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8 September 2023

The Scottish state is broken

Under the SNP, the government has continually swung its great clunking fist only to punch itself in the face.

By Chris Deerin

In 2019, when the Conservative MP Jesse Norman released his excellent biography of Adam Smith, I made a present of it to a senior minister in Nicola Sturgeon’s government.

The book reclaims Smith from the clutches of the Thatcherite right, by layering his Theory of Moral Sentiments over the better-known Wealth of Nations. What emerges is a more rounded and accurate portrait of the great Scottish thinker than those that portray him as some sort of proto-capitalist shark solely committed to the “invisible hand” of the market. 

While Smith argued for the benefits of the market – that union with England had shown that Scots “were ingenious both in finding new markets and in financing trade with them” – he also made the case for social responsibility and natural empathy: “Communication and community [and] what free people have in common between them.” For Norman, as for Gordon Brown, Theory of Moral Sentiments does not so much conflict as complement The Wealth of Nations

I suggested to the minister – one of the smarter ones – that his government should set out a broad philosophical argument behind its purpose and activities. The administration seemed proactive and reactive, but rarely reflective. Perhaps, as we all wrestled with the economic and social challenges of the fourth industrial revolution, consulting Smith and Scottish Enlightenment thinking might offer some historical wisdom as well as guidance for the present and the future. It would give the nation direction and reassurance. He might even make a speech.

The minister didn’t make a speech. I have no idea whether he even read the book. And the Scottish government continues to operate according to principles and fundamentals that remain largely unstated, and that appear to rest in shallow intellectual soil. At an event to mark the 300th anniversary of Smith’s birth this year, I heard the former SNP finance secretary John Swinney claim that Smith was some kind of social justice warrior. I’m not sure Swinney’s read the book either.

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Under the SNP, or certainly once Sturgeon took the helm in 2014, national government has been deployed as the blunt solution to all that ails us. There is no discussion as to whether, in this complex, diffracted 21st century, we should be seeking to build an enabling state rather than a controlling one, or where the proper limits of government should lie and where the private must remain inalienable.

This has often been the government’s undoing: when you are a hammer, every problem resembles a nail. Sturgeon was determined to liberalise Scotland’s gender laws in very specific ways. Her final offer closely resembled her initial one, despite claims of broad consultation with all sides and overwhelming public opposition. All hell, as we know, broke loose, and if anything the rights of transgender people across the UK have been set back.

Police and fire services have been centralised, and ScotRail has been nationalised. Local government has been denuded of funds and autonomy even as its burdens have risen. The Hate Crime Bill and the Football Act were disasters of state over-reach, as was the insistence on holding a Scottish census separate to the wider UK one. The proposed bottle deposit return scheme broke down amid private sector unrest. A ban on alcohol advertising has been returned to the drawing board, as have plans for an expensive and centralised national care service. Sturgeon was forced to abandon invasive plans to assign every child in the country with a named person from outside the family unit to safeguard their welfare. 

Government interference in the awarding of a major ferry contract has led to lengthy overruns and an overspend totalling hundreds of millions of pounds. Its decision to prop up the manufacturing firm BiFab and the Lochaber Smelter were expensive gambles that failed.

The word “progressive” is used to excuse repeated tax raids on the middle classes without any commensurate improvement in the quality of public services. The poor are given handouts – no bad thing in a cost-of-living crisis – but there is precious little thought as to how they might also be helped to lift themselves out of poverty. The oil and gas industry, once at the heart of what then-sympathetic ministers called a “just transition”, is now treated as anathema in an accelerated sprint to net zero. The SNP refuses to even consider changing its outright ban on tuition fees, despite the negative impact on university funding and the consequent lack of places for Scottish students (as universities prioritise more lucrative international ones). 

The full might of the government machine has for years been put behind securing Scottish independence, to no effect.

Amid all this, what might be seen as the fundamental priorities of devolved government – the performance of schools and hospitals, and the nurturing of the private economy – have been neglected. There is a dangerous aversion to data and the measurement of outcomes, which might after all contradict the public message of relentless success. Wealth creation is viewed with suspicion. Under the SNP the state has continually swung its great clunking fist only to punch itself in the face.

There are those who will defend some or all of the measures detailed above – and in some cases the arguments in favour are perfectly reasonable – but it is difficult to fit them into a coherent template. By its unwillingness to provide one, or lack of interest in doing so, the government asks us to create our own. It’s tempting therefore to reduce the SNP’s behaviour to the core, historical goal of all nationalisms: the party is the movement is the people is the state. Nothing above or below matters more than the nation, an idea that is expressed through central government intervention and control.

There was little in Humza Yousaf’s first Programme for Government earlier this week to suggest he sees the world otherwise. The language and the policies were largely statist and interventionist. It is never about what we can do for our country, and always about what our country can do for us, whether we want it to or not.

There surely has to be more to a national conversation than this – a deeper and open discussion of who we are and what has formed us, and what we aspire to be. One that goes beyond the redrawing of borders, fantastical papers on the economics of independence, and constant carping at our neighbours. A recognition of Scotland’s vast, diverse, nature is essential – the inner workings of the clock must be understood and appreciated if progress is to be made. It should be understood that in most people’s lives, the private and personal will always matter more than the public and the political.

Labour, at least, is showing signs of intellectual rigour: of considering what kind of governing party it should be in London and Edinburgh, of what the state can and should do and what it can’t and shouldn’t, of the practicalities and pragmatics of governance. It is being berated by the utopians of north and south for this, but that is the price of effective leadership. It is, ultimately, how to get things done.

[See also: The parallels between Argentina and Britain’s inept political class]

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