powers currently available – and soon to be available – to Holyrood.

     In short, the opposition parties must boldly head into next year’s elections with a determination to more efficiently and effectively scrutinize the SNP, take it to task on its assertions and rhetoric, and help to move the country forward from constitutional stagnation and the prospect of an economically damaging “neverendum”. Furthermore, the media needs to pay more critical attention to the SNP and to particular aspects of its policies, for in a state of affairs where one political party has become so dominant – and apparently so trusted – the media must perform its role in not so much being hostile for the sake of being hostile, but simply holding the powerful accountable, and the SNP is quite powerful these days as part of the establishment. The Guardian's aforementioned report on private financing of public projects is a good example of this, but more is needed.

     This will be a critical election which may prove to be consequential for the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole, and a serious challenge must be mounted against the SNP based on its eight year record in government. If the opposition parties do not do it, and if the media fails to step up on behalf of the electorate, who will?