THE SMILE may soon be wiped off the collective face of tomorrow’s returning government, writes Bill Jamieson
Oh, what joyful morning and glad new day is coming! At SNP Central the wine will flow and the floor will be strewn with champagne corks. Victory always looked assured. But the sweetness of triumph will be undimmed on confirmation. A phalanx of newly elected SNP MSPs will pose for the wide-angle cameras outside the Holyrood parliament. And at Bute House the mood is likely to be euphoric.
If the polls are correct, the party of Nicola Sturgeon can look forward with confidence to a near-total dominance, both of the parliamentary chamber and the committees that were supposed to act as a check on a runaway Executive: an emphatic reaffirmation of the very result that the architects of Scotland’s constitution had gone to considerable lengths to avoid.
What possible shadows could fall from this cloudless sky?
For all the power conferred by the SNP’s likely impressive majority, this does not automatically secure a future without turbulence. In Nicola Sturgeon’s in-tray, formidable problems have been building. And the road ahead is likely to prove altogether bumpier than an unalloyed triumph today would suggest.
At the top of that in-tray pile is the declared intention of the Educational Institute of Scotland, the country’s largest teaching union, to proceed with a ballot on industrial action over staff workloads.
This particular grievance, rooted in the introduction of the administration’s Curriculum for Excellence, has a long history and is proving particularly intractable. The EIS has taken exception to the conclusions of an expert group set up by the Scottish government in January to address concerns over the new system and its workload. The teachers’ union feels that the group’s recommendations do not go nearly far enough to reduce secondary teacher workloads and stress in the wake of Curriculum for Excellence reforms.
Some in the administration may see this as little more than a continuing campaign by teaching staff to frustrate the implementation of a reform that they have opposed from the outset.
Another innovation of the SNP is also being challenged: the legislation to appoint a Named Guardian for every child in Scotland. For a measure approved without a single opposing vote in parliament (it was backed by 103 votes to nil) such dominance at Holyrood is a reminder that dominance in the chamber does not at all guarantee public compliance. The measure has run into stiff opposition, with critics charging that it violates human rights and infringes on privacy. “A dangerous and sweeping law,” declared Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, “which will see sensitive information being gathered in a database, and accessed without parents’ knowledge or consent.”
The administration is said to be planning a public relations drive this summer to win over support. Given the distaste among Scots for being bullied and bossed and patronised, this may prove to have the opposite effect to that intended.
Then there is the further slowing of the economy, which received such scant attention in the election campaign. The administration’s economic record may come under greater critical scrutiny in the months ahead.
Is it really that bad? A terse summation by economist Professor John McLaren this week was unsparing. The size of the overall Scottish economy including the North Sea, he points out, fell by one per cent last year in cash terms. Since the 2008 recession, the Scottish economy has grown in cash terms by only four per cent compared to a UK growth of almost 23 per cent, highlighting the greater dependency here on declining North Sea fortunes.
Scottish GDP per head has moved from being well above the UK level – 15 per cent higher in 2008 – to a little below it in 2015 – minus one per cent.
The record on trade is also problematic. While the deficit in Scotland’s (onshore) net trade in goods and services in the final quarter of last year showed a slight improvement on the previous quarter, the deficit for 2015 as a whole was almost £15 billion, well above the previous record annual deficit seen in 2007 and over £5bn worse than in 2013. This rising deficit is due in large part to a deteriorating trade position with the rest of the UK. Our trade deficit in goods and services last year at 9.8 per cent was the highest figure seen post devolution, well above the previous high.
Now all this critically matters for an administration fired with ambitious spending plans in housing, education and health. It has committed to spend, inter alia, £3bn for 50,000 new affordable homes over the next five years, restore entitlement to housing support for 18-21 year olds and abolish the Bedroom Tax; increase early years education and childcare to 30 hours per week, create a Social Security Agency with £300m pledged “to make social security fairer”; protect the NHS budget in real terms in every year of the next parliament, increase investment in the NHS by £500m more than inflation by the end of the parliament, invest at least £150m of new funding over next five years in mental health and supply an additional £100m of investment for the police.
The administration must surely have money to burn. But total Scottish Public Sector revenues (onshore and offshore) have fallen for the fourth year in a row and are now five per cent lower than in 2011 (closer to 12 per cent in real terms).
Scotland, of course, cannot escape the impact of the wider slowdown evident across the UK. But it is likely to impact further on investment and unemployment, putting further pressure on household budgets and spending. And the tougher that trading conditions become, the more likely it is that opposition will intensify over the administration’s plans to hike business rates. The doubling of the business rates supplement breaks with the previous level playing field with the rest of the UK, adding an extra £60m a year to rates bills. And far from being confined to food retailing chains and edge of town superstores, it will affect one in eight commercial premises in Scotland.
Faced with all this, there may be little time left over for the First Minister to provide some clarity over her ambitions for a second referendum on independence. But clarity there must be for any business considering a move to Scotland or expanding existing operations here.
The SNP’s intention to deny aspirant households the cut in the higher rate of income tax pledged in the UK budget may not in itself act as a trigger for higher earners to move. But it sends a dispiriting signal and cannot but prompt concerns that having taken one step down this road to a higher tax Scotland, what other measures may follow in due course from a cash-pressured government?
Thus, even before the administration’s proposed new Scandinavian-style baby boxes start turning up on street stalls and car boot sales, the SNP administration will find that its bright New Dawn is not without a bank of clouds on the horizon. Sweeping election triumph is one thing. Governing without challenge is quite another.