Sturgeon’s zombie Government needs Brexit smokescreen to mask its failings

By Graham Grant

IN the midst of last week’s constitutional hysteria, you might well have missed a telling tweet from the SNP’s Brexit Minister Mike Russell.

He was musing on a top economist’s warning that Scotland would face £100billion of public service cuts under SNP currency proposals for independence.

A former consultant to the International Monetary Fund, Professor Ronald MacDonald said the plans may come at huge cost to families, creating a Greece-style economic crisis.

Well, Mr Russell said, Professor MacDonald was, in essence, a Unionist stooge, who is ‘entitled to his opinion’ – very gracious of him to concede this – but his analysis was ‘highly speculative’.

It was an interesting choice of words – after all, Mr Russell could have said it was false, outrageous, inaccurate, based on dodgy data and dubious assumptions… but he didn’t, opting for a more moderate put-down.

Then yesterday Nicola Sturgeon made it clear that in the increasingly likely event of a snap General Election, the SNP would turn it into a debate purely about whether to have a second independence referendum (how novel…)

That’s because of the SNP’s conviction that a No Deal Brexit would be deeply irresponsible, triggering full-scale fiscal calamity.

On the one hand, we’re told a deficit-laden breakaway Scotland would avoid the apocalyptic forecast outlined by Professor MacDonald (though Mr Russell hardly provided much reassurance of that).

And on the other, Brexit, frankly with or without a deal, would bring the country to its knees, sending us into a destructive tail-spin, so the only possible escape route is wrenching apart the UK – it wouldn’t be easy, but at least we’d finally escape the Tory hegemony intent on impoverishing us all.

All the while, we’re expected to ignore that the No Deal catastrophe the SNP predicts is at least partly of its own making – after all, Nationalist MPs repeatedly voted down Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement.

It’s against this barmy backdrop that Miss Sturgeon is set to unveil her government’s latest legislative programme today (TUES): 14 Bills with an emphasis on tackling inequality and climate change.

The euphemistically named Workplace Parking Levy, really just a tax on driving to work, is in the pipeline, but we can expect more measures to heap further misery on motorists, the pariahs contributing to environmental damage (despite inconveniently helping to keep the flagging economy afloat).

Hectoring us off the roads without effecting any real improvement to a Third World public transport system is about the level of intellectual consistency we’ve come to expect from a government reduced to wheeling out, at every turn, its ‘baby box’ scheme as one of its greatest achievements.

Look beyond costly ‘gesture’ policies of this kind, however, and the landscape is a desolate and barren place, littered with the husks of failed initiatives from an abandoned Education Bill to Named Person – which still nominally exists but is languishing on life support.

Research by the Scottish Tories has revealed 30 promises made by the SNP in previous September statements in recent years remain unfulfilled.

Policy, such as it is, has been formulated more or less on the hoof, with a shipyard nationalised here, an airport taken into public ownership there – ratcheting up the bill for taxpayers to stratospheric levels.

Tax raids and sky-high business rates have combined to attach lead weights to any prospect of meaningful economic growth, and the SNP’s response has been to dream up imaginary currencies for an independent Scotland, brushing aside the ‘speculative’ risk of turning the economy into a basket-case.

Educational reform, once the centrepiece of the Sturgeon agenda, now appears far less in SNP rhetoric, supplanted by endless war-gaming over Brexit and ‘indyref2’; in truth, only mere tinkering was ever proposed, and it fell apart under the strain of union resistance.

GP surgeries are shutting down, the new £150million Royal Hospital for Children and Young People in Edinburgh might have to be demolished after failing basic safety inspections, operations are being cancelled because hospitals cannot cope – and the legal right patients have to be seen within 12 weeks has been broken 100,000 times in just a year.

Tax revenues were almost £1billion less than expected for 2017/18, making it harder to bankroll other commitments, such as a near-doubling of the entitlement to early learning and childcare, from 600 hours to 1,140 hours, due in August next year.

Double act: Nicola Sturgeon and Brexit Minister Mike Russell

That aspiration is already mired in chaos with a deficit of some 400 staff necessary to make it work, placing in doubt the ability of local authorities to deliver when the 1,140 hours’ entitlement comes into force.

Having pressed for a stronger parliament, ministers are clearly struggling to figure out how to use the ‘levers’ they already control, as evidenced by the transfer of welfare powers – now delayed until the middle of the next parliament, nearly a decade after the Smith Commission made its post-referendum recommendations.

Public spending watchdog Audit Scotland has warned that the ‘Scottish Government does not yet have a clear understanding of the key things needed to deliver all remaining benefits in the way it intends’.

The transformational change needed to end a corrosive benefits culture that means more than one in four homes in parts of Scotland have no working adults is nowhere on the horizon, while under the Nationalist administration Scotland has become the drug-death capital of the developed world.

Meanwhile the SNP’s spiritual leader, Alex Salmond, is facing trial next year on a string of sex charges including attempted rape, and a parliamentary inquiry is set to probe the shambolic Scottish Government investigation into allegations of misconduct against the former First Minister.

Mr Salmond was handed £500,000 of taxpayers’ money to cover his legal costs in the Court of Session battle over the botched inquiry, while the total cost to the public purse of the saga could exceed £750,000 once the time of internal legal staff is taken into account.

Miss Sturgeon’s role in the affair will come under forensic scrutiny during this process, and it’s entirely likely that the 2021 Holyrood election, which everyone assumed would be fought between Miss Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson, will feature neither of them.

At the weekend, talking about the tumultuous days ahead at Westminster, and the suggestion that Boris Johnson may defy any law which attempts to prevent No Deal, Miss Sturgeon reflected that ‘these are dangerous times for democracy’, and cautioned that ‘we mustn’t allow this behaviour to be normalised’.

Brazen contempt for the electorate in Scotland was ‘normalised’ long ago, as Miss Sturgeon’s refusal to shelf indyref2 demonstrates, while her own government has become adept at flouting the law: witness its flagrant abuse of freedom of information legislation, as it attempted to mask its many failures.

Miss Sturgeon will try to hit the reset button on her failing, scandal-ridden government today, but we shouldn’t expect anything bolder or more courageous than the same old con tricks, grievances, empty promises and divisive rhetoric that have marred the last 12 years of devolved politics.

*This column was published on Tuesday, September 4, 2019.