If you had limitless resources at your disposal – a bank account full of money, a full staff available, assets of every description, and a family backing you all the way – what would you choose to change first? Your house, your car, your hairstyle?
One of the nicest things I read about Chris and Colin Weir, the couple who won the Eurogazillions, is that when they bought a new house, they gave their old one to their neighbours. In fact, they’re a pretty good example of how to go about things. They sorted all their family and friends, gave some to good causes they support – including independence – and are cannily investing some in nurturing Scotland’s future talent.
And just as the Weirs woke up one morning to find their lives had changed irrevocably for the good, so did the SNP on Saturday 7th May 2011. It had so many MSPs it could scarcely find a room big enough for them all to meet. The party had achieved the improbable and was in charge of a second term of government with a commanding majority. It could do what it liked with the powers it controlled over Scotland, as well as the huge reserve of political capital and goodwill but to allay fears, Alex Salmond promised no monopoly on wisdom and to seek consensus.
One year (and a wee bit) on, just what has the Scottish Government achieved? Matching the first, frantic 100 days of the 2007 government was always going to be a tall order. There are only so many policy quick hits that can be achieved – some manifesto commitments, by necessity, take longer to achieve. Some end up disappearing altogether due to a range of unforeseen consequences, a key one being the intransigence of others and the willingness by many officials to invest inordinate amounts of energy in maintaining the status quo. Not because of any overt political hostility, but largely because it keeps things manageable.
And having seen some evidence of this in its first four years in power, you might think the SNP would have been ready to face the naysayers and cantdo-ers down with the omnipotence an overall majority brings. If ever there was an opportunity for change – real change – in Scotland, to how we do things and why, it is in these five years.
One year down, four to go and what have we got to show for it? Can anyone recall a single resonant government action that had everyone murmurating with excitement over the possibilities it created, the opportunities it unleashed? Which united the country in anticipation of better things and days to come, leaving the Opposition looking and sounding like Skalds with their whining and doomsaying?
And yes, I know all SNP supporters will cry independence at this point. But I’m talking about a policy, a thing, a shift that this Scottish Government has power to achieve now. You know, the kind of stuff it was actually elected to deliver on.
Single national police force? Aside from the fact that no one seems to want it, including the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, this has been touted as a fiscal necessity which will make no change whatsoever to the quality and availability of policing. Which of course remains to be seen.
Minimum pricing of alcohol? Yes, potentially a game changer, but we had the big cultural debate on it in the previous administration. This time round, as the Opposition was pared back until Labour stood alone, it has all seemed rather like going through the motions. Everyone but Labour and the supermarkets and the big drinks manufacturers think it’s a good idea. Indeed, there’s actually been a lot of politics in this for the Scottish Government to exploit, which rather begs the question, why hasn’t it?
College re-organisation? Another big administrative overhaul, long overdue, much required if we are to make better use of the resources available in the future for further education. But again it has been couched in terms of backroom change that results in no change out front. When actually, many of us would be more than happy to countenance change as a way of improving our young people’s fortunes.
As a policy wonk, I can tell you about all these – and more. But ask your neighbour, your best friend or your Auntie Edie to name one thing this Scottish Government is doing for them and/or the country right now, and they’ll struggle.
Yes, they’ll probably manage the council tax freeze and might even mention free prescriptions and/or tuition fees. But these have been done: these are old policies brought in last time round. Keeping them going in straitened times is no mean feat, but no politician ever captured the public mood by saying we are here for the next four years to keep everything ticking along.
Frankly, it’s a wasted, once in a generation opportunity. This SNP Government could be tearing up the rule book right now, using the powers it has and the wealth of resources at its disposal to start fixing all the broken bits of Scotland and changing things for the better. The failure to do so is inexplicable actually.
And to spend all its time and energy focusing on the goal of independence is to ignore the mandate it was given. Yes, Scotland could do more with all the powers of a normal country. But actually, we could do quite a bit now.
The idea that people will be persuaded to vote yes to independence by four years of nothing very much changing at all appears to have become common currency in this Scottish Government and within the SNP’s inner circle without any real evidence or analysis that such a strategy will result in success. Indeed, instinct suggests that big change needs momentum.
Ironically, it’s the stepping stones versus one leap concept to independence writ large. The fundies seem to have won – we’re all one big leap for independence supporters now. But surely, the art of the possible needs to be demonstrated? By showing what can be achieved for Scotland through governance that brings about change which improves people’s lives – tangibly. The SNP Government managed this successfully in its first four years and now needs to locate its mojo for the task and powers it has at hand.
Otherwise, it could be at risk of blowing its big moment in 2014.