ABOUT 16 years ago I spoke in the Scottish Parliament budget debate and criticised the Labour government for the underspend in their budget. Money granted was left unspent, demonstrating they were either incompetent or didn’t care. It was a puerile and disingenuous argument then and it’s exactly the same now.
With large sums of money in the budgets, and no borrowing power, carrying money and projects forward is inevitable and sensible. Every government does it. But it made for easy cheap lines of criticism and I took every such chance as the then shadow finance minister.
So I can’t really criticise the opposition doing the same 15 years later with the SNP in power. What I can say is it will change nothing, prove nothing and diminish the quality of the debate if we all keep on like that.
But so goes politics, any faux outrage will do. At Westminster, Labour have consistently attacked the Tories’ plan from the 2010 election to eliminate the deficit in one term as too far too fast. Contrastingly the Tory government described as reckless the Labour plan to go a good deal slower.
In reality the Tories adopted Alistair Darling’s plan and now claim it as a victory of good strategy, while Labour return the fire. Both hoot and snarl while the public switch over to a more interesting show.
This week’s latest silly spat was about the awarding of a £360 million contract to Anglian Water instead of the government-run Scottish Water’s own Business Stream company.
The opposition parties lined up to criticise a decision they would all have taken. But ignoring arguments about proper procurement and state aid rules for a moment; do we really think £40m of public money should be blown by contracting to our own public company on a worse deal?
Will it create more jobs for Scotland? Don’t think so. Will it reduce the amount of resource available to the NHS and schools? Yes. So why do it?
I am not party to what the margin of profit for Anglian will be. But a 2014 PwC report for Ofwat suggests something around 3 per cent, or about £10m, over the life of the contract. For the opposition, that £10m is more offensive than a cost four times as great that would otherwise be available for front line public services. The real question is why is Scottish Water seemingly unable to compete effectively?
Every penny the government spend on anything should be tested against the question: “Would it be better spent on our children’s education?”
Follow the logic of Labour and Liberal MSPs, though, and schools and hospitals should have the toilet paper provided by the state-owned loo roll company. Where do we draw the line? Well, we don’t, we just criticise the current government for doing what we did or would do. It is all very boring, very short-termist and hugely out of date.
Sometimes the juvenile spats boil over into something uglier. A former Labour leader described the SNP’s approach as a “virus”. In Manchester last week the Prime Minister went so far as to describe his opponent as “Britain-hating”. This is clearly absurd and leapt over the decency line, whatever you think of Jeremy Corbyn; the dark side of Tory nationalism.
As Scotland’s governing party gathers in Europe’s oil and gas capital of Aberdeen this week, the SNP will bask in election glory. A poll this week suggests its Labour opposition is on a trajectory to a worse position than the Tories were when they were wiped out in Scotland in 1997. The TNS survey suggests fewer people under 55 support Labour now (16 per cent) than the total vote for the Tories then (17.5 per cent).
But the party leadership and members will be acutely aware of the need to use good times to both mend roofs and secure foundations. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon knows that brickbats will always fly when you are in power.
Those that allow those challenges to cause a loss of energy and purpose become swept up and drowned in the froth and waves of the moment, no matter how small. Those that have their heading and momentum sail purposefully on successfully, commanding the tides themselves.
If the SNP allows itself to be distracted by the day’s headlines or opposition jibes ranging from the juvenile to the dishonest it will waste its time and opportunity. But it must also listen carefully for home truths in the criticisms as they fly.
In its own conduct the whole party must now reach for the same level of courtesy and maturity shown by its leader and deputy leader throughout their entire political careers.
Scotland has spent decades defining much of its politics by being against what was being done that it disagreed with. As we take on more self-government the politics of protest must become the true politics of empowerment. Get that right and the chances of winning the case for full powers increases exponentially.
The SNP has never been in a better position. By demonstrating vision, competence and responsibility with the job in hand it will earn the right to do more. «