Swinney's moanathon was way off what matters round the dinner table - John McLellan

Wrestling with what constitutes a vaccine passport, gasping at the price of a litre of petrol, wondering if the kids will ever be able to afford to buy a house or if you’ll be ordered to rip out your gas boiler, I suspect average teatime talk across Scotland is not dominated by fears the devolution settlement is being undermined.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP, failed to connect with the real issues - and the priorities of the people - in a recent speech, says John McLellan. PIC: Getty.Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP, failed to connect with the real issues - and the priorities of the people - in a recent speech, says John McLellan. PIC: Getty.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP, failed to connect with the real issues - and the priorities of the people - in a recent speech, says John McLellan. PIC: Getty.

For those people who do not spend their days posting political messages on Twitter, which I’m reasonably confident is the vast majority, the finer points of inter-governmental relationships and constitutional politics matter far less than the issues which directly affect them. So, while plenty people support Scottish independence, I’ll hazard another wild guess that while there are those for whom living in a cave is a price worth paying for self-determination, for a very significant number it’s in the belief they will be better off. And better off quickly.

It is in this context that Deputy First Minister John Swinney’s presentation to an Institute for Government seminar this week should be set, a 25 minute-moanathon which focussed almost entirely on his views on the Internal Markets Act which followed Brexit, legislation primarily designed to prevent regulatory interference with free trade between UK nations. Hardly the stuff of regular dinner table deliberations, perhaps not even in the Swinney household.

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The Act also included provisions to allow the UK Government to invest directly in infrastructure and regeneration projects through the Levelling Up fund, which produced the £170m package of seven Scottish schemes in last month’s budget and included £20m for Aberdeen’s city centre regeneration masterplan and £16m to restore the Granton Gas Holder. With no small measure of hyperbole in his presentation, Mr Swinney claimed that it’s all a “recipe for incoherence and poor value for money” and a “juggernaut through the devolution settlement”. Direct UK spending “runs against the tide of public opinion in Scotland,” he asserted, without a shred of supporting evidence, but didn’t offer a view about those SNP-led councils which benefited, like Renfrewshire, Falkirk and Edinburgh, and clearly aren’t squeamish about accepting Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spondoolicks.

Back to those domestic discussions, and chasms in the local roads, missed bin collections, and unreliable care visits for infirm elderly relatives might also feature, all symptoms of a deliberate SNP policy of squeezing council budgets, so those authorities are just following the money to fund their priorities.

According to the Scottish local government umbrella organisation Cosla this week, councils need an additional £700m from next month’s Scottish budget just to stand still, and £1.2bn more to survive on top of the £11bn they received from the Scottish budget last year.

With finance secretary Kate Forbes having an extra £4.6bn to play with from the UK budget it’s more than affordable, but the recent history of Scottish Government policy has been real-terms cuts in cash for local services. Instead it finds more ways to spend money centrally rather than empowering councils, most notably with the proposed establishment of a National Care Service. It was therefore somewhat ironic that Mr Swinney referred to the UK Government as a “brute centralising force” when that’s exactly how even SNP-led councils would describe the Scottish Government if they had the cojones.

The speech laid out with startling clarity the contradictions at the heart of the SNP’s outlook ─ centralisation is bad unless the SNP is doing the centralising, laws from outside Scotland are fine if they’re not passed in London and, without any hint of irony, “celebrating the benefits that come when we share sovereignty and work together” while explaining why the SNP can’t work with the UK Government.

Relations are the poorest they had ever been, with fault apparently lying entirely with Boris Johnson’s administration’s “tokenistic degree of engagement”, as if the SNP is entirely blameless in 14 years of government in which the Scottish civil service has become hopelessly politicised. That UK civil servants cannot trust their Scottish Government counterparts because shared information becomes an SNP weapon is not Westminster’s doing, and the new Permanent Secretary John-Paul Marks will have his work cut out to build bridges while keeping his Scottish political masters happy.

While Mr Swinney was fulminating, a despairing interview with former First Minister Jack McConnell appeared, lamenting that Scotland was “stuck in treacle” because “all we are doing is waiting for the next referendum.” If Mr McConnell was emotional during his interview with Holyrood magazine he might have broken down listening to Mr Swinney prove his point; “There are alternatives, but the key question is would they satisfy people in Scotland?” he said. “All of these different ideas have got to take into account the mood and the attitude of the people of Scotland. I don’t think those developments would satisfy the will of the people of Scotland who want to be independent.”

Not for the first time, SNP support is equated with the “will of the people”, even though there was no majority for independence-supporting parties in the constituency vote in the May election and no basis to claim independence is the only alternative to the present position. But a vision of future events lay right at the end of his seminar when he reinforced the SNP position that independence will involve moving to a new Scottish currency and a border trade policy with England dictated “in context of agreement with the EU”. Despite all the undeniable calamities the Johnson administration has suffered in recent weeks, independence support in a poll last weekend was still below half.

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When it comes down to it, people will vote for what puts food on their table and no matter how much grievance the SNP can fan, when it comes to hard cash the UK holds all the cards and there will only be one winner if that game is ever played. The UK Government has decided to stick and all the SNP can do is twist.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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