The ship of state is listing badly and Captain Sturgeon won’t take the blame
WITH remarkable timing, the SNP Government yesterday launched something called an ‘open government action plan’.
It’s designed to boost transparency and ‘citizen participation’, and recent days have shown how badly such a strategy is needed — though it’s far from clear that the Nationalists are best-placed to pursue it.
The row over unfinished ferries began as a controversy and has since moved up a few gears, passing through the shambles and fiasco stages to outright scandal.
But it also shines a light into the dark heart of a pathologically secretive government whose ministers are past masters in the art of obfuscation and cover-up.
It exposes the commitment to ‘openness’ as a charade, with blame-shifting par excellence much in evidence — an unseemly scramble among senior SNP figures to dodge responsibility.
The question of which hapless minister signed off the ferries contract is a hand grenade that was initially thrown in the direction of disgraced former finance secretary Derek Mackay.
On Sunday, Humza Yousaf lobbed it towards Keith Brown, Mr Yousaf’s successor, who’s now in charge of the justice brief.
But could it be that these spineless functionaries — they are ministers in a government where, let’s face it, most if not all big decisions are taken above their heads — have formed a circular firing squad, hastening the demise of the Nationalist regime?
Blair McDougall, the former head of the Better Together pro-Union campaign group, has suggested that something worse than incompetence may be at play.
Voters shouldn’t be expected to ‘untangle the mess of unaccountable ministers’, he said, when the only salient fact is that this a ‘corrupt government that has knowingly wasted hundreds of millions of pounds to win political advantage’.
It is a serious claim, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we are in banana republic territory here, and have been for some time — where protecting taxpayers’ money is subordinate to the overriding aim of political self-preservation.
The former owner of the Ferguson Marine shipyard, billionaire businessman Jim McColl, said at the weekend that the ferry contract was awarded ‘for political purposes’ to generate positive publicity for the First Minister.
Mr McColl stepped in to save the collapsing Clyde yard and was later awarded a contract to build two ferries, with the announcement of the deal made to great fanfare at the SNP’s party conference in 2015.
But seven years later, neither ferry is close to being finished and the original £97million cost could soar to as much as £250million, though one former shipbuilding adviser has warned they could cost up to £400million.
Audit Scotland, the spending watchdog, revealed last week that government-funded purchaser Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL) was so concerned about the risk posed by a lack of guarantee if there were delays that it pleaded with ministers to block the deal.
Keen students of the SNP’s modus operandi won’t be shocked to learn that ministers either brushed aside the warnings, or ignored them.
Nor will they will be entirely surprised by the revelation that the SNP Government was unable to provide Audit Scotland with evidence to support the decision.
The defining absurd image of this debacle came in November 2017 when, surrounded by children who had been handed saltires, Nicola Sturgeon launched the uncompleted first ferry MV Glen Sannox, equipped with painted-on windows and fake funnels.
By the summer of 2019, the SNP had paid £128.2million to the yard even though the ferries were largely incomplete.
Despite such a huge injection of taxpayers’ money, the yard then went into administration and was nationalised.
The vessels are now four years late while the Port Glasgow yard has missed out on eight years of work contributing to the building of Type 31 frigates for the Royal Navy, and other shipbuilding work has gone to Turkey.
Meanwhile, island communities are saddled with a substandard service plagued by breakdowns and cancellations — as with the Prestwick Airport white elephant saga, we have all paid through the nose for deals which now appear to be costly vanity projects.
In the wake of the Audit Scotland report, finance secretary Kate Forbes was sent over the top to face media scrutiny and in a car-crash TV interview last week insisted she was clueless about the origins of the ferries contract, as it was before her time.
Since then, Alex Salmond, Miss Sturgeon’s nemesis, has scented blood and on Friday weighed in by pointing out that Mr Mackay, Miss Sturgeon’s favoured scapegoat, who is no longer in government, was on holiday at the time of the contract approval.
Mr Salmond has more time on his hands now that he’s taken his chat-show on Kremlin-backed TV channel RT off-air — and his reappearance, like Banquo’s ghost, signals a moment of genuine danger for his former protégée.
A year ago, Miss Sturgeon had won a fight for her political career after she was cleared of breaching the ministerial code during Salmondgate, on the basis of a heavily redacted report by former prosecutor James Hamilton.
According to former independent MSP Andy Wightman, ‘SNP spin doctors mounted an intensive campaign to discredit’ the opposition politicians on a Holyrood committee which found Miss Sturgeon had misled parliament.
He alleges ‘SNP members themselves wilfully broke the Code of Conduct and defamed [critical MSPs]’, while ‘private briefings went out to undermine [Mr Wightman] in particular’. These are allegations the SNP strongly denies.
Miss Sturgeon may have believed that Mr Salmond no longer posed a threat; if so, that might have been a false assessment.
Another in-house Holyrood probe into the botched ferries deal might well become another farce, meaning a full public inquiry is now non-negotiable — and if there was corruption then police will have to investigate.
Yesterday Miss Sturgeon claimed that the awarding of the ferries contract was ‘done in line with normal procurement processes with proper due diligence’.
Her peers have found her guilty of misleading parliament before — so to what extent can we trust her insistence that everything was above board?
In a BBC TV interview yesterday, Miss Sturgeon acknowledged that she was ‘responsible for all of the decisions that the government takes’.
And she deployed a somewhat convoluted form of words that may come back to haunt her when asked if she had given her blessing to the contract: ‘I didn’t say, “Don’t go ahead”.’
By her own admission, the buck stops with her, and yet she claims to be merely ‘regretful’ that as much as £400million could be lost to the public purse because of her government’s actions.
Some of the First Minister’s backers perhaps unwisely celebrated the 12-month anniversary of the Hamilton report — the moment when she defied her critics and vanquished an old foe, or appeared to.
Now her government is once again drowning in a quagmire of sleaze allegations — and haemorrhaging credibility by the day.
- This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on March 29, 2022.
- *Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant