Brian Monteith: SNP too scared to take unpopular decisions

FOR the next two years the SNP will take only calculated risks, so that nothing will damage the Yes vote writes Brian Monteith

FOR the next two years the SNP will take only calculated risks, so that nothing will damage the Yes vote writes Brian Monteith

AT LONG last, the Unionist forces are being mobilised with the launch of the Better Together campaign today. That there should be a permanent cross-party committee dedicated to articulating the arguments for Scotland being within the United Kingdom might just dawn on the political leaders after the referendum is over; they might then avoid such national introspection in future.

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First, though, there is the small matter of actually winning the vote and that cannot be taken for granted. They should ignore the polls, for those can change – I certainly expect the gap to alter, swaying one way and then another.

While the outcome is not certain the absolute dominance for the next two years of Scottish political discourse by the independence referendum is guaranteed. And there lies a strange paradox, for at no time in this short history of British devolution has there been a Scottish Government so powerful and so empowered and yet so emasculated by its own fear of losing popularity.

With its absolute majority and no second chamber to worry about, the SNP government can, within the law, do whatever it pleases. With the passing into statute of the Scotland Act this SNP administration also has far, far greater powers than any Scottish Office, Scottish Executive or Scottish Government (which it can now legally call itself) has ever had.

It also has a new right enshrined in the Act, by way of reporting to Parliament, to call for further powers for Holyrood, obviating the need for that second question to obtain this authority.

Yet the very fact that anything this government might do would be its sole responsibility means it cannot risk unpopular decisions, or at least decisions that it cannot sell as being a good thing. For the next two years it is going to be very difficult for politicians to see anything in focus without first putting on tartan-tinted glasses and peering into the unknown, before asking themselves “will what I am about to say or do contribute to a Yes or No vote?”

Such caution is undoubtedly a consideration for the opposition parties, but it is more so a problem for the SNP; for it is the party in power that is expected to right wrongs, see to it the operators make their buses and trains run on time, and ensure our public services are fit for purpose.

The SNP Government now has at its disposal more powers to make these things happen and does not have another coalition partner holding it back – which unfortunately means it also does not have another party to blame.

So while the rest of the world – from developing nations trying to catch up with Western service standards, to the developed nations trying to introduce new technology or more flexible and productive work practices – are busy reforming their public services, Scotland will stand by and watch.

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Some might say that the centralisation of the police and the fire service is a public sector reform but they would be fooling themselves if they did, for it is nothing but a cost-saving measure and an entirely speculative one at that. It has not been driven by any studies of international best practice or pressure for devolving power to local service delivery that is a recognisable aspect of most reforms. Quite the contrary, it is a power grab by politicians at the centre from those in our councils, and one we may yet come to regret.

So there will be problems aplenty that will simply go unheeded and unresolved, be they the clever use of Irish passports to obtain a free Scottish university education – but at great cost to individual universities – or the evisceration of our further education colleges that have never had a strong enough connection with the public consciousness for anyone to notice and fewer to care.

The SNP will take calculated risks but they will be just that, carefully calculated, and anything that encourages people to support the No campaign rather than sign up to its target of a million signatures will be jettisoned.

Then the big day will come and what if the SNP loses on a single question referendum? (For it will be a single question.) There will be nowhere to hide, no second question to fall back on and claim as a victory for Scotland. It will be, no matter the brave faces and faux bravado, a humiliation and it will rip from the Government the moral authority that its 2011 election victory gave it.

Overnight it will have become a lame duck government despite having an overall majority and more powers than any administration before it. What then for Alex Salmond? That will be the question on everyone’s lips and punched into every cybernats’ keyboard, as many within his own party look to replace him as soon as is respectably possible so that his successor has time to gain experience and prepare for the Holyrood election – a further two years away in 2016.

Having eschewed difficult and possibly unpopular decisions before the referendum it will then fear making them in the run-up towards the next Holyrood elections – so it will most likely look to run on much the same platform as before.

Why, though, would the electorate buy the same goods on offer in 2016 that were for sale in 2011 but were never delivered – and without “Alex Salmond for First Minister” as the campaign pay-off line? Having been so powerful and with so many possibilities the SNP’s time in power will all have been for naught.

It is not just after the referendum that the Unionists, if victorious, should show every sign of magnanimity and counsel the healing of deep divisions that will have opened up during the referendum – not only within Scotland but between the nations of the United Kingdom – they should be making such noises from the off. For the potential catastrophe that could be inflicted upon the SNP from a humiliating defeat and the waste of power that it once had risks causing schisms and extremities to evolve.

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Whatever happens after the referendum we will all have to learn to live with each other again – and that might just be very difficult for some supporters of those who had so much power and did nothing with it.

• Brian Monteith is policy director of