NOT for the first time, the Scottish Government has got itself into a highly embarrassing difficulty of its own making.
Alex Salmond’s first administration between 2007 and 2011 earned itself a reputation for managerial competence based, admittedly, on not doing too much as it lacked a parliamentary majority. Now shorn of that confining straitjacket, the First Minister is free to meddle, but not everything is going according to plan.
We recently had the revelation that finance secretary John Swinney has been seeking to convince his cabinet colleagues of the real financial dangers an independent Scotland could face – while the same administration seeks to blame Westminster for all its current financial woes and suggests that matters would improve were Scotland in control of her own destiny.
To answer the specific point that tax revenues from North Sea oil production could fall substantially, placing Scotland in a worse fiscal position in 2017 than the rest of the UK, the Scottish Government rushed out its own oil revenue projections that challenged its previous paper. Nobody can possibly know which statistics to believe, so all the SNP has achieved is to emphasise just how unreliable basing the economic case for independence on oil revenues must be.
Adding salt to the wound, another research paper argued that the public spending programme of an independent Scotland would be subject to a UK Treasury veto were sterling to be used as the country’s currency. Again, no one can definitely refute that this would be the case and so yet more doubt is cast over just how independent Scotland would be.
The latest fiasco to undermine the Nationalist position is the First Minister’s attempt to create a different regime for the regulation of the Scottish press. Although there are separate legal jurisdictions operating in Scotland and England, the Press Complaints Commission has been able to manage the procedures for readers’ complaints across the whole UK. Nobody disputes tougher arrangements are needed, but operating over the whole of the UK was never the PCC’s weakness. Indeed, although it raises only 6 per cent of its revenues from Scottish titles the number of complaints it handles from Scotland represents 9 per cent of the total.
Why it should be necessary to have a separate Scottish regulator, when Scottish publishers have more titles in the rest of the UK than at home and many UK publishers also have titles in Scotland, has not been adequately explained. Unless of course our Nationalist government has to invent differences to help justify its narrative that Scotland needs to separate its institutions from those of the rest of Britain.
And so to point up that desire to be different and gloat over the discomfort that party leaders in London were having over Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations of a new press regulator with statutory underpinning, Alex Salmond told us Scotland would have its own approach, and by definition be better. To work out the detail he established a committee to report to him under terms of reference that would accept Leveson’s report in principle and seek to establish a Scottish response.
This policy has now gloriously backfired, both in the approach it takes and in how it concedes a separate approach is not inherently necessary.
Under the chairmanship of retired judge Lord McCluskey – leading to his committee’s work being branded McLeveson – we are now told that what should be established is not necessarily a regulatory body (although that would be possible) but a “recognition commissioner” appointed by the Scottish Government to monitor the regulator and be able to withdraw its credentials if it did not meet the outlined goals. If this is not political oversight of the press then it is only a smidgeon away from it.
Furthermore, the Scottish press would be forced to join the nominated body and – in a recommendation that caused outrage across social media on Friday – the remit of the regulator would extend to cover internet news and news-based commentary that by definition would include websites, bloggers and those regularly using Twitter, Facebook and other such media.
This suggestion went far further than Lord Justice Leveson had dared to go but could mean that if the SNP chose to use the UK’s regulator we could have the absurd situation where a London-based body was presiding over complaints about online comment discussing corruption in Glasgow when it did not do so about similar comment written about Gloucester or Gillingham. So much for independence.
This political overreach throws up yet another idiocy, in that any regulator will be funded by the press and yet would undoubtedly find itself spending a great deal of its time and resources investigating and adjudicating over complaints made about social media that the press has no responsibility for, and is in competition with. It would rather be like the Unionist parties funding the legal bills of the SNP, but not vice versa.
Such was the outcry the “McLeveson” proposals met that the First Minister’s spokesmen have been quick to clarify the recommendations may yet be rejected and that the First Minister, who initially welcomed them as “admirably clear” will take time to consider them and see what happens in Westminster first.
Not for the first time – and probably not for the last – the First Minister ends up suggesting that the arrangements that will exist in the UK may, after all, be those that are most suitable for Scotland. Like Her Majesty the Queen. Like sterling. Like Nato.
There is a case to be made for independence, but the SNP is destroying the Yes campaign by seeking discord where it does not exist and sowing division where it is not in anyone’s interest. A separate media regulator is not required in Scotland. Alex Salmond should be more careful what he wishes for.