This is a big week for the SNP administration that deigns to call itself a “Scottish Government”, for by the weekend we shall know if it is worthy of the name.
The Scottish First Minister has a meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May in Downing Street which, if not handled delicately by Nicola Sturgeon, will serve only to emphasise how isolated and irrelevant she has become to the Brexit process. Unfortunately delicacy is not the modus operandi of the First Minister.
Likewise the Finance Secretary faces a tough test in the Scottish Parliament, where his budget will face its first vote and could well fail to win enough support. The Scottish Conservatives and Labour look likely to reject the budget and it will then be down to the Greens and Liberal Democrats to give the SNP any chance of avoiding serious embarrassment. Meanwhile pressure continues to mount over education, with yet another call this weekend for radical action to rescue the decline of Scotland’s schools while others who have tried to work with the government are beginning to lose their patience.
Once the EU referendum result became clear the First Minister had a choice; use Brexit to generate a grievance that could drive Scotland to independence, or work with the grain of Brexit to extract valuable assurances from Downing Street about how Scotland could benefit most from the redistribution of European Union competences. Sturgeon chose the route of confrontation but has thus far been out-thought and out-fought to the point where she risks causing division in her own ranks.
Suggesting that our impulsive First Minister’s combative nature got the better of her cannot be dismissed as merely the prejudices of her opponents, the Scottish public is losing heart in her grievance campaign too. A Sunday Times poll published yesterday found that enthusiasm for a pre-Brexit independence referendum has fallen considerably, from forty-two per cent last June to thirty-two percent in September and only twenty-seven per cent now. Worse still, a majority of fifty-one per cent do not want another independence vote held within the next few years.
There is still time to change her order of battle by putting to the side her demand that Scotland remains in the EU’s Single Market and instead opening up new fronts on how the Scottish fisheries will be managed, how the savings from EU membership will be redistributed and how other regulatory controls can be passed over the her administration. Then she could find Theresa May much more willing to meet an accommodation and for once be seen to have gained something for her country other than gaining a growing reputation for mean-spirited carping from the sidelines.
Finance secretary Derek Mackay has, like his leader, painted himself into a corner. It is never easy to construct a radical budget for a minority administration but it is possible to devise a compromise proposal that meets with general approval so that it is passed. After all, Mackay’s predecessor John Swinney managed exactly that during the period 2007-11 when the SNP was first a minority government.
Unfortunately for Mackay, John Swinney was needed over at education after it was elevated to become the SNP’s top priority, and he now finds himself as the chief target for opposition politicians who believe the SNP is in a fix of its own making. After all those years of demanding more powers for the Scottish parliament the SNP is showing considerable reluctance to use them other than to make Scotland the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom and the least business-friendly.
Opposition Finance spokesman Murdo Fraser has pointed out that had Scotland’s economic growth matched that of the UK over the last ten years – roughly equating to the period of SNP rule – Scotland would have earned an extra £3 billion, equivalent to £1300 for every household. If the SNP is correct that having more economic levers could make Scotland an economic powerhouse then Mackay has to demonstrate that he can pull the levers in a manner that makes a positive difference. His reluctance to use the levers already available to him exposes a fundamental weakness in the case for Scottish independence. If he cannot find the courage to win friends across the parliamentary chamber then Sturgeon will need to find someone who can – but John Swinney cannot be everywhere.
That said, the Education Secretary is facing his own problems. We await the Scottish Government’s response to its consultation on school governance, but there are a number of issues that will not go away and will require decisions, in particular how to handle the application of St Joseph’s Primary to become a state-funded autonomous school – a proposal that has been on the table for approaching two years. Other applications for the Al-Qalam primary school and Steiner Community School, both in Glasgow are also now long overdue.
Educational charities and trusts, such as the Hometown Foundation, or initiatives such as Newlands Junior College are waiting to swing into action, but indecision and delay dominates the education department even to the extent of denying pilot schemes that could have informed Swinney’s consultation. Politicians are quick to try and capitalise on threatened schools such as St Joseph’s, but getting them to take decisions is another matter altogether.
Supporting pilot autonomous state schools along a Scottish model would be an easy win with the parents and school communities – but the SNP has a latent fear of upsetting both the teaching unions and the local authorities by setting such a precedent. Again it begs the question, why seek more power through independence when the power to run education is not used already?
By this time next week the SNP administration could look in control and be worthy of the name of Scottish Government – or instead it could have been hammered by the UK government at Westminster, the opposition parties in Holyrood and the growing disenchantment of the Scottish public.
Success or defeat will have been entirely due to the choices made by the First Minister and her closest ministers. If the choices were right then the SNP’s dream will have moved closer, but if they are wrong the SNP will have to face up to the reality that its strategy has failed and that it must develop a new one.
Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org