Christine Jardine: SNP is leading us along the road to nowhere

A YEAR, to borrow a well-known phrase, has been a very long time in Scottish politics.

A YEAR, to borrow a well-known phrase, has been a very long time in Scottish politics.

Just 12 months ago the idea that we could vote on Scotland’s future within the UK was simply that: an idea

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Now it sometimes seems as if we have talked about little else and I find myself wondering whether both politicians and the media are actually giving the issue “too much air time”.

There is no doubt that whether to stay with, or break away from, the United Kingdom is the most important political decision most of us will ever make.

But is that all-encompassing debate actually beginning to obscure or perhaps distort the picture of what our politicians at Holyrood, Westminster and even Brussels are actually doing?

Are we in the media beginning to neglect our role as scrutinisers of those in public office as we are swept along in the tide of “what-ifs”, “who would pay” and “how would we” questions?

And is our government at Holyrood in danger of losing the interest of those in the public who do not share their constitutional goal?

Every week seems dominated by differing opinions on what might happen. Take for example the issues of EU membership and currency.

We’ve heard the opinions of both Yes and No campaign groups, governments at Holyrood and Westminster, all our political parties, the president of the European Commission and numerous experts and political commentators.

As someone with a greater than usual interest and involvement in the independence debate, even I am beginning to lose count of the voices and viewpoints.

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Ironically, while this minute examination of the argument over an untried and, if the opinion polls are to be believed, unlikely, set of circumstances goes on there is little if any attention being given to the impact of current European decisions on Scotland.

In the midst of looking to our future we are all – politicians and journalists alike – in danger of letting our present suffer.

At the moment, as I understand it, the European Budget will deliver more than £6.5 billion to Scotland over seven years: that is nearly a £1bn a year to the Scottish Government including funding for the Highlands, the Borders, universities, colleges and farmers.

Yet there has been little if any public examination of how that money is spent, or the stances of our various representatives in Brussels on the future of that support.

It was only by asking Lib Dem MEP George Lyon I discovered the scope of the deep cuts in that budget that the SNP MEPs had voted for, leading to the defeat of the UK government’s line to freeze it.

No-one would pretend they brought it down alone, but it does seem unfortunate that there was not more attention on decision-making in Europe and less on opinions on the constitution, however well informed.

It is likely to be February before the final budget decision is taken but it would be useful if, before then, we could have some informed debate on how – and why – our MEPs from all parties are voting on a financial package which will affect us much sooner than the Independence Referendum.

As someone with a child looking at university options, other family members planning to go to college and who spends a large part of their life in the Highlands, I think I am entitled to know how that money is, or could be, spent.

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Surely the voting public is also entitled to the opportunity to lobby their MEPs on the issue armed with all the relevant information, not least because we are scheduled to vote in the next European elections before the independence referendum.

But it’s not just how EU decisions are affecting Scotland that has been obscured by our growing obsession with Independence Yes or No.

The argument over what our currency would be in this hypothetical Scotland seems somehow to have become more important than how the actual money is being spent in reality.

Like many households coping with the fall-out from the economic mess left by the last government, the important questions for us are all about how Holyrood and Westminster are attempting to repair it.

Yes, I am concerned about what independence could mean for the economy, defence, the media, the welfare state and our membership of Europe.

But more, much more than all of that, I want our politicians at Holyrood to use the powers they have, and are about to get under the Scotland Act, regardless of the referendum result, to address the issues that matter to our lives today.

For the next 12 months I’d like to see our government in Edinburgh focus the public debate on issues that matter without giving in to the temptation to use them as a football in a political game of we care more about Scotland than Westminster does?

Let’s look for answers to questions like: Why did the SNP not use any of the windfall money from Westminster in the Autumn Statement to bring forward the long-promised work to dual the A9 from Inverness to Perth?

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When will something be done about the potholes and substandard road surfaces that increasingly remind many of us of driving in a Third World country?

How do we address the problems of the National Health Service, schools and both further and higher education systems in Scotland?

And how can the Scottish Government most effectively – and positively – work with Westminster to help pull us all out of the economic quagmire we found ourselves thrown in to.

Ironically it is their perceived competence in guiding Scotland’s government as a minority administration from 2007 that is regarded as the foundation of the SNP’s astonishing victory in 2011.

Yet now, in their determination to steer us towards a particular long-term constitutional future, they seem in danger of allowing that reputation to be drowned in mis-steps over EU legal advice, discussions with the Bank of England and confusion over their financing of the college sector.

It’s time to refocus the debate.