Brian Wilson: Why process takes place of policy

David Cameron offers Nicola Sturgeon his hand on his first trip to Edinburgh since the referendum.  Picture: Getty

David Cameron offers Nicola Sturgeon his hand on his first trip to Edinburgh since the referendum. Picture: Getty

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The need to deliver through political ideas is now subordinate to perpetual argument about powers, writes Brian Wilson

It would have been refreshing if Nicola Sturgeon had appeared like a ray of tartan sunshine, declaring that the Command Paper contains huge new opportunities for Scotland and the important thing is to get on with that exciting work.

She could, quite reasonably, have entered the caveat that, as a Nationalist, she obviously aspires to full statehood. That question having recently been answered by the Scottish people, she might have acknowledged, the priority is to use existing and future powers in a radical and creative way.

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That would have been an intellectually honest and positive response to a commitment honorably met. Alas, there was never the slightest chance of her saying any of it. Nationalism does not thrive on honesty and positivity, but on chipped shoulders and victimhood. So what we got was the familiar mantra. Lord Smith’s report having been branded “betrayal” within hours of John Swinney signing it, the Command Paper now represented “watering down” of the bonfired Smith Report. And so, endlessly, on. The need to deliver through political ideas and actions is now entirely subordinate to perpetual argument about powers and process.

The preordained soundbite comes first and rationale a distant second. In fact, the charge of “watering-down” is founded on tenuous evidence even by the normal standards of “we wuz robbed”. As Sturgeon well knows, “consulting” the UK government about variations to the benefits system would not mean being subordinate to its veto.

Such consultation is a routine feature of devolved government; an administrative consequence of shared responsibilities. On entering a quagmire like welfare and benefits, the need for such engagement is axiomatic. Translating this into “having to ask Westminster’s permission” to get rid of the bedroom tax or anything else is a fabrication required to sustain the thesis of grievance and deceit.

This is now what passes for high politics in Scotland. Much of the Scottish media can’t get enough of it. Breathless correspondents relay the latest exchanges about powers – granted, disputed and denied – as if the fate of the nation depended upon them. Yet they represent just another round in an interminable cycle which delivers nothing and changes nothing, beyond the process bubble.

This is the mould into which the political dynamic has been manipulated over decades, with indisputable success. In a land which once prided itself on big political ideas, there is now only one area of difference given house room. The new definition of radicalism is to argue endlessly about constitutional powers while doing as little as possible to justify them.

The next theatre of such absurdity will be the General Election. Alex Salmond has appointed himself kingmaker and has sworn never to do business with the hated Tories. Those with selective memories prefer to forget that the two most important decisions the SNP ever took (in 1979 and 2007) involved deals with the Tories.

By extension, this is intended to imply that the Nationalists would prefer a potential Labour government to which they could offer their principled support. This improbable objective is a necessary scenario for persuading Scots who want to defeat David Cameron that voting SNP offers an alternative means to the same end. On all counts, the exact opposite is true.

There are two relevant facts. First, there is one Tory seat in Scotland. Second, the largest party at Westminister forms a government, even a minority one. If the election is a close-run thing, the certain consequence of the SNP gaining seats would be to reduce the chances of a Labour government. No amount of “what ifs” can cancel out that basic piece of common sense.

Without a shadow of doubt, re-election of the Tories is the preferred Nationalist outcome because it is the only one that fits their objectives. Labour governments, even imperfect ones, tend to be given the benefit of doubt in Scotland. If space permitted, I could list 101 reasons why this is a rational response though, of course, we are constantly invited to obliterate from memory these 101 reasons.

Whether there are six or 60 Nationalists at Westminster, their role will be the same. It will not be to exert goodwill in the direction of a Labour government (even if they have not prevented one from happening). Neither will it be constructive engagement to ensure delivery of the Smith Commission’s recommendations. What good would that be to people for whom everything is a tactic towards a single end?

Rather, their function would be to maintain the procession of allegations about betrayal, watering-down, parsimony, persecution and the rest of their familiar script. A Tory government, with one seat or fewer in Scotland, is a much more credible villain. Scotland, they will cat-call, has a government it didn’t vote for – forgetting that they have strained every sinew to ensure that outcome.

Scottish voters are being invited, in effect, to make the constitutional question the defining General Election issue and, in so doing, marginalise more pressing matters – jobs, social justice, the NHS and so on. At the same time, they are being asked to believe that the party which has done nothing but revile the Smith package is also the one best placed to ensure its delivery.

I do not underestimate the current appeal of that SNP offer. According to opinion polls, upwards of 40 per cent of the Scottish electorate are in thrall to it. Many Scots who voted Yes but would not define themselves as root-and-branch Nationalists remain to be persuaded that it is a different question which is being asked in May and that therefore they should consider a different answer. For what it is worth, I retain some faith that the Scottish electorate is not going to underpin the return of another Tory government by falling for a ruse.

Meanwhile, in the world of policy as opposed to process, let’s remember that the SNP government in Edinburgh has still not introduced a single redistributive measure. Even the one they boasted of at the time of Ms Sturgeon’s coronation has promptly been replaced by what the Tories came up with in England.

Small wonder they prefer to talk about process.

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