The best we can do?
Support for independence should not inhibit an honest appraisal of the SNP leadership's policy record
The following tells a story. One in which rhetoric consistently fails to match reality. Where democratic involvement in the policy-making process is usurped and ignored. And where headlines fail to materialise. In the process, the relationship between citizens and institutions disintegrates.
Independence supporters must be able to properly appraise the record of the SNP leadership for the project to have a future worth its intellectual salt. That also means having the temerity to go beyond stale comparisons with the Tories. Why should our political ambitions be limited to such a low benchmark? That would be a failure of political imagination, and a cul-de-sac for any project concerned with genuine social, political and economic transformation.
Scotland, in my view, should have the full powers of a sovereign state. But even after “Independence Day,” the Sterlingsation plan would leave Scotland without control over its economy. That, plus the ongoing paralysis and lack of strategy around the national question, compels us to establish an independent perspective capable of making well-founded and thoughtful criticisms. Especially as the SNP has won such a long period of untouchable political dominance thanks to the votes of working-class Scotland.
Drawing on interviews with experts in the field, a range of press reports going back to 2014 and research previously published by this newsletter, this edition of Independence Captured brings together numerous examples to illustrate a pattern of dysfunction, policy capture and breakdown when it comes to delivery.
The National Energy Company: Shelved and scrapped
The First Minister announced the setting up of a National Energy Company in 2017 to great fanfare. Despite it being the central talking point of her conference speech, the idea was shelved. Years passed before SNP members mobilised to raise the issue again. In 2021, they voted overwhelmingly for the policy at their conference. Once more this fell on deaf ears. In the weeks following, Monica Lennon MSP raised the issue in the Scottish Parliament in the context of rising wholesale gas prices. It was again rebuffed.
The Ferret revealed that in 2020 government ministers were having meetings, outside of the public record, with big businesses seeking to cash in on Scotland’s renewables industry. The Scottish Government would launch a “green investment portfolio” worth £3 Billion of Scottish green assets. This package, a substantial component of Scotland’s economic future, is to be bought up by private and foreign capital. ScotWind has resulted in large tracts of the renewable wind energy grid being handed cheaply, to the likes of Shell and British Petroleum. Billions in profits will be lost every year. Meanwhile, Scotland’s six offshore wind farms paid a derisory £150,000 to nearby communities in the 12 months from May 2021-22.
Scottish National Infrastructure Company: Grinds to a halt after SNP conference votes in favour
The idea behind the Scottish National Infrastructure Company (SNIC) was to counteract the damage caused by Private Finance Initiatives. A Sunday Herald investigation in 2016 found that Scottish Labour’s PFI legacy would cost taxpayers £30 Billion over a period of decades. Proponents of the SNIC sought to address this issue on a strategic and long-term basis. As Dr Craig Dalzell, Head of Policy at Common Weal explains:
“If implemented, a Scottish National Infrastructure Company would break the private company stranglehold on public infrastructure and finally end the financial scourge of PFI and its successors (like NPD and MIM) which have severely strained the finances of our local Authorities and now cost Scotland more than £1 billion every year. It would also allow Scotland to properly reform the construction sector and its associated supply chain – to move it onto a footing able to cope with the demands of constructing and retrofitting the kind of high quality, zero carbon public buildings that Scotland will need to meet its climate targets.”
In 2018, the SNP conference voted overwhelmingly in favour of the policy, despite an attempt to have the resolution remitted back. The Infrastructure Commission of Scotland was then tasked by the Scottish Government to “investigate” the possibility of such an endeavour, but only under the terms of a very narrow mandate which missed the point of the plan. They rejected the policy. It was captured, commissioned and killed.
National Care Service: Not what it says on the tin
The First Minister announced that a National Care Service would be established by 2026. She described it as a “fitting legacy from the trauma of Covid.” In an interview with this newsletter, care expert Nick Kempe reflected:
“The thing about the term “National Care Service,” is that it transmits a very powerful idea. It's something that can really inspire people. But in reality, if we ask whether or not the Scottish Government is producing something that can inspire people, the answer is absolutely no. And I think we see the evidence of that in the consultation to the National Care Service Bill. What's interesting about that, is it's not just the trade unions who have strongly objected because it hasn't dealt with the labour force issues. That, one might expect. But I've read all of the voluntary sector provider responses too, and almost all of them are extremely critical and doubtful about what the government is doing.”
The idea has been so badly executed there are calls for the passage of the Bill to be paused. I believe it will be, but this isn’t just a question of ineptitude. The overall approach has raised crucial questions in relation to local democracy and accountability. Despite the name harking to the ideals of Nye Bevan, privatisation is at its core, forcing the STUC to call the plans “untenable.” The Unite union has also sounded the alarm over the involvement of private consultancy firms, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Judge me on education: It’s been an “abject failure”
In 2015, Nicola Sturgeon declared that her record should be judged on education. above all else: “Let me be clear – I want to be judged on this. If you are not, as First Minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people then what are you prepared to? It really matters.” I do not question the sincerity with which those words were said. But the statement must be tested. Education expert James McEnany concludes:
“…after seven years, it's been an abject failure. If you read the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report it makes it abundantly clear that we have had seven years of policies that have just failed. And those are seven years of policies that are directly tied to Nicola Sturgeon.
“Part of the reason that this government just isn’t capable of delivering the kinds of reform that would be necessary is that they can’t, for political reasons, admit that the last seven years have been a disaster. And because they can't admit that, they need to very tightly restrict the terms on which any discussion of reform can be allowed to happen, because those discussions would necessarily be built upon, at least in part, an examination of the failures of the last seven years.
“So this means that policy debate on this question cannot be allowed to centre around discussions that are too difficult for the SNP. This, to repeat, means evading critical appraisals of policies which are tied to the political career of the First Minister.”
The damning OECD report referred to above found that “the exams system for older pupils was not consistent with Curriculum for Excellence’s underlying ethos; there was a lack of robust data for assessing school performance; that teachers spent too long teaching and not enough time developing lessons; and there was no clear leadership on curriculum development.” SNP ministers attempted to censor the report.
Scottish National Investment Bank: A corporate stitch up
What should be an entity set up to help deliver a “broader economic strategy developed in a democratic process controlled by the Scottish Government,” appears to have morphed into yet another outpost for corporate Scotland.
For instance, tourism technology business Travelnest Ltd has received an initial £3 million in funding from the SNIB. The company specialises in providing infrastructure for holiday homeowners to list and manage their properties. It turns out that the bank, rather than acting as a countermeasure to the failures of the market, is nothing of the sort.
The Chair of the bank is Willie Watt. Watt is an Advisory Board Member of Scottish Equity Partners, a private sector Glasgow-based investment consortia which is already investing in projects into which SNIB is investing.
Carolyn Jamieson is a Non-Executive Director of the Scottish National Investment Bank and is also an Advisory Board Member of Scottish Equity Partners. She is formerly Chief Legal Officer at Skyscanner.
In 2021 Kate Forbes set up something called the Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review. It was led by Mark Logan. As ever, the process was outsourced. This time a contract worth £100,000 went to a private business called Ipso Facto Ltd. Mark Logan is the co-founder of Ipso Facto. He is also a Director of Travelnest Ltd.
The bank has not had a Chief Executive in place for the last year, after the previous one walked out for reasons unknown.
The Economic Recovery Group, led by former Tesco Bank CEO and Special Advisor to the First Minister on the SNIB, Benny Higgins, advises a post-pandemic recovery strategy which further weakens democratic control over the public bank. In the report produced by the group, they advocate the Scottish government “build its professional capability to manage ownership stakes in private businesses” by hiring business executives from the private sector. They should operate “independently” of ministers. They would decide on the investments made on behalf of the government.
As economist George Kerevan notes: “the recovery plan involves a major increase in capital investment funded by a public bank, with the money going to private companies involved in joint enterprises with the state. Who will do the investing by the state? Not ministers or MSPS”
Scottish NHS: Privatisation by stealth
In public, the Scottish Government rail against privatised health care, and mount a defence of the NHS. Yet behind the scenes, privatisation gathers pace with each passing year. In November of 2021 it was reported that the NHS National Services Scotland (NSS), a Scottish Government quango, had been asked to create a “Dynamic Purchasing System” for NHS Scotland.
A Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS) is a device which allows for “streamlined” procurement along the following lines:
“A DPS is an electronic system of pre-qualified suppliers, for commonly used purchases from which the Scottish public sector can invite tenders. As a procurement tool, it has some aspects that are similar to a framework agreement. However, it is an electronic process, with opportunities competed for through call-off competition. There is no limit to the number of suppliers that can be on the DPS and suppliers have the ability to apply to join at any time.”
The NSS asked private firms to provide prices “for more than 1500 procedures including a range of operations such as heart, cancer and brain surgery.” Potential contractors were also advised that they could provide health care services from outside of Scotland. £150million was set aside to cover a period of five years to finance the process. This is the marketisation of the health service.
In 2020 it was revealed in a special report by healthandcare.scot that letters to NHS boards showed that the Scottish Government wanted them to utilise “all the available private sector capacity in Scotland over the next few months.” Their investigation also disclosed that a total of £18.3m was set aside for this purpose. That amounted to around 18% of the total funding allocated under the Waiting Times Improvement Plan that year (2019).
The Ferries Scandal: From “contract failure” to Project Neptune
The promised ferries are many years late, and vastly over budget, despite the headlines made around the issue as part of a key announcement at the October 2015 SNP conference. The surrounding scandal has been well documented. Existing ferries are unable to meet demand effectively, and because of their age, ill-equipped to deal with the variable conditions of the sea on a sustained basis. This leads to an increase in cancelled sailings.
It should be a benchmark task of the Scottish Government to deliver essential connectivity and to build up Scottish manufacturing. Failure to achieve this is widely known among the general public.
What is less known is that Ernst and Young were asked by Ministers to conduct an in-depth examination of the government structure which runs Scotland’s ferry service under a brief titled “Project Neptune.” The government agreed to contracts worth £560,000 with Ernst and Young to carry out the work. That’s over half a million from the public purse into the bank account of a private firm with an ideological and economic preference towards privatisation. Outsourcing in this manner is the default position for the Scottish government, often at the expense of independent bodies, research organisations, universities, unions and other sources of expertise and knowledge.
Freeports: Overriding SNP conference and the trade unions
Operating outside customs areas, Freeports are delinked from national and local democratic structures in favour of big business. In these enclaves, special “tax incentives” and lower tariffs apply, while global firms enjoy a reduced regulatory environment. Yet the consequences go well beyond the designated territories, spreading into wider parts of the society and economy. For this reason, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) warns that freeports are a “Trojan Horse to water down employment protections.” These subnational tax havens, pioneered by Rishi Sunak in a paper for a think tank co-founded by Margaret Thatcher, were opposed by SNP members.
They voted overwhelmingly against freeports at their own conference, through a motion presented by the SNP Trade Union Group, which demanded a series of strict assurances, including mandatory trade union recognition. As group convenor Bill Ramsay made clear last year: “We have concerns about the introduction of freeports in Scotland […] our party agreed six clear conditions which we believe makes them untenable. These conditions also apply to the greenport variant, which was rejected by the SNP party conference in September 2021.”
The SNP leadership pressed ahead regardless. Now, unions are demanding urgent meetings with the government after being carved out of the process. As Unite’s Pat Rafferty declares: “We have zero clarity on whether trade unions will be able to access and organise workers operating within the zones, and to bargain with employers over pay, terms and conditions.”
Child care: The “revolution” that never happened
In the first conference speech of her leadership, just a month after the 2014 referendum, the First Minister talked up a “childcare revolution.” This was to form a central plank of the domestic plan going forward: “In the referendum, we proposed free comprehensive provision for all children from age one. We didn't win the referendum, but I am determined that we will make progress. With the powers we have now, we will push forward.”
One notable pledge set out to “increase from 600 to 1,140 the hours available for all three- and four-year-olds and vulnerable two-year-olds.” By 2018, this was looking doubtful. An Audit Scotland report raised a number of serious concerns, “including delays in recruitment, lack of available infrastructure, and the considerable gap between what local councils and the Scottish government expect the policy to cost.” Three months before the policy was to be implemented in full, an updated Audit Scotland report found that “50 percent of the necessary infrastructure had yet to be completed and, as of late 2019, councils had only recruited half of the necessary additional staff.”
In 2020, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported: “Scotland has one of the lowest provisions of childcare for full-time working parents, compared to the rest of the UK. Previous JRF research has shown that families on a low income are more likely to work atypical hours, and therefore accessing childcare that fits those hours is important. In Scotland, just over 20 per cent of local authorities do not report any availability of childcare for parents working atypical hours.”
Future editions of Independence Captured will explore a variety of other issues with individual pieces on health inequality, housing, land reform, the environment and more.
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