Lesley Riddoch: No guesses who gets the funding

Shouting out loud and saying you’re unlikely to vote Yes is the best way to win cash backing, writes Lesley Riddoch
Better Together supporters mark the unveiling of the No Thanks logo in Glasgow last month. Picture: GettyBetter Together supporters mark the unveiling of the No Thanks logo in Glasgow last month. Picture: Getty
Better Together supporters mark the unveiling of the No Thanks logo in Glasgow last month. Picture: Getty

Are prominent Scots who oppose independence really under threat if they speak their minds? Or are No campaigners almost guaranteed to have funding applications approved and plans accepted – even dodgy ones – precisely because the Scottish Government must prove its even-handedness in the face of relentless scaremongering?

The weekend’s papers – as usual – were filled with hard-to-substantiate “concerns”. The Nobel prize-winning geneticist Sir Paul Nurse urged the Scottish and UK governments to promise they wouldn’t interfere with funding for academics who express contrary views during the referendum debate. Meanwhile Sir David Carter, former chief medical officer, told Scotland on Sunday that conversations with principals of five Scottish universities with medical schools suggested “they would all be voting No but are constrained from speaking out.” Actually, if governments really are so petty, a few thoughts arise.

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Firstly, Sir David has just “outed” those five No-leaning university principals. They must hope – or privately know – that his alarmist theory is wrong.

Secondly, since the UK apparently has a pivotal role in research funding, academic supporters of independence have more to fear from a vindictive Westminster government, and brave souls whose work questions all state funders might as well start packing their bags. And yet such a panicked mass exodus is not occurring.

Thirdly, isn’t it strange that eminent academics and leading businesspeople are so very nervous? Almost all jobs in Scotland depend directly or indirectly on government funding but it’s the eminent, monied and professional who seem inconsolably anxious about the consequences of speaking out while the rest of us are happy to “publish and be damned”. Are ordinary Scots rash – or might the professional leadership class be a tad overwrought? Isn’t it more likely that prominent No-supporting academics will be rolling in research cash for life so the Scottish Government can prove their worst fears wrong? Or at least they would be if research cash was dispensed directly by governments. Instead – as education secretary Mike Russell wearily points out yet again – academic funding bodies are independent of both governments. It’s far more likely that self-employed journalists and part-time PhD students like myself jeopardise our own futures by continuing to question the motives of the Great and Good. And yet even we are still here.

Likewise, Glasgow Council has effectively guaranteed success for its questionable Glasgow Airport Rail Link (GARL) by being on the No side of the independence debate.

The Labour-run council called the SNP’s bluff last week after Westminster pledged backing for the rail link dropped by the SNP in 2009. Is the £1 billion City Deal for Glasgow a referendum bribe? The application was made before the polling date was chosen. But the timing is certainly ideal from the perspective of Glasgow Council, the Westminster Government and the No campaign.

The Scottish Government has backtracked on previous objections and chucked £500 million into the kitty – matching the UK Government’s contribution and the sum it reluctantly spent on the Edinburgh trams. Local MSP and Holyrood minister Derek Mackay said: “This is exciting news for Glasgow Airport and tourism in Scotland [and] a reminder of what more can be achieved for Scotland with independence.”

Well, maybe. Personally, I’d like to think independence would devolve more cash and control to local councils but require them to consult voters before approving large projects. Do most Glaswegians really think the best part of a billion pounds is currently best spent on an airport rail link? Wouldn’t a tram line (built and costed by reliable Nordic transport firms) linking the Commonwealth Games area and city centre be more socially productive? Wouldn’t a crossrail connecting Central and Queen Street Station benefit more Scots with an improved bus service between Glasgow airport and the city centre or indeed Paisley Gilmour Street Station?

We’ll never know because it seems the Scottish Government is unable to speak its mind robustly for fear of losing ground in the referendum race and snubbing a prominent public body whose political masters support a No vote.

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Many airport passengers do indeed travel to Glasgow Airport from central Glasgow – but many don’t. Air travel ebbs and flows for economic and environmental reasons – is it really the most important connection to improve? Glasgow Council leaders could have confounded cynics and rebuilt damaged relations with voters if they surveyed public opinion before committing the cash. But no. GARL will now doubtless go ahead. The SNP is mindful that abandoning the £215 million scheme in 2007 contributed to Labour’s success in the Glasgow East by election after council leader Steven Purcell suggested the SNP should abandon its commitment to universal free school meals to finance the line. Now, with the cry that no public transport can be bad public transport and that Glasgow would otherwise lose the cash, the Scottish Government has been forced into a transport U-turn that presumably robs the coffers of other transport projects – maybe dualling the deadly A9 or A96.

The moral is clear. He who shouts loudest and has least intention of voting Yes on 18 September currently wins funding wrangles.

Of course we don’t yet know full details of the new City Deal or revised GARL proposal. But the Scottish Government’s original misgivings may still be relevant and as sound as their misgivings over the Edinburgh trams.

Surely Scottish taxpayers are entitled to believe the Scottish Government is happy that this project represents the best investment for Glasgow and surrounding councils before investing all our cash?

Similarly BBC Scotland will not be questioned over recent controversial staffing decisions because it looks bad for a broadcaster to be tackled by a government pushing for a Yes vote. It also looks bad for the Scottish Government to question the wisdom of the proposed parade by Orange Lodge members in September in case they seem to be harassing No campaigners.

Governments are meant to go into a period of stasis around elections to guarantee fair play. But there’s no point in the Scottish Government rolling over and appearing to play dead just to confound groundless accusations of bias. The show must go on and voters aren’t daft.

If No supporters are being picked on unfairly by the Scottish Government they should prove it, or desist.