Has anyone seen the Scottish Government’s mojo recently?

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.

25 thoughts on “Has anyone seen the Scottish Government’s mojo recently?

  1. Pingback: Salmond came, he saw… « A Burdz Eye View

  2. This article is completely worthless if you cannot point to what precisely they should be doing…and you haven’t!! Still it is written in your inimitable style.
    It appears as if you are subscribing to a new political philosophy of : “do something, anything, as long as you are doing it even if it is totally worthless and tokenistic”
    I would have more respect for the sentiments expressed in the article if it listed some of the measures that should be legislated for. Legislation for its own sake is surely not an option.
    It is inevitable that after a prolonged period of power, a government reaches a plateau of legislative activity but I do not sense that that is the case with this SNP Government. They had 5 years from May 2011 to enact their programme of change and they may well be pacing their intentions over that period.
    Finally, since you were the one to raise the issue, I challenge you to list (5 items would do) what precisely the current government programme of progressive legislation should be.

    • Beef up the long leases bill so that the common good land protected.

      More land reform.

      Local income tax and/or land value tax.

      overhaul the planning system – properly this time.

      Remove RTB completely and mutualise all council housing

      free school meals for all p1 – p3

      • Local income tax is dead. The SG’s own fogures told them that they would have to raise it far too much for it to be an advantage to voters. Particularly after several years of attificially depressing council tax via the freeze. Don’t expect this in any kind of future plan. What is needed is a proper assessment of local tax, with a differential base of taxation other than individual. And one that gives a better diverse accountability for local govt.

      • LIT is one of those issues that causes division and that is probably at the heart of the caution. Nothing that creates a big divide – excepting alcohol policy which is, despite it being largely last years thing, still a very big and very good issue to take on. Because the SNP Government doesn’t want to give people reasons to vote No, beyond the obvious ones.

        But a Tax Commission to look at, as you suggest, a proper assessment of local tax and the pros and cons of different systems would be great.

  3. It’s disappointing, but I’m hoping this is just the hangover from the end of the last term, a mopping up of what didn’t get finished. As you say, minimum unit pricing was debated last term, but that doesn’t stop Nicola having to focus her attention on getting it through. We’re only just hearing about the actual minimum price of 50p today, for example. Also, Mike Russell has been busy with delivering the next phase of CfE. There’s also the restructuring of the police and fire services taking up Kenny’s time, and Richard Lochhead is busy with the rural parliament stuff, as well as being distracted by that gas leak in the North Sea recently. So there’s stuff happening, it’s just not very exciting stuff.

    However, finances also restrict what kind of big ticket policies can be offered anyway, as well as the old chestnut of reserved powers. There are other problems too – for example, if Labour had concentrated on their own manifesto last year instead of firing off FOI requests, then perhaps we’d be in the middle of a debate on reorganising local taxation just now. As it is, that’s off the cards until 2016 (or 2014…) There are loads of infrastructure projects waiting to be put into action, but they need increased funding for capital expenditure from Westminster to put some of those into action.

    I suppose the real question is this: what sort of ideas should they be coming up with?

    • No teverything requires money, it just requires will. The preventative spending and public service reform agenda is moving at a snail’s pace.

      • That’s true, although most of the “exciting” things tend to do so. I look at that list you’ve given above, and although they’re all important things that should most certainly be getting looked at, I’m not sure any of them would garner much chatter amongst people in the same way things like scrapping tolls, giving free prescriptions, committing to free further education and setting minimum unit prices for alcohol have. The most likely to excite people – local taxation reform – is off the cards completely, unfortunately.

        A shame, as it would be a great way to show there’s “no monopoly on wisdom” by working with the Greens on getting LVT or something similar at least looked at.

  4. Something i’d been thinking for a while now actually. But wasn’t sure whether to say it as i’d just be put down as a partisan critic of the SG (which I am). But I am glad that supporters also think that it is bizarre that a majority government is delivering less in legislative terms than a minority one.

  5. I’m not sure what wealth of resources you are referring to here: “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.”

    I can understand questioning ambition in policy terms, sure, I can’t say if I agree or not, simply because I’m not really sure what other big ticket policies they might pursue at the moment. I’m not suggesting there aren’t some they could go for. But when you consider the financial restrictions in both UK and Scotland, I genuinely don’t know that the SNP would be smart – or if it’s even practical – to start on new and (likely?) expensive policy directions. John Swinney’s budget was presumably difficult enough in terms of funding the current programs and policies?

    I’m conscious this might sound like something an SNP member might say, someone towing the party line. But I’m not a member of the SNP, I’m an ex Labour supporter disillusioned with Scottish Labour, and currently supporting SNP in government. How that translates to my vote in 2014, I genuinely don’t know at the moment. But my current support for the SNP is down to their performance as a good government. I wonder if they would continue to be so, if they were to do as you are suggesting?

    But if there ARE lots of other policies they could be pursuing within the financial constraints they have at the moment, I’d be all for it. Just not sure it’s possible without fragmenting funding.

  6. I agree with you Burd….the big thing that the SNP achieved between 2007 and 2011 was to demonstrate that, even in minority, Scottish Government could act decisively in the interests of people in Scotland and on the policies that directly concerned and affected them.That [and a truly appalling opposition] kept voters well on side in believing that the SNP government was in business to make practical positive changes and offer a vision of what more Scotland could become. Blimey, it worked.Huge credibility based on using the powers you have to make lives better and pointing out what more you could do. If we want folks to believe in the vision of independence then we need a repeat of the 2007/11 Government.

  7. Very good article. Recognition of this and responding to the results of the local elections (Yes, I know the SNP ‘won’!) will I hope see the cabinet seriously reviewing what they do next. Land Reform as you say would be a good start but more importantly the establishment of a process to create a Scottish Constitution would show the electorate we have a different vision for an Independent Scotland. And a Constitution would demonstrate, especially to the naysayers, that the SNP is not looking to create a one part state, or whatever other fantasy the Unionists like to portray. And for sure the Unionists would never support it wedded as they are to the ‘mother of parliaments’ and their non constraining ‘unwritten constitution’!

  8. Great article (as always).
    I think the problem for the SNP is not so much lack of policy but maybe lack of getting the point ”out-there”.They have a very real problem in getting their message across to a wider audience,the MSM generally don’t help but maybe the story ,yesterday,regarding using a PR firm will help.

  9. Excellent article. I think what sums things up is that the SNP are content to be a sort of caretaker government for four years, since independence is a done deal. A touch of arrogance has set in and it shows.

    The last Parliamentary term was a success. Despite being a minority the SNP made some notable achievements. They should have built on those, but no, independence is now the priority. And that is a huge mistake.

    Nothing to crow about, and lots to worry about.

    • Very good last line in your comment – i might borrow it….

      I’m not sure it’s arrogance but rather think it’s the single minded focus on the main goal without thinking through how to use all it has at its disposal to achieve that. And maybe forgetting a bit that there is a job at hand.

      Renewables is probably the big idea but it gets lost in translation – too technical in terms of how it is currently being posited by the government to grab the imagination.

      • Arrogance is the correct description for a few notable individuals, especially Alex Neil and to my surprise Mike Russell. Joan McAlpine is simply naive and now best ignored or hidden away – probably both.

    • I hope you’re wrong Barbarian, if that is the strategy it will fail. The debate is being stifled something awful by Labour especially using scare tactics and anything they can throw in to divert us all. If the SNP allow that to continue Scots will arrive at the Referendum thinking, “I really haven’t thought about this and there hasn’t been a debate: I’d better opt for no.” That’s what Labour are counting on. That is the only plan they have. If the SNP allow it then they are foolish indeed. Salmond needs to engage with people again as he did during that first term. He didn’t have to snipe, he just engaged with people in general.

      I agree re Joan McAlpine. I thinks she needs to be sidelined. An established and experienced journalist yes, an established and experienced politician she aint. An awful lot of women in the SNP worked a lot harder than she did for those results last year and they deserve recognition for it.

      • A lot of people seem to think that if the unionist side do not give positive reasons for remaining in the union, then the nationalist campaign is a dead cert. But people already live in the union, and know exactly what they as an individual benefit from. Independence is an unknown. Politicians promise plenty but rarely deliver.

        I also think the SNP are distinctly uncomfortable with their majority, since they have no excuse about failing to deliver all that was promised. The only excuse is to blame Westminster and frankly that argument has been used so often it is ineffective.

        I don’t know who is guiding the SNP tactics, but Salmond is most definitely not in full control. Either that or he is listening to the loyal party members, none of whom seem ready to dare criticise the party. And that is dangerous.

  10. Excellent post – reminds me of 1997, and Tony Blairs landslide …

    Independence: what’s the point if nothing is going to change? The Scottish Government doesn’t want to upset anyone, in order to secure a Yes vote, it would appear. Where is the radical alternative to Westminster? Surely we need a demonstration using the powers we have already, to sell us Independence?

    Very disappointed to follow Andy Wightmans Land Reform Agenda and Fergus Ewing’s response to even minor change – is the SNP even in league with the Land Owners to secure support for Independence?

    The SNP performed better as a minority government I feel – real debate; now we’re back to Holyrood v Westminster

  11. Spot on as usual. I have been waiting for 5years for 1particular promise to be filled – GTC registered teachers in all our nursery etablishments. Now SNP have majority there is no reason this cannot be achieved – through legislation if necessary.

  12. Good, timely piece. But is there really any question as to the reason for the SNP’s national lack of ambition and squandering of political capital? If the Scottish Government demonstrate that much can be done to improve Scotland under devolution, it undermines the argument that we need FREEDOM – sorry, independence – to flourish.

    Expect two more years of the same, unless someone finds a way to properly expose the duplicity in crying for more powers but never using them once they are achieved.

    • See I disagree Duncan and think that demonstrating what we can achieve with the powers we have and then setting out what more we could do with everything else would persuade more people of the case rather than undermine it. Where we are both agreed is that current drift is stagnating and unhelpful generally!

    • Sorry Duncan, but as has been pointed out elsewhere, that’s like arguing that if the Scottish Government demonstrates that much can be done to improve Scotland under devolution, it undermines the argument that we need a Labour Government at Westminster to flourish. In fact, if it can be demonstrated that Scotland can be improved under devolution, regardless of who’s in power at Westminster, then we are a long way to proving that Westminster is pretty much irrelevant to Scotland’s ability to flourish. And if Westminster is pretty much irrelevant, why have it?

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