The moral hazard of Nicola Sturgeon’s generosity - Brian Monteith

Our First Minister really is the living epitome of a gift that just keeps giving. For political commentators of no party allegiance, such as myself, there is no Scottish politician who works so hard to provide unmitigated policy disasters or go back on their word so often and so quickly.

Writers’ block will be a rare occurrence for Scottish political commentators so long as Nicola Sturgeon remains as First Minister.

It possibly would not be in my interests were she to let someone else in the SNP take on the challenge. It would be only human for her to suspect anyone who follows her will only make her critics appreciate her more. Surely “come back Nicola” will be the call?

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In case there are any lingering doubts about the First Minister’s omnipotence, in this past week we have had the choreographed sight of her showing fellow ministers “that’s the way to do it” by sorting out the council workers’ strike.

Nicola Sturgeon's team said again and again there was nothing more on the table for refuse workers - then she found 'magic money tree' (Picture: Russell Cheyne/PA Wire)
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After parading herself around the Edinburgh Fringe circuit and visiting Copenhagen for a jolly at your expense she finally decided to bang heads together where local council and union bosses could not agree.

Previously her ministers had claimed any settlement was the responsibility of the local councils her government had impoverished by £1 billion over the last ten years, blaming Labour-controlled Edinburgh as an example (that party only took minority control in May). Deputy First Minister John Swinney also claimed there was no more money.

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Nicola then returns to her day job, gliding serenely like a swan but paddling madly underneath; no doubt having tough, drawn-out and frank conversations at which it dawns on her that the unions will not back down. They have the upper hand and are about to unleash more strikes in other Scottish cities to cause further discomfort for the First Minister.

Then, without a care in the world for the detail and delivery, the First Minister reaches a settlement costing circa £600 million per year, every year going forward. How will it be paid for? The First Minister will tell the Parliament once she’s worked it out.

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This is what is called a moral hazard. In short, by telling union bosses there was no more money until the First Minister arrived and simply decreed it would be found, a hazard has been created where in future other union bosses will not accept there is no more money and will hold out until the First Minister intervenes to produce some.

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Indeed, we can expect that if there is a teachers’ strike, as their union bosses are contemplating, they will demand the First Minister intervenes so they can squeeze out every last advantage. Why should they do otherwise, the precedent has been set – and by none other than the First Minister wanting to say “look at me” while she avoids the bins going unemptied?

So long as Nicola Sturgeon remains as First Minister and the SNP stays in power this moral hazard cannot be undone, for there shall always be a suspicion in the minds of union bosses and other negotiators in other settings, that the best deal has not yet been reached.

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Nicola Sturgeon blinked and the Scottish taxpayers and the majority of citizens who use public services are the ones who will pay for it, not just on this occasion but time and time again.

Watch out for the First Minister saying it is Westminster’s fault because she has a fixed budget and has to balance the books. This is of course untrue. Yes, the books have to be balanced – but the budget is not fixed – she has great flexibility in what taxes she levies and the revenues she hopes to raise. Her problem is she believes that if you increase tax rates it must mean a corresponding increase in revenues – but this is one of her many self-delusions. She has put taxes up but the revenues have fallen well behind the anticipated income.

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Nicola Sturgeon is that strange paradox of a politician who is cautious and calculating while also being utterly cavalier. Careful to avoid making an embarrassing misstep – but also calculating, by using a swarm of advisers, as well as polling and focus groups, to establish what might be popular and what could blow up in her face – all the while seeming spontaneous and offering what people might want to hear.

Yet she is so cavalier as to not know – or possibly even care – how to deliver on her promises so that they are, one by one, abandoned quietly, while new, even grander, promises serve to distract from her repeated failings.

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Education was to be her number one priority she told us. Education was never her priority, however, for independence transcended everything, she later said. Even that has proven as elusive as US-based Scottish actor Brian Cox taking residency in Scotland (not even when it has been governed by the SNP for 15 years).

Another example was the First Minister announcing to her party faithful in full view of the cameras she would establish a Scottish Government energy company to keep domestic bills low, only to abandon that goal in 2018 before Covid could be a culture dish in a Chinese laboratory – not during the pandemic as she has since claimed.

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After last week’s example of “Nicola to the rescue” all that remains to be asked is, if she is that good, what would the country be like if she made education, drug addiction, homelessness and economic growth her priority – rather than finding minority interests or celebrity events to grab the headlines?

The reality is, as she told Brian Cox when she interviewed him, she too looks forward to not having to bother. She is tired of governing and is looking for her exit.

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Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and is editor of ThinkScotland.org

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