Brian Monteith: Sinister centralism at home in SNP

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An unhealthy desire to control dissent is emerging at the heart of this nationalist government

THERE is a repugnant, sinister centralism in the SNP government’s behaviour that needs to be challenged instead of meekly accepted by Alex Salmond’s opponents.

Last week I praised the First Minister’s strategic approach that has put his party on the cusp of achieving at least more home rule if not full independence, but he is not God – as he would no doubt admit with one of his chummy, 200-watt smiles. All politicians suffer from hubris and Alex Salmond reveals it with alarming regularity, but what appears to be a bullying nature and a fear of losing control are now coming to the fore.

Worse still, these tendencies are being replicated across the Scottish Government, suggesting it is not so much Salmond’s problem as a trait of the SNP itself.

Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill both openly attacked the Supreme Court, the latter sinking to a tabloid taunt that its knowledge of Scots law was limited to visits to the Edinburgh Festival.

When Salmond berated a protester opposed to Aberdeen’s Western Relief Road, the judge handling the planning appeal intervened to defend a citizen’s right to be heard through due process.

Salmond also attempted to deny a public information request for a paper by the Scottish Government’s own economic adviser about the likely costs of a local income tax for working families, including a very public fight with the information commissioner that went to court.

Then last week we had Salmond’s apology to Parliament for claiming a letter he read to members had been written by a leading academic when it was in fact a draft prepared by his own press spokesman the academic was unwilling to endorse.

This followed the New Statesman revealing in June how Salmond’s infamous Celtic Tiger speech, which applauded the Irish and Icelandic economies and boasted about RBS and HBOS, had, unlike all his other speeches, disappeared from the Scottish Government website – only to suddenly reappear after its invisibility was brought to the public’s attention.

If this type of spinning and subterfuge continues, last week’s apology may not be the last Alex Salmond has to make.

Looking at these outbursts in the round we see the worst aspects of Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher; anyone that is “not one of us”, as Thatcher put it, will be ridiculed, pilloried or marginalised for simply having a different point of view.

It is an example that SNP supporters are all to willing to emulate as “cybernat” bloggers consistently play the man and not the ball when posting comments on Scotsman.com. After one of my columns questioning an SNP policy but not the party’s motives or the personalities involved it was at the 45th comment that one blogger asked if anyone would address the points I had raised rather than attacking me personally.

Sadly, this style of intimidation is something one has come to expect from the SNP; it betrays an ugly side to nationalism that is as abusively sectarian as anything said at an Old Firm match – but don’t expect it to be banned anytime soon.

It all serves to inculcate a fear through intimidation resulting in Scotland’s McChattering classes displaying an unwillingness to take Alex Salmond on. When the First Minister talks of Scotland being a Celtic country his tone sounds more like the BNP than the SNP. Were David Cameron to claim “England is Anglo-Saxon” justifiable shrieks of outrage would be heard pointing out our nations’ multicultural history and traditions. The Norse settlers were not Celtic, not to mention the Angles and Saxons that came from Europe – never mind other welcome influences such as the arrival of southern Italians two centuries ago or more recent influxes from Asia.

The lazy assertion that “we are Celtic, therefore we are different” flies in the face of centuries of interaction that has ensured we have more in common with the rest of Britain than divides us – especially as so many of our differences had nothing to do with racial origin, such as the Protestant reformation and its revolutionary change to our education system.

Even the nice Mr Swinney has shown bullying tendencies that cannot be dismissed as mere political arm-twisting. His approach to enforcing a council tax freeze places local authorities in a vice – implement government policies and receive X million pounds, don’t implement them and receive X-minus-Y million pounds. Swinney may support tax competition against England but he doesn’t allow it between our councils.

Swinney’s punitive attack on supermarkets selling tobacco and alcohol is portrayed as a health tax, a ruse belied by the failure to tax all off-licences and tobacconists. The policy was not included in the election manifesto and is not to be consulted upon, flying in the face of Salmond’s attack on the UK Treasury for failing to consult oil corporations facing a new levy.

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon will reintroduce her policy of minimum pricing of alcohol despite the evidence debunking the claim that price is the main factor leading to alcohol abuse. Her bullying of smokers will continue unabated; not content with promoting dodgy dossiers about health improvements that fail to compare like with like in an attempt to dress-up the ban on smoking in public places, the SNP still plans to force cigarettes under the counter.

Local councils are seeing the Scottish Futures Trust reaching into their PPP/PFI schemes while the fire and rescue services are being centralised under one management and, more alarmingly, the same is proposed for Scotland’s eight police forces. There is obvious merit in all public organisations looking to share the back office IT, HR and accounting services – but one chief constable being open to a regular phone call from the First Minister and Kenny MacAskill? Does the treatment of our judiciary not ring anyone’s alarm bells for the new state police?

In education, we can see an impatient if not arrogant Michael Russell dropping the arms-length principle; threatening the independent appointment of university principals and condoning the “merger by fax” of Dundee and Abertay universities, while, at the same time, his policies are seeing student numbers in colleges being drastically cut and the number of Scots gaining entry to our universities falls. Russell’s central diktat extends to a moratorium on school closures, ending the availability of central records on placing requests and telling local councils how many teachers they should employ and the number of pupils in classes.

Whichever way we look, Scotland under the SNP is becoming centralised, censored or bullied. Is it any wonder so many question privately what independence would be like under an imperious Premier Salmond?

• Brian Monteith is policy director of ThinkScotland.org