Michael Matheson's iPad expenses claim may do even more damage to SNP than its independence papers – John McLellan
Readers may be familiar with the famous heckle at the Glasgow Empire theatre when a struggling Mike Winters was joined by brother Bernie. “Oh Christ, there’s two of them,” shouted a Weegie wag from the Gods. A similar thought occurred to me as I scrolled through the latest SNP Scottish Government paper on independence.
Number seven in the series, on membership of the EU, was published last week and achieved even less publicity than number six, on migration, three weeks ago, and there’s more to go. But the “Oh Christ, there’s more of them” call might come from independence supporters, as they just succeed in illustrating why separation struggles to command majority support.
Having been forced to come clean on currency in the last chapter, the latest episode re-emphasises the need to establish new money as a pre-requisite for future EU membership. Suggesting an independent Scotland could follow countries like Austria, Finland and Sweden, which took only two years from application to acceptance, also signals abandoning Sterling would be an immediate priority. Who, if their pencil hovered over the Yes box in a referendum wouldn’t think twice about that?
Perhaps hoping no one would notice, the EU paper breezily confirms “measures would be put in place to smooth checks required as a result of Brexit on goods moving to and from England and Wales”, which is the long-awaited acceptance that a hard trade border with Scotland’s most important market would be unavoidable, as has been pointed out in this column before. Customs depots exist on the Sweden-Norway border and after all the wrangling over the Northern Ireland protocols, it was always nonsense to pretend the same problems wouldn’t arise here.
It might be Brexit’s fault, but the inescapable reality is that putting EU membership at the heart of the independence project makes the arguments in favour much harder than in 2014 because the practical obstacles are not theoretical but being played out every day at Larne and Stranraer. The only difference is there were already queues as trucks waited to board ferries; under independence, the queues would be at Gretna and Berwick.
The paper even confirms the Scottish Government, or rather you the taxpayer, would be a net contributor to the EU budget, compared to the current position where Scotland is a net recipient of £19bn from the UK Government. The justification is that replacing the UK single market with the EU would boost the economy, but with a track record of acting against the interests and advice of Scottish businesses, it would be a gamble of extraordinary proportions. Ireland is held up as a comparison, where GDP is inflated by profits of foreign multi-nationals which the Irish economy never sees and where working people pay £40 for a GP appointment.
Who knows how many more of these papers there are to come (as of June, the Scottish Government was unable to say) but there will be at least one other chapter, on defence and security, which will no doubt gloss over the contradiction of wishing to remain in a nuclear alliance in an increasingly dangerous world, while prioritising the disruption of the deterrent by ejecting Royal Navy submarines from Faslane and closing the weapons depot at Coulport.
Each pamphlet costs £15,000 on average but the department which produces them, the Constitutional Futures Division, employs 24 civil servants whose salaries in the last financial year totalled just short of £1,400,000. It’s quite an achievement to spend so much public money on pushing the case for the SNP’s central aim which instead persuades more people it’s been as well thought through as Gerald Ratner’s marketing for £4.95 decanter sets.
Of course, like all systems of belief, there are plenty of people who will look at these documents and wonder why there are any doubts, but they are not the target market, or at least shouldn’t be, but for the unpersuaded majority the last week has shown why they will remain so for the foreseeable future.
First, there is the ability of the SNP and their Green partners to deliver any of the promised Nirvana, which requires evidence of competence running what they have at present. Step forward the Auditor General Stephen Boyle whose audit of the Scottish Government Consolidated Accounts was published last Thursday. “The delivery of public services in their current form is not affordable, with inflationary pressures and public sector pay settlements having a significant impact,” he wrote, calling for “a programme of public service reform, including workforce redesign, which balances the short-term financial pressures with the need for longer-term change”. For all the many woes the UK Government faces, for SNP cannot credibly sell themselves as nation-builders when devolution is proving such a struggle.
And then there is the small matter of Health Secretary Michael Matheson and his £11,000 iPad roaming bill. Whether he’s a “nice bloke” is neither here nor there when his judgment has proved to be so suspect. So he didn’t realise his sons were watching football on his parliament device on holiday until his wife told him last week? Was it fine to demonstrate no curiosity when he received a mammoth bill, and then just stick it through on expenses anyway? He said it wasn’t for personal use and then it was. He said he was trying to protect his family from scrutiny when it was not them being scrutinised. No wonder he blubbed at the embarrassment of it all.
Close friend or not, First Minister Humza Yousaf has obviously not twigged that failure to address the consequences of this scandal risks widening existing SNP fissures, undermines the credibility of his entire administration and, no matter how many of these independence papers he churns out, therefore undermines the cause too. Defending someone who tried to get taxpayers to fund the kids’ holiday entertainment just turns him into a music hall joke. There’s two of them right enough.
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