Why are we paying for civil servants to indulge the SNP’s fantasies?
BACK at their desks, or at least in their home offices, civil servants have been given their first post-pandemic challenge.
And it’s nothing as prosaic as rebuilding the economy: the task ahead involves nothing less than constructing an independent state.
Ripping off the shackles of the UK Government, which had the temerity to fund our furlough and provide life-saving vaccines, must take priority.
To that end, mandarins have been ordered to set their staff working on a prospectus for this exciting new project – all at our expense, naturally.
Shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray has written to Simon Case, Britain’s highest-ranking civil servant, urging him to call a halt to the exercise.
Not surprisingly, the Labour MP is concerned that the public purse shouldn’t be compelled to bankroll a party political manifesto dressed up as a government document.
Some £700,000 is being spent annually on the salaries of those bureaucrats charged with drawing up the bold new vision for a separatist future after a second referendum.
Mr Murray points out that the SNP is entitled to set out its plans for independence, but they’ve already been rejected by a most of the electorate, so why should have to pay for them?
These are uncomfortable questions for the Nationalists, who are busy pumping many more millions into the ‘constitution and external affairs’ brief, while slashing funding for local government and further education.
Scotland’s Future – 650 pages of the kind of fantasy Tolkien couldn’t have got away with – was masterminded by one Nicola Sturgeon, and contained elements of an SNP programme for government in the event of a Yes vote.
It included the extension of free childcare, which was already within Holyrood’s gift at the time, and the abolition of Air Passenger Duty, a policy which the party ultimately did not pursue after the powers were devolved to the Scottish parliament.
In 2015, Westminster’s public administration committee said Miss Sturgeon’s magnum opus ‘did not uphold the factual standards expected of a UK Government White Paper and raised questions about the use of public money for partisan purposes’.
This time around, we know there’s no ‘settled will’ for independence, despite the SNP’s insistence that it has a cast-iron mandate to press ahead with its plans for another poll on splitting apart the UK.
There was no SNP majority at the last election in the wake of the Alex Salmond row and myriad policy failings that combined to deny Miss Sturgeon outright control of Holyrood.
The Cabinet Office will reply to Mr Murray ‘in due course’, but yesterday it reiterated that ‘our collective priority must be responding to and recovering from the challenges the Covid pandemic has created, rather than constitutional debates’.
That’s a novel idea unlikely to catch on in Scotland, but might give an indication that Mr Case could intervene and at least lay down some ground rules for what can and can’t appear in the revamped version of Scotland’s Future.
You can be reasonably sure of what won’t be in the long-awaited sequel, including any sense of economic reality, given the recent history of the SNP’s fiscal pronouncements.
Last week Finance Secretary Kate Forbes said income tax revenues would have to increase sharply to fulfil a Labour demand to raise an extra £12billion for public funds.
She said such a move would be the ‘eye-watering equivalent of doubling income tax revenues in Scotland from every income taxpayer’.
On that logic, she inadvertently conceded that income tax would have to rise six-fold to cover the present Scottish deficit, which is around £36billion – not exactly a vote-winner, even for a party that isn’t afraid of the odd punitive tax raid here and there.
(Salmond and Sturgeon: will White Paper Mark 2 be more credible than the first one?)
Meanwhile, the budget for Angus Robertson’s grandly-titled ‘Constitution, External Affairs and Culture’ brief has risen by £21million this year, while colleges are facing a real-term cut of £52million, or 10 per cent.
What does that say about the SNP Government’s commitment to ensuring young people are equipped with the skills they need for the workplace, or for launching their own businesses?
Frankly, it was hard to discern any semblance of a plan for economic revival in the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) Bill, which would also give ministers the power to impose draconian restrictions on trading and civil liberties.
The White Paper Mark 2 is bound to present an airbrushed version of all of this, glossing over the thornier issues in favour of rhetoric about the socialist Utopia that awaits, if only we had the courage to embrace it.
It’s an obscenity that even a nanosecond is being wasted on this absurd journey into an alternate universe when there are more than enough problems to go round in the existing one.
There could have been an elite squad of civil service staff coming up with ideas for salvaging what remains of Miss Sturgeon’s abortive efforts to drive up classroom standards and close the pupil attainment gap, once allegedly her chief objective.
Or an in-depth look at how to kick-start the economy by luring new investment and giving tax breaks to entrepreneurs, creating jobs and raising more cash for the public purse to reform and protect the NHS, and other struggling or dysfunctional public services.
What about a determined bid to combat sky-high rates of sexual crime (rape reports are up by a fifth in the past year) and the increase in violent offending – though that would require an honest admission about the failure of soft-touch justice?
Tackling drug deaths has risen up the political agenda after a shamefully long period of neglect and inattention – but so far progress has been somewhere faltering and non-existent.
Instead some of the finest minds of the civil service machine have been diverted to devising what looks suspiciously like propaganda – not so much an honest reckoning as a plentiful helping of reckless dishonesty.
Of course, Miss Sturgeon might well prove us wrong and produce a warts-and-all blueprint of the perils ahead if we were to take the path she exhorts us to choose – not that it’s a choice that will be open to us in any event, as she knows there’s no chance of a second referendum.
Or she could keep pumping out the same half-truths and blatant distortions that filled her first masterpiece of evasion and wishful thinking back in 2014.
The difference this time is that we’re all accustomed to the trickery and weapons-grade snake-oil salesmanship which have kept the SNP in power for nearly 15 years.
And our patience for constitutional game-playing, which was already at the lowest of ebbs, has been exhausted by the psychodrama of Brexit, and indeed the pandemic.
Mr Murray is right – no time or money should be squandered on this pointless stunt – but perhaps if it were we’d get final confirmation of what’s been painfully obvious for the past eight years.
There is one big, bankrupt idea at the heart of this all-too-familiar sales pitch – and nothing whatever to back it up apart from ideological zealotry and a complete denial of reality.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on February 1, 2022.
*Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant