Why Scotland is crying out for bold leadership, not PR spin – Brian Wilson

Devolution has failed to produce the kind of radical legislation – on land, energy and economic development – that made a real difference in the years before, writes Brian Wilson.

Finance Secretary Kate Forbes
Finance Secretary Kate Forbes

As each day passes, it becomes more inescapable that Scotland’s response to the Covid-19 crisis has been a mess from day one.

To a substantial body of Scottish opinion, this does not matter a hoot so long as they can convince themselves it has been a lesser mess than England’s, which may or may not be the case but is a low bar to set.

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It has been an avoidable mess, as now confirmed, on PPE; a scandalous mess on non-reporting of the Nike outbreak which would have transformed perceptions at an early stage; an arrogant mess on care homes, through refusal to respect pleas from the front-line.

On testing, it is an ongoing mess with the story changing from week to week. The World Health Organisation said from the start: “Test, test, test.” The Sturgeon-Freeman response has been “No, yes, maybe” to the point where four months in, there are still many care workers – yes, care workers – who have not been tested.

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The one area in which we have led is PR but while non-stop PR does wonders for personal ratings, it does not save lives. We now rank alongside the worst states or regions in the world for per capita death rates.

There will be inquiries in due course and it will require hawk-like vigilance to ensure these take place at the highest judicial level with all the evidence – if it exists, which smells like another mess in the making – available for scrutiny.

Within a few months, the scale of economic damage will begin to emerge. And that leads to the next question – will the response to soaring unemployment and struggling local economies be any more successful than the one to Covid-19?

Already, I fear, we have a hint of what is to come. Kate Forbes, the Economy Secretary, emerged to tell us that the UK Government was not sending enough money which, reasonable people might think, is one level on which they could not be criticised.

If planning the future of the Scottish economy is to be built from the outset on foundations of grievance, then we are in for a very rough and unimaginative ride. Alternatively, there is huge leeway to turn adversity into opportunity.

That will require vision from within Scotland and a genuine willingness to co-operate with Whitehall where responsibilities intersect. If that happens, it must be reciprocated but “send more money” is too predictable a starting point.

Looking around me, evidence of past landmark legislation hints at the scale of what is required. For example, recent months have demonstrated to many why rural living and home working have much to commend them – if access to either land or home existed.

The Land Settlement (Scotland) Act of 1919 addressed the demand of that time by taking over large areas of land to create thousands of crofts and smallholdings. A 21st century parallel would be legislation forcing every landowner in Scotland to release land for rural housing. Any chance of that happening?

The Hydroelectric Development (Scotland) Act of 1943 – in the middle of a World War – paved the way for transforming economic and social conditions over much of Scotland. Once again, green energy schemes can create large numbers of jobs and also address the climate change imperative. Any chance of that happening?

The Highlands and Islands Development Act of 1964 and the Scottish Development Agency Act of 1975 created powerful public change-makers, now reduced to shadows of their former selves. In their original forms, they were licensed to take risks to regenerate the Scottish economy under strong, independent leadership. Any chance of that happening?

I could go on but the observant reader may note that all these transformational, uniquely Scottish pieces of legislation took place at Westminster long prior to political devolution. Twenty years of Holyrood have not produced a single Act of Parliament which comes within miles of them.

If there is any real leadership and vision left in Scottish politics, regardless of party, it must reveal itself. Now is indeed the time, and now’s the hour for something better than PR and grievances. We need big thinking and actions to match.

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