Brian Wilson: Tide turns on better public services

SNP remained mute despite widespread outcry over ferry charges increase. Picture: Donald Macleod
SNP remained mute despite widespread outcry over ferry charges increase. Picture: Donald Macleod
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THE SNP’s avaricious desire for power and control leaves the needs of voters running a poor second

There are two themes which run through policy-making by the SNP administration at Holyrood. Neither has much to do with excellence or improving the devolved public services but both are the logical extensions of a Nationalist philosophy.

First, of course, there is the imperative to drive wedges wherever possible between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Doing things differently is more important than doing them better. Creating “rows” with Westminster is one of the few growth areas in Scottish manufacturing.

The other recurring theme is centralisation. Whatever else the SNP believes in, it is certainly not devolution. Demanding the transfer of powers from Whitehall to Edinburgh is one thing but that is where the process stops dead. The recurrent policy objective is to centralise decision-making under tight political control.

This leads to high-profile initiatives like the establishment of national police and fire services which, whatever the other arguments, most definitely will not benefit local accountability or responsiveness. It will, however, turn these services into powerful government agencies, closely aligned to the political objectives of ministers.

The centralisation process takes many forms. For example, the magic circle from which senior quango appointees are drawn is now tighter, trustier and more Edinburgh-centric than ever. Civil servants in charge of the process know what is expected of them and there are precious few dissenting spirits on the short-lists they produce.

Mainly, the centralisation drive is about political control but it is also about money. Whatever is spent in Scotland, the SNP want to claim credit for and manipulate politically. One recent manifestation of this has been the decision to close down the regional organisations which administered European funding programmes and centralise the process in Edinburgh.

The South of Scotland programmes were taken in-house late last year and the Highlands and Islands Partnership Programme (Hipp) was killed off, after 18 years, at the end of March. The staff who remain have been transferred to the Civil Service and, physically, into Scottish Government offices.

Over these 18 years, Hipp – at arms length from government – built up a huge reputation in the Highlands and Islands for its flexibility, local awareness and general helpfulness in putting together funding packages which have allowed a vast range of projects to proceed. This was always treated as “additional” money from the European Social Fund and European Regional Development Fund; not substitute government spending.

A couple of months ago, when the most recent round of Hipp funding was announced, I noticed that the press release came from the Scottish Government in the name of Alex Neil. The European dimension had been written out of the script and shortly afterwards, Hipp’s demise was announced. Nobody doubts that with full Edinburgh control, the money will be massaged into mainstream expenditure to the massive potential detriment of the places for which it was intended.

It was against the background of such retrograde events that I read of the utterly fatuous proposal to establish a “Scottish Rural Parliament” which, the Rural Affairs Minister, Richard Lochhead, intoned “will empower our rural communities, giving them a stronger voice and genuine access to decision-making”. To which I can only reply: “What a load of old rubbish”. Or alternatively: “What an indictment of his own government”.

There should be no shortage of avenues at present for rural interests to “access decision-making” and the problem thereafter is not ignorance but intent. If, as seems very likely, the first demand of a Scottish Rural Parliament was to end the centralisation process, what would happen next? Damascene conversion or lofty dismissal? Is it really necessary to go the trouble and expense of finding out?

Is Mr Lochhead really saying that the Scottish Government needs a “rural Parliament” to tell it about the needs of rural areas? Has he ever heard of local authorities? Or indeed, does not the SNP have scores of MSPs representing rural constituencies who should be capable of communicating at least some basic messages to their own Government? Would a “rural Parliament” succeed where these ciphers remain loyally silent?

Let me return to the example of the Highlands and Islands Partnership Programme. The region is awash with MSPs from the party of government at Holyrood. Not one of them has broken ranks to offer even a timorous word of support for retaining Hipp. All the running on this has been made by the local authorities whose representations have been brushed aside. Would a “Scottish Rural Parliament” have been treated with greater respect – and if so why?

I am writing this in the Western Isles where there is, at present, a massive issue about ferry costs as a direct result of decisions taken by Scottish Government ministers. From last week, commercial vehicles have had fare increases of 50 per cent imposed upon them with the same scale of increases promised for each of the next two years. It is an extraordinary blow to strike at the most fragile rural economy within Holyrood’s jurisdiction.

A highly articulate campaign has been organised against these increases from within the community and with the support of the local authority. There has been a debate at Holyrood and all-party condemnation from everyone except the SNP. And it has not made a whit of difference. If some newly-invented organisation called the Scottish Rural Parliament was to make the case, would “empowerment” suddenly follow?

Another hot topic in rural areas all over Scotland is the disappearance of rural bus services and/or soaring fares due to the Scottish Government’s decision – nobody else’s – to cut the operators’ grant scheme by a whopping 20 per cent. Did ministers approve this because they did not understand the implications? Did none of their MSPs or rural councilors tell them how much buses matter to low-income people in remote places? Ah, if only we had a Scottish Rural Parliament.

But why stop at a Scottish Rural Parliament? Remoteness takes many forms and is not necessarily a function of geography. The young unemployed in a Glasgow housing scheme are at least as remote from government and its priorities as the citizens of Unst. Maybe they too could have a parliament? And how about one for the pensioners? Or the disabled?

Politics is about taking decisions. It is about whether to centralise or to respect local autonomies; whether to protect the weak or to prioritise subsidies to those who least need them; whether to understand the needs of fragile rural communities or to fund prestige projects where they are most visible and politically advantageous; whether to listen to the fringes of Scotland as well as to the places where the votes are.

We have a Scottish Government and 131 MSPs who are supposed to answer these questions in a democratically accountable manner. It is not the window-dressing of kiddy-on “parliaments” that we need but a more caring and less calculating set of answers from those who are paid to do the job for the whole of Scotland – rural, urban and everything in-between.