The First Minister should have stuck to business and photo opportunities and left her referendum dream at home, writes Brian Wilson.
Symbolism is important and the image of Nicola Sturgeon touting another Scottish independence referendum in California (where they speak of little else) while the economy back home is officially declared to be dicing with recession is powerful.
The Scottish Government’s chief statistician should watch his back since his employer’s preferred method of dealing with bad news is to shoot the messenger – or stop publishing the message. That might not work since what he reported coincides so closely with anecdotal evidence of economic stagnation, job erosion, postponed investments, political paralysis and an administration that has only one interest.
I am all in favour of ministers travelling in pursuit of trade and investment. However, if the taxpayer is footing the bill then it is the country they are representing – not a partisan political interest. Ms Sturgeon should have stuck to business and photo opportunities, while leaving her referendum fetish at the airport.
Hapless officials would have been instructed to conjure up as many “announceables” as possible to adorn her visit and the thinness of the gruel which emerged tells its own story. The reality is that there is not a lot happening in the Scottish economy. Brexit will add its own uncertainties though, so far, the rest of the UK seems unfazed.
Does anyone believe that touring America to add a further layer of confusion, by talking up another referendum, will create a single job for Scotland? It is self-indulgence taken to extremes. By refusing to park the pretence that Scotland is crying out for independence, Sturgeon is threatening years of economic sterility which will continue to translate into lost jobs and investment. There is a North American precedent – so why didn’t she go to Quebec, where she might have learned something useful? But would she want to?
The Climate Change MoU signed with the governor of California is an interesting case study.
On the face of it, this is a harmless piece of window-dressing which might yield some collaborations down the road. That’s absolutely fine. But then look at the reality of what has happened in Scotland amidst all the boasts about world-beating targets and our “second industrial revolution” (c. A. Salmond).
True, our hillsides are peppered with wind turbines – but every single one of them has been imported.
Thousands of jobs may have been created but they were in Denmark, Spain and Germany. The rare opportunity to turn a natural resource into a new manufacturing industry was blown due to the failure of government to exercise leverage over developers in return for subsidies paid by British taxpayers.
So which is more important to the Scottish economy – a signing ceremony in Sacramento or the broken promises (carried in innumerable over-hyped press releases) of renewables-based inward investment that never happened? Sturgeon wants to share “best practice” in offshore wind with California.
Maybe she could start with her government’s planning system which delivered one offshore approval in the time it took Whitehall to issue 17. The project in question, which could provide hundreds of good Scottish jobs, is now bogged down in a legal quagmire due to the delays.
Wherever one looks, the chasm between rhetoric and reality is vast.
Scotland needs lively, creative government to make the best of our opportunities.
Instead, what Sturgeon and her team offer has all the appearance of an ideas-free administration in which civil servants make policy, such as it is, while the overwhelming interest of politicians is in presentation and – of course – stirring up division within the UK. For all of that, we are now paying a price.
When critics call on Sturgeon and her team to “concentrate on the day job” it is not an empty jibe.
It reflects alarm that the necessary business of government is being neglected, through disinterest or incompetence, because it does not fit the independence narrative. There is little sign of commitment to anything that cannot be used to further division. Ministerial eyes roll at the words “social” or “economic” and only light up when the constitution is mentioned.
These traits are also reflected at Holyrood which is in recess – but one has to be pretty attentive to notice. Apart from the Budget which is required to keep shelling out money, MSPs have not passed a single piece of legislation since 21 lMarch last year when the Burial and Cremations (Scotland) Bill made its way into law.
They sit three days a week when not on holiday and the much-vaunted committee system has been ruthlessly neutered.
Was there really nothing in Scotland worth legislating for over the past year that might have facilitated job creation or enhanced the quality of Scottish life? The argument in favour of devolution was that Westminster did not have enough time for distinctively Scottish affairs, yet there was not a single post-war year in which that system emulated what Holyrood has now delivered – a complete legislative blank.
The Scottish economy is heavily tilted towards the public sector and you might think that with £1,500 a head extra to play with, compared to the rest of the UK, that at least might be flourishing in both absolute and relative terms. Not a bit of it.
As I drew attention to last week, the Scottish Government’s own budget has increased marginally since 2010 but they have slashed the money which goes to local authorities by almost a fifth.
This translates not only into reduced services but also lost jobs – 50,000 of them since 2010. As Gary Smith, the able Scottish secretary of the GMB union said this week: “These GDP figures show once again how the economy is struggling; unemployment is up; insecure employment is growing faster here; public sector workers and service users are being hit by huge cuts and those cuts in public services will get worse in the years ahead”.
Smith added: “Our politicians seem to be more interested in pursuing their own pet projects than confronting the problem”.
He is, of course, right and more people are starting to notice. When Sturgeon flies back into Scotland, my guess is she will find a changing public mood and if she carries on where she left off, full of glib manoeuvring about a referendum, the response might be sharper than she has become accustomed to.