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3 February 2022

What does the SNP have to show for 15 years in power?

Despite the governing party’s remarkable longevity, the landscape of big, bold projects in Scotland is depressingly sparse.

By Chris Deerin

By the time Scotland elects its next devolved parliament in 2026, the SNP will have been in power for 19 years. The party will almost certainly win again, giving it an unbroken run of 24 years in office. Perhaps it will manage closer to 30. Whatever one’s definition of a generation – and in Scotland it’s a somewhat elastic concept – that’s one hell of a democratic licence. It’s significantly longer than the Tories had between 1979 and 1997, and dwarves New Labour’s 13 years.

As administrations age, it becomes possible, and increasingly important, to step back from the gridiron bash and rush of daily politics and look at what has actually been achieved. In her 11 years as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher affected a fundamental economic transformation of Britain. In his decade, Tony Blair aggressively rebuilt and reformed public services and was left with the scars on his back to prove it.

Consequential governments use their political capital to change the underlying architecture of a country. That, after all, is why they seek election in the first place – because the other guys are doing it wrong. And governments with enduring lifespans have an opportunity to do more than most.

What, then, of the all-conquering SNP? Its politicians talk a good game about the long term and the national interest. It is “Scotland’s party”, standing up with integrity and purpose to Westminster’s game-playing public schoolboys. They have a clear vision of a better future.

When it comes to examples of good governance, the Nats like to point us away from London in the direction of Scandinavia and northern Europe. In particular, they are fond of talking about Norway’s oil fund, set up in 1990 to invest surplus oil revenues, which now has £1trn in assets and is the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund. In contrast, it argues, the UK’s (Scotland’s!) North Sea oil was squandered, used for current spending rather than investment – just one area in which it says the UK has failed at long-term strategic planning.

The SNP has a point. The fiercely tribal partisanship of Westminster can be wearying and obstructive, and prevents the kind of depoliticised, multi-decade goal-setting that is seen in, say, Sweden and Denmark. Our governments are constantly fighting the next election, working the angles and plotting their way to retaining power. There is little immediate gain from long-term wins, by which time they will be long gone anyway, so why bother?

Yet this is just one more area where the SNP’s rhetoric is more impressive than its practice. Despite its almost unprecedented longevity – only Labour in Wales has ruled for longer – and despite the ideological smoothness of the handover of power between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon in 2014, there has been a mysterious absence of strategic planning. There has been almost no cross-party collaboration – on that front, Holyrood is a lot more like Westminster than its inhabitants would care to admit. The landscape of big, bold projects is depressingly sparse.

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Of course, there is one area in which there has been plenty of activity: the design of an independent Scotland. But even here, the Nats have fumbled and stumbled their way to an offer. The white paper prepared for the 2014 referendum was both overly detailed and unconvincing. Since then they have attempted to square various circles on issues such as currency, central banks and borders – this week’s row over who would be responsible for funding an independent Scotland’s pensions is the latest case – with, to be generous, varying degrees of success.

In my interview for this week’s New Statesman with the Scottish Economy Secretary, Kate Forbes, she praised Sturgeon’s ability to look beyond the next day’s headlines: “I remember her once saying that, during a pandemic, you needed to make decisions not in light of the consequences tomorrow, but in light of the consequences in a month’s time.” Forbes said, too, that governments should always consider “what are the difficult decisions that we need to make, not in light of the consequences tomorrow or next week, whether those are political consequences or others, but of not doing it or doing it in a year’s time”. Sturgeon operates with “a long-termism that I think has been missing from Scottish politics”.

[See also: Will Kate Forbes be Scotland’s next leader?]

Well, up to a point. It’s true that in her time the First Minister has set up various committees of experts and commissioned a number of reports to look at the future. But it’s not always the case that the necessary political decisions have followed.

Consider local government. The last serious reform came under the former Labour first minister, Jack McConnell, when he changed the voting system from first past the post to STV (single transferable vote). Under the SNP, local authorities have been left to drift – a prolonged council tax freeze was accompanied by increased ring-fencing of the annual central government grant. There has been no democratic renewal, despite growing support for directly elected mayors following their lively introduction in England. Councils have begged for greater financial freedoms but even where these are apparently coming – say, in allowing Edinburgh City Council to introduce a tourism tax – the Holyrood government has had to be dragged kicking and screaming. Levelling up isn’t even discussed in Scotland. If the administration fell tomorrow, councils would look much as they did when the nationalists first took power in 2007, but weaker. Even SNP council leaders have begun to revolt.

When it comes to the economy, the Nats have largely proved anaemic. They have been given control over income tax bands and rates by Westminster, but have barely used them – a little light tinkering allows them to claim the tax is more progressive than south of the border, but only just. The business community has felt neglected and often resented by ministers, and it is hard to identify areas where government action has made Scotland more internationally competitive. Where the state has stepped into the economy – with, say, the failing Glasgow Prestwick Airport or BiFab in Fife – it has brought little but trouble.

On education, the SNP is generally viewed as having overseen a decline in the quality of Scotland’s schools, while its recent attempt to address the challenge and costs of social care falls well short of providing the means to do so. A 2020 report into boosting the nation’s technology ecosystem by the former Skyscanner executive, Mark Logan, sparked initial excitement, but since appears to have fallen by the wayside. It says something that the creation of the Scottish National Investment Bank stands out quite as starkly as it does – it is a rare exception of government bravery that only proves the rule.

There are, of course, targets to draw Scotland closer to net zero, but all governments now have these and in the modern political climate they are unavoidable. Those working in the energy sector say the nation could have made much more progress towards being a world-leader in renewables – it certainly has the natural resources.

Defenders of the SNP point out that the past decade has been an unusually frantic period in British and Scottish politics. There was the independence referendum, followed by Brexit, followed by the Alex Salmond scandal and the Covid pandemic. Long-term planning has had to give way to emergency action. As Forbes told me: “Fifteen years, retrospectively, is an extremely long time for long-term reform. But if you’re going from election to election – you think how many elections we’ve had in the space of the last decade, it’s almost been but not quite on an annual basis – I think that [the] pace of [the] electoral cycle makes it hard for longer-term vision.”

While this is true, it’s rare for governments not to be tackling one sort of crisis or another at any time in history. Even internally, there’s a recognition among some that not enough has been achieved. “The record isn’t great, is it,” admitted one senior SNP figure. “There’s a lot of maturing to be done.” One might ask how long the party needs.

In the coming days, Forbes will launch yet another strategy document, the National Strategy for Economic Transformation. Early drafts were seen as too bland and it has had to be overhauled. It will be interesting to see whether it has any real punch. She is at least trying. “You’ve got to decide what you’re about, where your strengths are, then absolutely back them,” she told me. “We face a choice: do you lag behind the rest of the world, or do you lead the rest of the world? You can’t do both, and rhetoric won’t get you leading.”

Quite. Otherwise, future Scottish generations will look back on the early 21st century and the mighty SNP and wonder what on Earth the point of it all was.

[See also: Who will Scottish voters blame for falling living standards?]

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