Brian Wilson: Blame game over for Nicola Sturgeon

John Swinney seemed gleeful alongside Lord Smith on publication of his report. Picture: Getty

John Swinney seemed gleeful alongside Lord Smith on publication of his report. Picture: Getty

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POWERS and accountability offered by Smith make it impossible for SNP to duck responsibility, writes Brian Wilson.

Well, the drive for consensus didn’t last long, did it? The Smith Commission report, fully subscribed to by the Scottish National Party, was then promptly denounced by Nicola Sturgeon for “failing to meet the aspirations of most people in Scotland” while her outriders said much worse.

Having just lost a referendum, it is by no means clear why Ms Sturgeon assumes to speak for “most people in Scotland” on this of all matters. Actually, I think “most people in Scotland” who noticed her comments would have been pretty dismissive of such a drearily predictable response.

They might have contrasted the happy, smiling pictures of Lord Smith with John Swinney, Ms Sturgeon’s deputy, who did not look like the epitome of indignation telling the report’s author that he had come up with a dud, devious document. If Mr Swinney had committed the sin of veering towards consensus and getting on with the job, he was soon pulled back into line.

So it really is the same old gramophone playing the same old song, just with a slightly different singer. Whatever anyone does to seek a balanced constitutional settlement for Scotland within the United Kingdom, it will never represent anything more than “failure” in the preordained script of the irreconcilables.

If the Smith formula for enhanced powers within the UK had been on the ballot paper, pitted against independence, does Ms Sturgeon really think her side would have done better than the 44.7 per cent it mustered? That seems to me highly implausible and her claim to speak for a majority, or anything like it, must be correspondingly fanciful.

While it is possible to over-emphasise the significance of “the vow” signed by three party leaders, it is right and proper that it has been acted upon. To any reasonable person, the Smith recommendations do that fully. The only people who will insist otherwise are those who had not the slightest interest in being appeased by anything.

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My own view is that Smith has done a pretty good job. As I said when the Strathclyde proposals – on which the report is largely based – were published, they hang together better than anything else I have seen as a formula which not only gives Holyrood many more powers but, crucially, also introduces a degree of accountability which has not previously existed.

There will be difficulties and anomalies surrounding income tax but the principle is sound. Scotland will not have more or less money as a result of what is proposed. But neither will it be the prisoner of the block grant. If a Scottish Government wants to spend more or less, it will tax more or less. That seems fair and the political test will lie in discovering who is prepared to do either, and for what purposes.

Scotland has surely had enough of empty rhetoric about the maldistribution of wealth and opportunity from politicians who have not lifted a finger to do anything about it – which is essentially the history of the SNP’s seven years running Holyrood. Ms Sturgeon has signalled an intention to improve that record in areas of policy such as university access, council tax, community empowerment and land reform.

That is welcome just so long as it is understood that virtually everything she committed herself to this week involves reversing the outcomes which her predecessor’s administration (of which she was very much a part) bequeathed. University access is the perfect example. No subject attracted more sanctimonious soundbites – but when the numbers emerged, there were actually fewer students from low-income backgrounds than when the SNP took control.

This is the kind of issue on which they must now be held to account. But it will only happen if their opponents manage to move on from the “process” issues to policy. The enhanced powers – and revenue-raising capacity – which both Calman and Smith will bring to Holyrood make it much more difficult for Scottish governments, present and future, to shift blame for their own shortcomings and priorities. Contrast the sourness of Ms Sturgeon’s response to Lord Smith’s best efforts with her own address to the faithful last weekend. Independence, she declared, is “the master key which unlocks all of the doors to a better, fairer, greener and more prosperous Scotland”.

Nobody could accuse her of challenging the intellects of her audience with such simplistic stuff, which belies the Nationalists’ inability to answer the key economic questions during the referendum campaign.

Looking at what has happened to the price of oil in the interim, it seems even less likely that the “master key” would unlock the door to MacLaddin’s cave, filled with riches and justice. Eighteen months ago, Alex Salmond was predicting an oil price of $150 barrel. Then, when it became apparent that Scotland’s books could only balance at $113 a barrel, he denounced all and sundry whose predictions were more realistic. Yesterday it hit $70 a barrel.

Instead of continuing the search for magic keys and denouncing the attempts by people of goodwill to do their best for Scotland, Ms Sturgeon’s leadership might get off on a better footing through some humility, and even – heaven forefend – apologies for the way in which people who told the truth about the economics of independence were traduced.

I was delighted to see Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, hitting back at Salmond’s crass allegation that they had produced bogus figures “not because the economy had improved but because the government has instructed the officials and statisticians to change the statistics”.

Somewhat optimistically, Sir Andrew wrote: “I am sure you will agree that the integrity and independence of official statistics are worthy of safeguarding. To suggest, as you did, that official statistics of national importance … are subject to inappropriate government influence is potentially corrosive of public trust.”

An apology from Salmond would be as appropriate as it is unlikely. But surely Scotland deserves better than to be governed on the assumption that everyone who stands in the way of a single objective is part of some grand conspiracy to deceive and mislead?

There is no “master key” to resolve Scotland’s challenges or fulfil its potential. There are choices to be made and priorities set, just as for any government. Scotland needs leadership whose vested interest is in making a success of what the Smith Commission has proposed – not in claiming betrayal and inadequacy, solely because it does not hand the “master key” they would crave, even if it was to an empty cupboard.

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