Quangos, Calmac and SNP's obsession with centralised control – Brian Wilson

The great paradox of Scottish devolution is that it is run by people with a deep belief in centralisation. As one of their leading lights put it: “Scotland is our localism.”
The SNP appear determined to keep power in Edinburgh, says Brian Wilson (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)The SNP appear determined to keep power in Edinburgh, says Brian Wilson (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
The SNP appear determined to keep power in Edinburgh, says Brian Wilson (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

This plays out in many ways: the cruel treatment of local government which would have had masses on the streets if the Tories inflicted the same cuts, horror at the concept of money to replace EU structural funds not going through Edinburgh for re-branding, and so on.

Centralisation is about control and nobody can ever be left in doubt about who holds the purse-strings, making dissent inadvisable. The inevitable result is bland mediocrity and expensive failures.

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Scotland, like any country, is diverse and decisions are often better taken locally while national policies need sympathetic tailoring to regional as well as national circumstances. There is far less of this now than even prior to devolution.

But is it a paradox or the logical product of a political creed based on a constitutional demand which would place even more power in the hands of the same centre? In that context, the insistence on pan-Scottishness and marginalisation of other voices make sense.

Our rotten quango system plays a big part in the control structures. There is not a quango chairman or woman in Scotland with any record of challenging the writ of St Andrew’s House. It did not used to be like that when big people filled big public roles, without acquiescence as a pre-condition.

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Now the same faces flit from one quango to the next, the qualification for appointment being that they have kept their mouths firmly shut in the previous one. Offend the civil servants, far less ministers, and quango careers will come to an abrupt end.

A particularly curious appointment emerged this week when the Scottish government chose the current chairman of Caledonian Marine Assets Limited (CMAL) to become the next chairman of David MacBrayne Limited, parent company of Caledonian MacBrayne.

This individual is a Danish businessman named Erik Østergaard who has been on the board of CMAL since its inception in 2006 and its chairman since 2014. While very big in the Danish logistics industry, it can safely be said that after 15 years, Mr Østergaard could walk through any port served by CalMac without risk of recognition.

It can also safely be said that Mr Østergaard has been at the centre of one of the biggest financial scandals to have beset the SNP government – the cost, soaring towards £300 million, of building a couple of ferries in Port Glasgow.

Now, entirely at the behest of ministers and civil servants, he is to be in charge of a ferry company brought close to its knees by the five-year (and counting) delay in completing these ferries.

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The appointment has caused astonishment in the affected areas which on a daily basis are feeling the impacts of CMAL’s multiple failures. This week alone, there was no service to Lochboisdale because there is no ferry to cover for the Lord of the Isles which, understandably at the age of 32, has over-run its annual maintenance in Birkenhead. There is fury in North Uist and Harris about timetable cuts, all this and much more flowing from the Ferguson yard fiasco.

If there is one man who knows where all the bodies are buried in the whole SNP/Ferguson/CMAL disaster, it is Mr Erik Østergaard of Copenhagen – which many regard as the only possible explanation for this appointment, possibly as a prelude to CMAL and CalMac being re-merged with an implicit clean bill of health handed to the former, which suits the Scottish government’s narrative in its battles with Jim McColl.

Three other appointments were made to the MacBrayne board. Yet again, none is resident in any community served by CalMac. One is a member of the Scottish Police Authority, another of the Accounts Commission for Scotland. In other words, they are trusties “on the circuit” and available for any quango job that’s going – ferries, police, accounts, you name it.

It’s an important tool in controlling a country – yet Scotland’s quango merry-go-round is never even discussed at Holyrood.

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