As my friend Euan McColm rather brilliantly puts it, the problem with trying to turn a bottle return scheme into a major constitutional crisis is that it’s a bottle return scheme. This minor flaw in the Scottish government’s calculations hasn’t stopped the SNP-Green coalition from trying to do just that, of course. In the fight for national liberation everything is a weapon, whether it’s a sword or a soiled nappy. If baby Holyrood has a problem, it’s always mother Westminster’s fault.
Speaking of weapons, the politician in charge of the project, Lorna Slater, the circular economy minister and Green MSP, is somehow still in post despite her startling incompetence and the long trail of chaos left in her wake. There is a disturbingly long list of devolved ministers who have merited Clement Attlee’s curt “not up to it” dismissal, but Slater still manages to stand out. In any private-sector organisation she would rightly have been asked to fetch her heavily badged parka by now.
SNP first ministers have always shown a white-knuckled determination never to fire anyone, even if they’re only a Green, and even if they’re as incapable as Slater. The damage that has been done to business by her bungled plan, the financial cost to companies already struggling with inflation and falling demand, and the daily embarrassment to Humza Yousaf’s administration are all worth tolerating to avoid handing a scalp to the opposition parties. The nation just has to lump it.
As so often with this government, the initial intention was a reasonable one: the return scheme would encourage more people to recycle bottles and cans, helping to tackle climate change and reduce littering. Purchasers of drinks would be charged a 20p deposit which would be given back to them when they took the empty container, whether plastic, metal or glass, to a recycling point; these would be situated at places including the shops and pubs which sell the containers. And as so often, the implementation of the policy has been abysmal. Businesses warned it would place extra administrative, time and cost burdens on them in an already difficult period. Retail organisations argued that thousands of companies could be forced to abandon the Scottish market.
Nevertheless, the Scottish government ploughed on amid the complaints, only to find that Westminster would have to grant an exemption to the Internal Market Act. Returns schemes are planned for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not until 2025, thus creating a temporary unlawful trade barrier with the rest of the UK, with different prices being charged. Slater had repeatedly insisted that the scheme would go ahead as planned, only to backtrack. The proposed launch date of last July was initially delayed until this August, and has now been put back until next March, but even that timetable is in doubt. Because the British government will not include glass in the English version, Slater says she will have to “rerun all the numbers” and that her plan might face “insurmountable” problems.
The whole thing has been a humiliating mess, but in every crisis an opportunity. Westminster “has thrown a spanner in the works and tried to sabotage the system”, insists Slater, and devolution is under “sustained attack”. This is a tried and tested nationalist method of digging themselves out of a hole of their own making. As the Scottish Licensed Trade Association has said, the minister’s approach has been akin to “building a 20-storey skyscraper then applying for retrospective planning permission”. One might have expected the Scottish government to have done due diligence on its proposals, including whether there might be an issue with UK law. That it didn’t is of course London’s fault: a constitutional battle is always preferable to an admission that you have royally screwed up.
In another country the scale and consistency of this SNP-Green government’s incompetence would have it heading for the exit door. It is also having to rethink its proposed National Care Service, has been forced to scrap a plan to restrict alcohol advertising, is in a terrible, ongoing guddle over its gender recognition reforms and has nothing resembling an agenda for the NHS, the education system or the economy. A police investigation into SNP party funding continues. The only real message we’ve had from Yousaf is that he intends to raise taxes yet again, putting Scotland at a further competitive disadvantage to the rest of the UK.
And yet. I asked an independence-supporting friend whether, in view of all this, he was really minded to vote SNP at the next election. “I don’t care about scandal or whether they’re any good. I will vote for them until we have independence,” he said. If the party remains ahead in the polls – though Labour is quickly making up ground – people like him are the reason why.
Does Scotland deserve better? Only if it chooses better. What a sorry state of affairs, and what a sad reflection on the state of our democratic debate.