Yet when it comes to the practicalities of day-to-day politics the SNP is sometimes reluctant to use the powers it already has at its disposal, under devolution within the UK. Yesterday was the first time we had heard from Richard Lochhead, the Cabinet secretary in the Scottish Government with responsibility for – among other things – food standards, on the subject that has been one of the public’s biggest concerns for weeks: horsemeat in supermarket meals.
This has escalated into full-scale public anxiety about what goes into the food we eat and general standards within the food industry. People are looking for reassurances about what goes into Scottish children’s school dinners and what is being served to patients in Scottish hospitals. Scottish farmers and food processors are voicing their worries. And yet the Scottish Government has been completely silent on this issue, and only speaks to declare itself happy for UK ministers to take the lead.
There is no confusion over political responsibility here –Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act specifically states that responsibility for food standards is devolved to Holyrood, and Lochhead’s list of ministerial responsibilities include “food and drink”. The Food Standards Agency is legally accountable to both Holyrood and Westminster. But the food market it regulates is no respecter of borders, and so the FSA generally operates UK-wide. Could it be that in the face of a tsunami of public discontent, the Scottish Government has decided to keep its head down and let a Tory take the flak? And if so, what does this tell us about the SNP’s priorities?
This is not the first instance of an SNP body swerve. When the Leveson report on the conduct of the press was published, there was a flurry of enthusiasm from SNP ministers about creating a McLeveson system to regulate Scottish print journalism. But when the practicalities of how that might operate within the complexities and intricacies of the UK newspaper market were pointed out, the First Minister did a swift U-turn and accepted a UK regulatory solution might indeed be the best option.
Since the SNP was elected in 2007 it has allowed Westminster to legislate on issues where Holyrood has competence no fewer than 38 times. Most of the time, this approach makes perfect sense. But not this time.
The food crisis has presented a dilemma to the SNP government: does it assert the Scottish right to control Scottish affairs and act in the Scottish interest, even if it means getting involved in a potentially damaging political firestorm at the worst possible time? Or does it lie low and let UK ministers take the lead? Lochhead – and colleague Michael Matheson, who has responsibility for public health – appear to have chosen the latter. Where is the First Minister in all this? It is understandable that Alex Salmond is devoting time and attention to fulfilling his party’s dream of a sovereign Scottish state. But this cannot be at the expense of running Scotland now, within the United Kingdom. Self-interest alone should dictate this, because, if the Scottish public begins to think that Salmond is putting his pet constitutional project ahead of the other responsibilities he was elected to shoulder, then the voters’ verdict is likely to be harsh and unforgiving. Scotland deserves better than this.
Justice before money
The Association of Scottish Police Superintendents – which represents our most senior police commanders – has got it spot on. “It is a factor, but not the over-riding factor.” It, in this case, is money and the principle that when it comes to police investigations of serious crime then finances should not be an impediment to justice.
It is a matter of fine judgement; is the deployment of scores of police officers on the inquiry into phone-hacking by journalists justified when, arguably, those officers could be working more effectively on detecting more pressing offences? When should a murder investigation be wound down once all leads have been exhausted? But these judgements should be left to serving police officers at senior level and not to a largely civilian board that may have the overall responsibility for the purse strings but very little operational know-how.
Of course, Police Scotland, the new single police force that will patrol our country from April 1, will have a budget that it is expected to stick to; that is only right when all public services are experiencing a tight squeeze on the national finances. But the bureaucrats should never be allowed to get their hands on the operational levers of policing. We must trust our senior police commanders to be as careful of public funds as they are diligent in pursuing crime.