Brian Wilson: Kate Forbes can deliver - here’s how

I welcome Kate Forbes as Holyrood’s Finance Minister on grounds that she just might be capable of original thinking which delivers something for Scotland.
Scotland's new finance miniter can make real change happen, writes Brian WilsonScotland's new finance miniter can make real change happen, writes Brian Wilson
Scotland's new finance miniter can make real change happen, writes Brian Wilson

The main characteristics of her colleagues are political longevity and obscurity which would normally seem contradictory. In this set-up, however, there is only one song-sheet. A Government of the talents it is not.

Ms Forbes is qualified to challenge mediocrity and should not under-estimate the strength of her position. Her fresh face dug her boss out of a large hole and there is the immediate advantage that she cannot fail to be an improvement on her predecessor. (Is he still an MSP, by the way?).

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Nonetheless, it is by actions she will be judged rather than an undisputed ability to read out a speech written for somebody else. More important, its content included another attack on council funding and hence the services on which the less well-off disproportionately rely.

Ms Forbes could demonstrate early independence of mind by reversing that cruel strategy of multiplying and then passing the austerity buck to councils. Her own authority, Highland, faces a further £60 million of cuts over three years and now sees its capital allocation slashed by one-third.

Nothing there for Ms Forbes to be proud of and she is in pole position to do something about it. In the same helpful vein, I offer a few suggestions, which her background suggests might have some appeal.

The first involves basic honesty. Ms Forbes knows as well as I do that the GERs statistics represent an accurate picture of Scotland’s financial position. The SNP’s Growth Commission accepted them yet we have Scottish Government Ministers who trumpet denial. Labour’s Neil Bibby has written to Ms Forbes asking her to disown comments from Michael Russell, pointing out that the Ministerial Code decrees “collective responsibility” even while tweeting. It also advises Ministers to avoid matters for which they have no responsibility.

Ms Forbes should tell him to do just that. There need be no contradiction between pursuing independence and honesty about existing realities. And there is a duty to defend the integrity of scrupulous civil servants even if that means telling colleagues to behave themselves. My second recommendation is to order a comprehensive review of education spending and the outcomes produced – from pre-school to universities. The SNP asked to be judged on education and the current verdict is guilty on all counts, largely due to perverse spending priorities.

The whole edifice is built around the monument to Alex Salmond pledging “free” university tuition. There is no such thing as any debt-bearing Scottish student will confirm but the costs are ruinously expensive and distort the whole education budget. Yet what are the outcomes?

As a product of Cambridge and Edinburgh, Ms Forbes must recognise the irony of fewer Scots gaining entry to Scotland’s ancient universities than a decade ago; of thousands of well-qualified Scots being refused university entry to make way for fee-payers from England, of most Scottish universities living, unsustainably, from their reserves. It is madness.

At the other end, school budgets and staff are cut. Early Intervention – the key to so much else – hardly exists and eight per cent fewer pupils passed Higher English than a year previously. Further education, crucial to working-class communities, has been ransacked to pay for universities.

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Until Salmond’s sacred cow is slaughtered, Scottish education will continue to decline, driven by perverse, counter-productive priorities. These should be reviewed from top to bottom.

My final piece of advice is more localised. Not only does Ms Forbes represent a Highland seat but studied Migration History. That hinterland must make her aware that without a strategy, Scotland’s most peripheral places will continue to decline into picturesque reservations for holiday homes and AirB&B.

Her studies must have taught her that promoting growth points (eg. Inverness) is inevitably at the expense of the real periphery (and its language) unless there is some effective counter-strategy. Nobody in the Scottish Government has displayed the slightest understanding of, or interest in, that reality.

Ms Forbes can change that. I wish her well.