Kate Forbes' big talk about economy matters little unless she takes on civic Scotland’s left-wing 'McBlob' – John McLellan

John Swinney's deputy Kate Forbes may have a battle on her hands if she prioritises economic growth over bureaucracy, yet more public spending and taxpayer-funded sinecures

The relief was unmistakeable. Only a few hours had passed since John Swinney was sworn in as First Minister and the SNP MPs at the Newsbrands Scotland reception in the House of Commons enjoyed a glass of wine knowing an immediate crisis had been averted.

Unspectacular maybe, and but few would argue Mr Swinney is not a safer pair of hands than his predecessor Humza Yousaf who lurched unerringly from one disaster to another, despite his best efforts to draw a line under the many controversies which sprang up with alarming regularity throughout his year in charge.

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From where they were a fortnight ago − knowing Mr Yousaf’s tenure could not last and either facing another divisive leadership election between Kate Forbes and an “establishment” candidate, or a deal to install an inexperienced compromise candidate like Neil Gray or Jenny Gilruth – for Mr Swinney to have put his long retirement plans on hold, and to bring Ms Forbes back into the fold, felt like their Christmas had come early.

John Swinney's appointment of Kate Forbes as Deputy First Minister sent a message to the SNP about the importance of unity (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)John Swinney's appointment of Kate Forbes as Deputy First Minister sent a message to the SNP about the importance of unity (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
John Swinney's appointment of Kate Forbes as Deputy First Minister sent a message to the SNP about the importance of unity (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

SNP’s broad church

It didn’t take long for the reality of what they face to become clear, with a Savanta poll for The Scotsman, conducted over five days up to Wednesday and so reflecting the change of leadership, putting the SNP four points behind Labour on 37 per cent for Westminster voting intentions. That would slash the number of SNP MPs by 25 to 18, while Labour would go from two to 28. Although it’s two years before the next Scottish Parliament election, it suggested there would be 47 Labour MSPs at Holyrood, up from the current 22, and the SNP reduced to 35 from 63.

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It’s optimistic to expect changing the frontman to someone who was ousted as leader 20 years ago (and, as Education Secretary only five years ago, was forced to withdraw the named persons “Snooper’s Charter” legislation) to reverse the momentum behind Labour. But the return of pro-business Ms Forbes as Deputy First Minister and Economy Secretary sends a signal to the party that unity is essential for a broad church with a single aim which is ideologically neither left nor right, and there could have been no better endorsement than Green co-leader Patrick Harvie’s ‘burn the witch’ rant against her on Thursday.

She wasted no time in spelling out her aim, in a Sunday Times article, to “get the economy firing on all cylinders” with a three-point plan to harness the “natural resources, talent base and reputation in the energy industry”, encourage technology-based start-ups, and boosting the rural economy by supporting export businesses, primarily salmon and whisky. A fourth goal, and the one which poses the biggest challenge to the orthodoxy of the entire devolution era, and which will encounter resistance from Cabinet colleagues, is her desire to “prioritise jobs and wages, not bureaucracy”.

Circular administration

The Scottish Parliament, lest anyone forgets, is founded entirely on the principle of adding to bureaucracy and government cost. Given the track record on education and health, it’s not difficult to argue that the vast army of civil servants, advisers and contractors, as well as politicians and their staffs, have delivered worse outcomes than the handful of minsters and far fewer civil servants who did the same job for much less before 1999.

The addiction to bureaucracy and public spending runs deeper than government departments in what has become a system of circular administration; the Scottish Government funds charities and advisory bodies, who use the resources to develop policies, which the government then adopts on the pretence they come from supposedly independent organisations, which then drive responses to the subsequent consultations. It’s government by pressure group and produces legislation like Offensive Behaviour at Football, Named Persons and Gender Recognition Reform.

How will Ms Forbes boost the whisky industry when Alcohol Focus Scotland, which supports what would effectively be a total ban on alcohol marketing, has received £700,000 a year in government grants? If Ms Forbes really wants to turbocharge the rural economy, no more time can be wasted on upgrading the A9, the A96 from Aberdeen to Inverness and the A75 from Stranraer to Gretna, which doesn’t fit with the net-zero agenda. Yet Sustrans, the active travel charity whose mission “is to make it easier for everyone to walk and cycle” and advises both government and local authorities, received £64m from Transport Scotland in 2022-2023.

Big talk, little action

If she wants to boost traditional rural businesses and at the same time cut red tape, then she should surely scrap plans to create another national park, which costs £13m a year to run, and adds another layer of bureaucracy on top of local councils, and in some cases overrides their role as the planning authorities. It’s another good example of circular policy making, in which a key measurement is popular support while, according to the Herald, the Scottish Government has spent £140,000 on “nomination support funding” to build the case and given £100,000 to its Nature Scot agency to lead the public consultation.

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The business community has grown cynical about big talk and little action, and as the economy brief is heavily reliant on actions taken by other ministers, it’s arguable Ms Forbes’ power derives not from what she’s directly empowered to do, which isn’t much other than to make the right noises, but the implicit threat of resignation if she is continually stymied by other ministers with a different agenda, which would torpedo any chance of turning the Labour tide. The coordination with Mr Swinney’s pro-business speech yesterday was crucial in making sure her colleagues understand she is not just there as window dressing.

At least they both recognise the need to improve private sector competitiveness and to work positively with the UK Government, but a genuine economic transformation means taking on the vested interests of civic Scotland’s McBlob in which the answer to everything is more public spending and taxpayer-funded sinecures. And that is something for which a proudly left-wing SNP has never shown much appetite.



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