While the First Minister fumes about ‘power grabs’, it’s her government which poses the real risk, says Brian Monteith
The Scottish Government is rolling us all down a hill towards a cliff edge like some of us rolled our Easter eggs yesterday.
Nearly two years after the last Scottish Parliament elections, the key problem we face collectively is that devolution is being tested to destruction both financially and administratively – not by any imagined enemies at Westminster or amongst us in Scotland, but by our own government. Forget alleged power grabs by “London” – that all too easy euphemism for England and the English – for our Nationalist rulers shall end up with far more powers then they ever conceded or wished possible under devolution.
They disavowed the vow – yet it has been met and then some, with not just further financial powers now at Holyrood but welfare powers too. The SNP campaigned to keep powers in Brussels and were they to have the opportunity again would put them right back there without a second thought about those whose livelihoods they would destroy.
If you have any doubts about what is happening to our governing institutions then you need only look at the weekly publications of the Auditor General and Audit Scotland, where the latest failing of our government in controlling its finances and demonstrating even a modicum of competence is laid bare with depressing regularity. So shocking is the performance and so indifferently glib the defence from ministers that one is forced to conclude that the self-harm, this self-destruction, is actually intentional. No-one, surely, could waste so much taxpayers’ money or commit to continuing maladministration without meaning it? And if, as it appears, it is meant then we have to ask to what purpose?
Last week we learned of how the establishment of the new Scottish Government welfare benefits department in Dundee is in a hopeless state with financial and administrative planning behind schedule. Costs are well on the way towards £1 billion before a single extra penny has been disbursed – the equivalent of building another Queensferry Crossing or Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow.
We also learned of a black hole of £100 million that has prevented the SNP merging the British Transport Police with Police Scotland. How the minister responsible remains in post is something no sleuth can solve.
It is not a sweeping generalisation to say that practically everything that this Scottish Government touches turns to dust, and that any claimed successes (such as the Queensferry Crossing) are where the hyperbole of achievement includes short-term memory loss about either rescheduled deadlines or inflated budgets – or both. We have enough independent evidence from auditors to know in health, education, roads, housing, policing – and more – that falling standards in our public services are now endemic.
In a message to the nation, our First Minster Nicola Sturgeon killed irony stone dead when warning of the dangers from Brexit by attacking the government for not being able to clarify what it will look like nearly two years after the EU referendum.
This is despite Theresa May saying until she is blue in the face that we shall no longer be in the single market or customs union, no longer under the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and fully in control of being able to decide the terms by which people come and work or settle in our country and set the taxes which we live under.
The complaint from the First Minister might have had some credibility if she were able nearly four years after the Scottish referendum to tell us what currency she would have us use, what the terms of re-entering the European Union would be – but most importantly of all how she would fund the Scottish deficit and make up for the loss of the UK’s fiscal transfer that bails her out day by day.
Would Scotland unofficially use the UK pound sterling or invent its own currency or actually seek to join the euro in the medium term? Nicola Sturgeon cannot say, for even if she has an idea she knows it would open up the same running sores that ate away and killed the Nationalist campaign of 2014.
On re-joining the EU, would Scotland re-enter its internal market and customs union – thus creating the hard border she repeatedly says must not happen between the UK and the Republic of Ireland – but denies would happen under the same terms between Scotland and the UK? Would Scotland be forced to adopt the Schengen agreement so that its borders became those of the Baltic States, Poland and Romania to the eest, and Greece, Italy, France and Spain to the south – but with passport controls with England thrown in for good measure?
These great unknowns show no sign of becoming resolved any time in the future – near or distant.
The comparison between the UK government’s conduct of the Brexit negotiations and what we were told would happen if we voted for independence is worthy of scrutiny. Then First Minister Salmond and his ever-supporting acolyte, Nicola Sturgeon, told us a 300-year-old union could be dissolved within 18 months and cost only £200m. Yet no sooner had we rejected their overtures and they were telling Whitehall they could not take on greater powers being offered for devolved welfare benefits for at least two years, and we now know they are looking for a further extension by another year.
The cliff edge Scotland faces is not Brexit – where there are many upsides to be developed that can increase trade, create more jobs, raise tax revenues and deliver greater economic growth – if only our politicians would embrace them instead of ignoring them in their partisan desire to attack the decision of the British people.
The cliff edge Scotland faces is that it continues to run up bills for dysfunctional public services that mean when the day of reckoning comes – and we either choose independence or throw the Nationalists out and clean up the scorched earth they have left behind – the cost will be unbearable for our nation alone. We shall either need to go cap in hand to international institutions who shall extract every last demeaning advantage out of us over decades with little hope of repayment – or we shall require yet more transfers from the rest of the UK after more than a decade of telling them we don’t need them, want them or love them anymore.
The only way to avoid the cliff edge is for Scottish politicians to live within their means, only then can the independence debate be taken seriously.