Robin McAlpine, Commonspace, 10th October 2019
Common Weal director Robin McAlpine takes a hard look at the state of Nicola Sturgeon’s government, and what its achievements and failures mean for the cause of independence
I believe the independence movement needs a government that is inspiring people by being bold and showing the kind of change that could be possible with independence. Most people accept that Nicola Sturgeon’s government is not that.
She instead pitched her government as being about ‘competent management’ and asked that she be judged on her education track record.
These are her strategic choices and the independence movement cannot behave as if they have no impact on us; Sturgeon has made herself almost the only recognisable face of independence. If she’s not delivering the inspiration I think we need, is she delivering the competence?
With 18 months to go until the Scottish election we need to ask that question now, to look beyond the personality politics at the real record. I’m afraid the answer is that it is very difficult to make a case that she’s delivered competence either and the cause of independence may pay the price.
So, close your eyes and hide behind the couch if you must, but what follows is the reality…
Centralisation, control and personality politics
There simply isn’t space to go into this properly here but the coterie of people who make the decisions in this administration is very small indeed and is generally accepted not to include cabinet (this includes the view of members of cabinet from the period). Sturgeon controls all major decisions and her colleagues often find out via the media or social media.
There is no meaningful cabinet government, internal dissent is not accepted and the administration has been built mainly around the personality of its leader. There is no obvious defining mission other than its leader’s thoughts and feelings.
The attitude to dissent
Messages were sent early (and often since) on the attitude to dissent. For example, a ‘Poverty Tsar’ was appointed with a heavy media push. The Poverty Tsar then wrote a report calling for major action which she followed up a year later with a second report expressing disappointment that none of her initial report had been enacted.
That was the last mention of a Poverty Tsar, the last time I am aware of her involvement in government in Scotland and certainly her last report.
If you criticise, you’re out; everyone else got the message. Very widespread civil society misgivings about policy and delivery therefore stay private and there is no dissent from parliamentarians.
The announcement cycle
From the beginning the focus of this administration has appeared to be image-building for its leader. The primary means of doing this has been a headline-orientated ‘announcement cycle’. All governments prioritise public communication but it is seldom the primary driver of policy.
There are a number of methods used by this administration to generate announcements. Working group establishment is crucial – the announcement is strong on ‘value signalling’ rather than specific plans, so the newsworthiness of the announcement is propped up by the establishment of a working group.
I’m reliably told that, in five years, there has been more than one created for each five working days of this administration. It is much harder to identify meaningful outcomes from working groups and many seem to disappear from view once the announcement is over.
For example, I’ve spent two years on the stakeholder group carrying out a feasibility study into the possibility of a limited pilot into a Universal Basic Income, a policy the Scottish Government does not have the power to implement.
Another announcement-producing strategy is target-setting. These produce PR-without-delivery by generally being for the distant future but are routinely missed when the target date is reached and are seldom (if ever) accompanied by an adequate programme of action.
Another is statements on aspirations to be ‘world leading’ which often bear little relation to reality. For example, the statement that ‘Scotland will be a world leader in 5G’ is in every sense technically unsupportable, virtually disregarding the laws of physics. It has no basis in fact whatsoever.
Another headline strategy is ‘announce and devolve’. The Scottish Government’s position on district heating is to say we will be world leaders (even though catching up with Denmark would requires many billions of pounds of expenditure) – and then devolving all the responsibility for this to cash-strapped local authorities, but with no meaningful funding.
A common approach is to pick out a headline-grabbing element of what would need to be part of an integrated plan, but without the other essential elements of that plan. A good example is ‘£500 million for hydrogen busses’, but with no funding for generating hydrogen and no funding for hydrogen refuelling infrastructure (we price that at not less than £600 million alone).
Likewise ‘the one pull-out soundbite’. I can’t reveal this policy area because I was told in confidence, but a major Scottish charity was told ‘ban X’ was to be put at the heart of strategy Y. They said ‘no, that’s marginal, it’s not the point at all – it has to be a coordinated plan’. While this is not yet complete, ‘ban X’ is on course to be the soundbite for FMQs and little else of substance is in the strategy.
Finally, there is simply too much over-claim. You will struggle to find so much as a single ‘wellbeing economist’ who could reconcile recent statements about aligning budgeting with wellbeing with current practice. The same is true (probably more so) with climate change.
The lobbyist’s agenda
Lobbyists have an inordinate influence on this government. This is because, from the beginning, the administration has been built around personality rather than a clear political mission.
In the absence of a clear mission-orientated policy agenda (other than ‘value-projection’ which is part of the image-building), and without a serious policy unit or proper links to the Scottish public policy community, the vacuum has been filled by the requests of lobbyists.
The leadership vigorously resisted an outright ban on fracking (keeping the door open for fracking companies such as Algy Cluff, a client of the influential-with-Sturgeon Charlotte Street Partners lobbying company run by the Growth Commission’s Andrew Wilson). It took a strong campaign by the internal SNP ‘SMAUG’ group to force their hand.
When Sturgeon announced that the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles would be banned in 2030 (though with no serious investment in the electric recharging capacity required to make this a reality), the lobby group for the big bulk housing developer corporations requested that the additional carbon savings be removed from their own targets. This was immediately granted.
The ‘big housing’ lobby has been particularly successful at delivering its agenda – many examples include the failure to tighten environmental building standards further and the reintroduction of a ‘help to buy’ scheme, the main impact of which is to inflate house prices and so increase developer profits.
Lobbyists for the private fitness industry wanted the rates relief local authorities get for public sports facilities removed to give them additional market advantage. I understand Ministers were minded to comply until local authorities explained how many sports centres it would close down. The compromise (currently in the NDR legislation) is to cap rates relief at current levels to discourage the further expansion of public sports facilities.
The capitulation to the AirBnB lobbyists (where the SNP voted with the Tories to prevent regulation of short-term lets causing major social problems in places like central Edinburgh) is well known. The Heathrow connection was so blatant even party members complained. An APD cut (former staffers being the airport’s lobbyists) was defended well after it was clear it made no sense.
Abellio appears able to resist all sanctions for poor performance and appears to have weakened further already weak commitments to public ownership of Scotland’s railways. The commitment has now receded to be no stronger than to use the same process via which Northlink Ferries were recently privatised to Serco.
The expansion of Serco’s role in Scottish public services over the last five years alone is too extensive to list here but is indicative of how closely this administration has followed the outsourcing agenda that lobbyists promote.
This is only a small selection of examples of the impact of lobbying – lobbyists even lobbied successfully to remove the teeth from the lobbying register so they’re not properly scrutinised.
Good ideas gone bad
The legacy of this administration should have been the childcare expansion. The reason you’ve heard little about it of late is that it’s roll-out is a mess. The reasons for this are many and there’s not space here to explain them all.
But basically there were a number of difficult and potentially controversial issues that had to be tackled but were ducked, and there needed to be substantial secondary investment (in buildings and particularly in workforce development) which wasn’t taken seriously.
And quite a lot of time internally was wasted by efforts to persuade Sturgeon to abandon her desire to introduce a kind of ‘voucher system’ which was almost identical to Tory policy. This is a very rare case of her colleagues and officials putting their foot down (it would have resulted in a bitter dispute with local authorities).
Another example is baby boxes. This policy was extracted from a much wider Finnish initiative and the Finns themselves consider it to be the least important part. In an attempt to modernise parenting skills they put in place a two-year process of supporting prospective and new parents with extensive training and agency support.
But they didn’t want to make it compulsory so they offered ‘baby boxes’ as an incentive for people to sign up. I know from the Finnish side that, when Scottish Government staffers did a fact-finding trip the Finns kept saying ‘no, you’re completely and utterly missing the point’. The Scots kept saying ‘we’re not interested, we only want to know what’s in the boxes’.
One more example; Scotland should of course be looking at gender recognition issues in light of current debates – but no-one benefits from consultations (as on the GRA) which appear to almost everyone to be deliberately manipulated.
Bad policies gone predictably badly
The SNP’s education policy was sketched out by Sturgeon herself after a one-day trip to an academy school in London and without (initially) the input of her own education team. It was a mix of ‘entrepreneurial leadership’, compulsory testing and other policy approaches traditionally associated with the right.
Everyone told the government this would be fail – parents, teachers, trade unions, her own officials, academics, everyone. But having made the big announcement they were pushed ahead anyway.
So bad has been this mess that when pressed to name a single expert who supported the policy the Scottish Government falsely named two US academics who, when they discovered, reacted furiously and condemned the government for dishonesty.
Suffice to say this whole agenda has either fallen apart completely and been binned or has been altered out of all recognition to prevent further harm. It is probably fair to say that this stands with the procurement of the Scottish Parliament as one of the biggest failures of the devolution era.
The issues that have simply been ducked
This is a long list; Council Tax reform, land reform, land taxes, proper planning reform, the struggle to get a Good Food Nation Bill moving, public rental house-building, rent controls, action on plastic and packaging, local democracy (though here the team is doing a decent job in the face of leadership disinterest), proper action on poverty, the decentralisation of power, tax reform, prison reform…
This list just keeps stretching onwards and in each case action has been non-existent or as limited and small-scale as it has been possible to get away with.
I want to raise one particular sore point for me – procurement and especially PFI. The NDP model was simply PFI-lite and after a strong Common Weal campaign SNP conference voted to end the model altogether via a Scottish National Infrastructure Company.
What has actually happened is that the Scottish Government has doubled-down with a new ‘Mutual Investment Model’ which is even more profit-, corporation- and private finance-driven than the NDP system. This was slipped out with almost no publicity – for a very good reason.
Again, this is a fairly long list. Since this piece is now dragging on I’ll just mention the new welfare system (way over-schedule), the new Sick Kids hospital (a total mess, but with Charlotte Street Partners in the background again) and the Named Person Scheme (a proposal with merit where poor communication and implementation resulted in its collapse).
Things going well
These are quite hard to identify. Ironically, the one which is genuinely going well is the Scottish National Investment Bank, another Common Weal policy the Scottish Government resisted until we won through a long campaign. The positive progress is mainly due to a good job done by Benny Higgins and the quality and commitment of the delivery team.
There have been a few small-but-worthy steps – decreasing the drink drive limit, lower speed limits in built up areas. Some half-hearted but better than the alternative like the nationalisation of Prestwick Airport. And some minimalist steps which are better than nothing like small tax rises and the toothless Lobbying Register. But they don’t make for much of a legacy.
Other things will probably be claimed as part of the legacy – like LGBT education moves or the smacking ban. But these are the work of others, not government.
My first conclusion is this is absolutely symptomatic of the administration – I started collecting examples for this piece a while ago and I’ve only used a small proportion of them. For almost any example here I could give you another five.
This is not a few mistakes; this is an systemic problem with how Nicola Sturgeon runs government and it is difficult to find much which bucks the trend of poor performance.
A second conclusion; partly by design (Sturgeon’s stated desire to govern from what she considers ‘the centre’ but which is often centre-right) and partly by accident (policy vacuums filled by lobbyists), SNP members should be concerned about where on the political spectrum the Scottish Government operates. It’s clearly not left wing; let me just add that it’s not centre left either and leave it at that for now.
The third is to question the oft-stated assumption that this administration has been about ‘competence’. This is really hard to stand up; education alone has been as much the opposite as it is possible to get – an ill-informed idea incompetently delivered against all the advice and which simply fell apart.
The final conclusion is to note the sheer gap between rhetoric and reality. There is a current international comparator for this; Justin Trudeau in Canada. Also a darling of centrist commentators, his image and electability collapsed when the reality of the gap between his ‘new politics’ image-making and his ‘grubby politics as usual’ track record became unmissable.
Sturgeon is at real risk of a very similar re-evaluation of her track record, and it could be equally brutal. The independence movement desperately needs this not to happen at what will be crucial moments ahead. And frankly Scotland needs better government.
I see little evidence of change at the top; I urge the wider party to look more closely at what is happening and, at the very least, to take steps to rebalance the unbalanced decision-making structures currently in place.