It’s one of Scottish Labour’s most tried, tested and apparently trusted lines. “This SNP lot are so obsessed with independence that they have forgotten about doing the day job of governing Scotland…. They’ve no time for real-time concerns, no inclination to use the powers they have… Scotland is on pause.” The inference is that if they just focused on what we pay them to do, we’d all be a lot better off.
It was used to dismiss this year’s Programme for Government; it is trotted out regularly by Johann Lamont at First Minister Questions; increasingly, it is used when lambasting a perceived failure or weakness or running away from an issue by the Scottish Government; and it’s trotted out lazily by nearly every journalist in the land.
It’s clever politics. It’s a handily crafted soundbite that trips off the tongue. It creates uncertainty about the SNP’s and the Scottish Government’s priorities: Scotland now or Scotland tomorrow. And it’s hard to rebut without sounding defensive.
The Scottish Government is good at pointing to what it is achieving: a balanced budget year on year; economic growth; employment rising and unemployment falling; things still being built, not least new houses, hospitals and schools; less crime, still more police officers; maintaining universal services that people get to feel the benefit of, day in day out – council tax freeze, bus passes, personal care, prescriptions. All of these and more are tangible examples of the Scottish Government getting on with getting on.
But they suggest that the Scottish Government’s best creative days might be behind them, that if not on pause exactly, everything is simply ticking over. Business as usual, which by itself is no mean feat in the current financial climate.
Yet, that would be an unfair analysis. Everywhere you look in Scottish Government and in the Scottish parliamentary timetable, there is evidence of wholesale shift.
There is a clutch of reforming bills heading through the parliamentary process – at indecent haste in some cases. There’s one to change how we deliver health and social care to elderly, adult and child populations who need support, removing artificial barriers over budgets, services and professionals. There’s a bill on regulatory reform which aims to streamline tribunals’ structure and activity; one on procurement which aims to change how public services are planned for, designed and delivered; one on children and young people which, while bitty as charged, will result in significant change in how we make sure more of the next generation get a better start in life. There’s a bill on its way on community empowerment which will enable the transfer of assets from councils to communities. And there’s a bill to give same-sex couples the right to marry – a revolutionary shift in social policy if ever there was one. There are even bills which will change the stewardship of the Burrell collection allowing parts of it to be loaned furth of Scotland and one to enable Edinburgh council to use a park to build a much-needed new school.
Indeed, it’s hard to find a section of the public sector or society that is not currently been turned on its head by Scottish Government activity. Nowhere is this more true than in our justice system, where every part of it is being poked and prodded into the 21st Century. Changes to evidence, to the treatment of victims and witnesses, to courts, to policing, to procedures for jury trials, to the introduction of new offences – and more to come post referendum. It’s a wonder lawyers have any time to do any lawyering what with the need to engage with change on so many fronts.
But such wholesale change creates potential risks and problems for the Scottish Government.
First, little of it is sexy. Given the shoestrings on which journalists operate these days, no one has the time or energy to turn concepts like community empowerment into digestible, bite sized chunks of copy. And political journalism in particular, has degenerated into reporting the spat de jour. One of the reasons Scottish Labour can give the impression that nothing is happening but the referendum is because of a complicit and compliant media. All they want to report, or rather, have resources to report is the referendum. And if they weren’t, well we’d all be criticising them for that omission too.
Second, humans don’t do change very well. And if change is constant then that’s a lot of people discomfited. All those vested interests the minority SNP Government worked so hard to bring on board and keep on side are now being tipped out of their comfy chairs. Funnily enough, many of them – and their unions – don’t like it. They’re bleating loudly and that gives Scottish Labour something to bleat about too. Responding to all this noise takes up time and energy, particularly when the aim is to try and keep it all under wraps: when it does erupt into the media, dampening down the flames also sucks up resources.
Moreover, reform with potential long-term benefits often creates unhelpful short-term consequences. It might make sense to streamline the court estate, so that we have courts which are better placed to deal with the increasingly complex business which passes through them, but closing sleepy hollow courts, no matter how sensible, irks folk. The same applies with police stations. Modern policing on straitened budgets with new and emerging national and international threats requires a different configuration: allowing precious resources to languish in local offices that do nothing other than create a chimera of community policing makes no sense.
But closing anything local upsets local people and for all those who voted SNP for the first time in 2011, this isn’t exactly what they signed up for. It also gifts the opposition a horse – hence Scottish Labour’s home webpage dominated by its campaign to save local police stations.
Which kind of leaves the Scottish Government damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Drive forward with a multi-reform programme and they are creating the kind of tumult they really do not want before the referendum. So, they are trying to reform quietly. But that then risks giving the impression that all they are doing is keeping a firm hand on the tiller all the way to next September. Suddenly, that mischievous myth of Labour’s making seems to have foundation.
What this delicate balancing act requires is a first class communications strategy, which gets the message out about what the Scottish Government is delivering now, what it is doing with the powers it has to deliver for the future and what it could do if it had all the powers a normal country needs to create the wealthier and fairer society the SNP espouses.
There is no doubt that it’s doing the first bit very well and the last bit at every opportunity. But the bit in the middle? Well, the fact that Labour is still using “Scotland on pause” whenever it can suggests it thinks it’s on to something. Allowing the charge that this is a do-little government to go uncontested might not be the best tactic after all. Not when you’re trying to persuade people to trust that we have what it takes to make a success of independence, nor to feel confident that we can do better, making our own way in the world. The bit about using the powers we have to create a better, brighter future might actually be helpful to the narrative aimed at encouraging more to vote yes.