Brian Monteith: Was this Nicola Sturgeon's worst week since taking power?
The questions thrown up by the Growth Commission were just the icing on an unappetising cake, writes Brian Monteith
I think it is highly probable we have just witnessed the worst week politically for our First minister since she took office.
Midweek, the Scottish Parliament’s independent researchers issued a paper that demonstrated Nicola Sturgeon’s government converted a 1.8 per cent cut in revenues received from Westminster between 2013-2017 into a cut for local authorities of 7.1 per cent over the same period. No longer can the First Minister talk about “Tory austerity” without leaving herself open to accusations of “SNP austerity” being four times as bad.
Then on Thursday Sturgeon was roundly bettered by Ruth Davidson, Richard Leonard and Jenny Mara during First Minister’s Questions. Opposition MSPs have noticed that if they phrase a question requiring a highly damaging number as an answer, Sturgeon resorts to aggressive condescension and contempt that only exposes her inability to give a straight reply. In the follow-up Sturgeon’s interrogators are then able to reveal the embarrassing figures to the delight of their colleagues. Broadcast to the world for posterity, the First Minister cannot hide her discomfort, displaying a grimace that would cut crystal glass.
More pain from public embarrassment was to come when the Independent Press Standard Organisation rejected a complaint championed by the First Minister over a Scottish Daily Express story that had revealed the number of times the Union Flag would be flown on Scottish public buildings was being reduced by the SNP Government – and alleged this was a snub to Her Majesty the Queen. IPSO found the story was accurate and the allegation justifiable opinion. The First Minister is now the one who should be making an apology, but no one’s holding their breath.
Then came the most uncomfortable moment of all, unveiling the long overdue report of the SNP Government’s Growth Commission. On previous occasions, such as when Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon unveiled their contentious and now discredited White Paper for an Independent Scotland, no hyperbole was too outrageous and no expense spared in treating journalists to a grand event worthy of Randolph Hearst or, being fiction, Citizen Kane.
Not this time, however, for the work of Andrew Wilson and his committee has clearly presented a problem, join the dots and it makes for some difficult reading and has thus been held back from publication for months while a damage limitation media strategy was conceived (together with some judicious editing, methinks).
A government publication, the report was released on the Friday of a Bank Holiday weekend when many civil servants who might answer questions had left their desks. There was no media conference, no opportunity for the press corps to question the authors and related ministers about its content. Requests for appearances on various broadcast programmes were turned down. Instead, a few hand-picked journalists were granted private interviews and carefully drafted articles were provided for other outlets. On the day the report arrived late in limited quantity as a bound folder rather than the standard print format – while the online version was also slow to appear.
The reason for all this intentional difficulty and obstruction is clear, the report will divide opinion in the SNP and provides a great deal of ammunition for critics of independence.
For instance, self-styled progressives like to argue that encouraging immigration by skilled workers is good for developing economic growth, but to achieve this requires a country to offer an attractive package. We therefore face the potential absurdity of the SNP having raised taxes on those already in Scotland but wanting to offer low tax inducements to people – including workers from the rest of the UK – who come here in future.
I have twin sons, born and raised in Edinburgh; one lives and works in Glasgow and another lives and works in London. The latter has been there since graduating and works for a leading investment bank and will probably be there for many years yet. Under Wilson’s proposals if, following independence, the brother in London were to come back to work in Scotland as a financial specialist he could be taxed less than his brother who remained in Glasgow. I don’t see this proposal being especially practicable or considered fair by those already in Scotland and it has the potential to build resentment towards migrants. The answer of course is to develop the skills of resident Scots and lower the taxes for everyone – but that would be to challenge current SNP policy – hence why it could not be said.
The recommendations on deficit reduction are similarly confused. It is to be welcomed that the report identifies Scotland’s deficit as a problem – though I would argue not just for delivering independence but for the harm it does in suppressing economic growth by expanding sectors of the economy that take resources rather than generate them. To state, however, that Scotland’s deficit will be reduced by generating greater tax revenues and avoiding public spending cuts at all costs is to depart from reality.
The reason Scotland spends more per head of population is not just because of the remoteness of our many small communities – but because Holyrood has awarded Scots far more benefits than the rest of the UK enjoys – but expects the UK to subsidise them. The resulting transfer of an annual £10 billion cannot and will not be plugged simply by growing revenues. We need to face reality and recognise that some programmes will have to be cut.
Such action needs done irrespective of seeking independence, but independence would bring living within our means into sharp focus, for overnight the fiscal transfer would end.
On the deficit, on the currency and in its general approach about what measures can be taken by a Scottish Government now, the Growth Commission’s report provides a damaging critique of Salmond and Sturgeon’s own White Paper that was used in the independence referendum. More so, it also is a critique of what is not being done now by Sturgeon and her ministers.
The First Minister can turn out all the platitudes and warm words welcoming it – she had to – but it will bring her nothing but trouble and, like so many of the problems she now faces, is of her own making. The First Minister has presided over the SNP austerity delivered by her Finance Minister; the failure of school and curriculum reform by her Education Secretary; the hapless performance by her Health Secretary – and now the Growth Commission she created has come back to bite her.
l Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org