Mike Russell has the chance to deliver the bounty coming to Scotland following divorce from Brussels, says Brian Monteith
The publication of this year’s GERS report on Scottish public expenditure and revenues landed a much-anticipated right hook to the First Minister’s plans for a second referendum, but it remains to be seen if it is the knock-out blow many claim.
Scotland has been running a £15 billion technical deficit for the two years since the independence referendum, funded by a fiscal transfer from England (or, more particularly, London and the South East). Knowing what to expect, the First Minister sought to deflect attention away from the dire news of just how much we live beyond our means with two well-timed announcements that would take up column inches and broadcast footage.
Forget our SNP Government’s own figures that reveal Scotland’s deficit would, at 9.5 per cent of GDP, be the worst any developed nation in the world, yes, worse even than that of Greece (7.2 per cent). Instead, the First Minister, in one of her most shameless performances yet, wanted us to consider just how bad the Scottish economy would be hit once the UK leaves the European Union.
Ignore for the moment the stench of hypocrisy that the very figures she used were purloined from a UK Treasury forecast that was widely denounced even by Remainers as an embarrassing stitch-up and criticised by the First Minister for being unhelpful scaremongering. Ignore also the reek of deception in her unwillingness to countenance that if leaving the EU must be bad then leaving the UK – where we do four times as much business – could be four times worse for our country.
All that mattered was that a big figure, on this occasion just over £11bn less trade by 2030, would suggest we could make up for the now seemingly eternal deficit by making sure Scotland stays in the EU, courtesy of us becoming independent and then applying for EU membership.
By implication, for so many things are always left unsaid, we are to glibly accept that the EU would want another member with an economy worse than that of Greece, or that in accepting free movement of labour like even Norway does, there would be no hard border between Scotland and England.
The second announcement was that the First Minister had appointed Michael Russell as her new Minister for Brexit, or rather, her anti-Brexit minister.
In some respects Mike Russell is an astute appointment. He can deliver angry sound bites to camera and fake outrage before audiences better than anyone else in her ministerial team, blowing up like a puffer fish at the slightest perceived affront to Scottish dignity. As any minister responsible for European issues should be, Russell is also well read and cultured. We know this because he has never tired of condescending to his peers if given the chance. He also has a usually quick mind and is entertaining, but this can also be a weakness, for there has always been an air of positive expectation surrounding his past ministerial appointments – only for him to underperform.
If there are problems with Scottish education – and we know there are because the SNP government has made educational improvement one of its many priorities – then some of the blame must rest with Mike Russell who was education secretary for five years only to be replaced as soon as Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister.
He started with much talk of giving more freedom to local authorities and schools to deviate away from the highly centralised education system, but in the end it all petered out. Taking on the vested interests of teaching unions and educational experts became too big a challenge and his inaction left many headteachers and this columnist disappointed.
Hopefully his ministerial experience in past administrations might give him a fresh insight into how to get his way, although he will be fooling himself if he believes he will be able to reverse the Brexit vote of 17.4 million people.
Instead, Russell could use his undoubted communication skills to reinvent himself as the deliverer of the Brexit bounty to Scotland. Rather than grandstanding in European capitals like the First Minister, Russell could become the Fisherman’s Friend and ensure nothing less than the full management of the Scottish sector of the UK’s territorial waters is devolved to Holyrood once we leave the Common Fisheries Policy. A Russell roadshow could whip up support and adulation in equal measure, visiting Pittenweem and Peterhead, rather than Paris, Buckie rather than Berlin, or Lossiemouth rather than Luxembourg.
Then there’s the opportunity to become the Farmer’s Champion by touring next year’s agricultural shows to consult in the open air how the Common Agricultural Policy can be replaced and improved upon. Surely this is an easy win for Russell as many farmers, except the largest landowners that benefit enormously, view the CAP as a poisoned chalice.
Russell could court Scottish commerce by forming departmental units under his command, and advisory committees of the entrepreneurial great and good, to examine all the rules that could be removed to help kick start Scottish businesses once they no longer have to abide by single market regulations. Russell could work hand in glove with the Scotch Whisky Association to ensure any UK trade deals include the elimination of import tariffs, such as the 150 per cent that India continues to apply on our whisky exports there.
Then there are opportunities in energy policy, employment law, transport and industrial strategy. Not only can Russell develop his portfolio so that he influences all the government departments he surveys, to the undoubted gratitude of his fellow ministers, he can also go on the warpath against Conservative government ministers for dragging their feet in confirming how and when those EU’s competancies will be devolved.
We know Mike Russell could do all of these things for he has previously written in his 2006 book Grasping the Thistle that “the best way forward” in Europe was to eschew further political integration. Now he will have the chance to strengthen Scottish self-reliance and even independence of policy, distinct not just from Brussels but Westminster too.
If Mike Russell can be remembered as Scotland’s Brexit Braveheart the next few GERS reports might not need any distractions – he could have proved the First Minister’s dire predictions wrong by initiating a growing economy that generates the tax revenues so sorely needed to balance the books.