What is it about the position of First Minister of Scotland that upon taking up this most esteemed post its occupants can so easily suffer from delusions of grandeur? Why is it that the last three politicians to achieve FM status have then sought to strut the world stage only to end up looking fools and drag our country down with them?
The past week will go down on record as the point where our current First Minister – newly branded as “Queen of Scots” by Tina Brown in New York – sorely tried the patience of all but her most loyal disciples. We already have a very able Queen who has served us well for 65 years. There is no vacancy and I, like the majority of Scots, have no wish to swear allegiance to a politician of any party.
If there is one recognisable Scottish trait in public life it is that we do not like our politicians getting too big for their boots. While we are happy to build them up on their journey to fame and popularity, we are also more than happy to pull them down by placing them in the stocks of public judgment and pelting them with their own hubris.
Before I discuss the First Minster’s tour of the United States it is necessary to survey the domestic political context in which it was set.
The Scottish Parliament took its leave for Easter as March drew to a close the previous weekend. In an effort to deliver as much bad news at a time when it would be impossible to hold the SNP Government to account, ministers had issued in the few days before a stream of apologies, missed targets and excuses.
We found out the Queensferry Crossing would not be ready in May, its opening being delayed again until July or August. Economy minister Keith Brown apologised for a collapsed investment deal worth £10bn from China and then abandoned his plan to abolish the board of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. An “update” was given on permission for fracking that said nothing new and delayed any decision until after the May elections, while a report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary found that victims of rape and sexual assault are being failed by unacceptable forensic medical services.
There was other disappointing news just as embarrassing as the foregoing, but MSPs were already packing their bags and leaving with no committee hearings, no testing debates and no difficult question sessions available to hold the SNP Government to account. This compared with the Prime Minister who the same week had stood at the dispatch box for three hours and 20 minutes taking question after question on her plans for the Brexit negotiations.
Unfortunately for SNP ministers the unhelpful revelations did not stop just because they had; bad news does not recognise holidays. Last week NHS A&E targets were missed for the seventh month in a row, business rate promises to the hospitality sector were broken and to cap it all we learned the Scottish economy is on the verge of recession – and if we include the impact of inflation, which we should, then unlike the UK, Scotland is already there. The fourth quarter of October-December 2016, following on from the First Minister’s sabre-rattling about a second independence referendum, delivered GDP growth of - 0.2 per cent while the UK managed a positive 0.7 per cent. The pathetic excuse of the finance secretary, Derek MacKay, was to say it was due to a loss of consumer confidence – yet retail and wholesale GDP grew 2.0 per cent since the same quarter in 2015.
With all that previous bad news the economic data was surely the last straw, there can be no doubt that Scotland’s public services are threatened by a precarious economy that could suffer collapsing public revenues. Only because Scotland is in the UK can we face that threat without fear, for as the deficits worsen the fiscal transfers from London will increase, let’s call it unconditional love.
In such calamitous circumstances one would expect a political leader with the common touch to demonstrate how hard he or she was working to resolve the problems. Unfortunately the current First Minster, Nicola Sturgeon, thought it made better sense to be in California and New York telling anyone who would listen about how Scotland is ready for independence.
The precedent for this behaviour was set by Labour First Minister Jack McConnell, who expanded the remit of the Scottish Executive to include foreign development aid, most notably to Malawi, and as First Minister to model a pinstripe kilt sans-sporran at a charity event in New York. It was all a big mistake because it has opened the door for subsequent nationalist First Ministers to pretend they are international figures when the role is well beyond their brief.
The last three First Ministers have taken it upon themselves to stretch their job description to include international trips to sign off deals, deliver lectures, and agree memoranda of understanding. This strutting and preening all comes down to two basic conceits, the first that politicians believe they can cut deals and create jobs, and the second that they can raise the reputation of their nation by meeting other leaders and smiling at the camera. The truth is not so kind. Politicians only endorse deals already crafted by their officials, seldom are they needed to ensure they actually happen. Nor do politicians create jobs, they destroy them with their regulatory obstacles, additional burdens and onerous costs.
Instead, what they can and should do is create the economic conditions that allow risks-takers to make genuine deals and create real jobs. It is under these conducive conditions the people can themselves raise their country’s reputation.
If Nicola Sturgeon really wanted to help the Scottish economy she would have stayed at home to reshuffle her ministerial team and replace her hapless finance secretary in the process. She would then have gone on to confirm there will be no more talk of a referendum until after the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2021 when we can not only know the shape of Brexit, but also learn what new arrangement with the EU she could deliver.
There is more to be gained by our First Ministers staying at home and doing the day job than treading the world stage.