In politics, as in life, you’re sometimes better off begging forgiveness than asking permission. Sometimes you simply need to do a thing and deal with the fall out afterwards.
It’s not a form of behaviour to be pursued regularly, though. A habit of doing what you want, when you want, without any consultation, can quickly, and rightly, come to be seen as simple contempt for others.
This is a habit the SNP seems to be slipping into. The Scottish government has in the past made much of its generous approach to consultation – the disastrous gender reform bill was, we were regularly told, the most consulted upon piece of legislation in Holyrood’s history.
When it suits them, though, ministers are perfectly, and disturbingly, willing to plough on with a scheme that has been shared with no one, and that gives every impression of having occurred to them about five minutes before its launch.
The council tax freeze is a good example of this. There was no warning that one was being considered until Humza Yousaf announced it in his SNP conference speech back in October. In fact, 48 hours before his speech Yousaf didn’t know he’d be announcing it either. There had been no discussion with councils, which were horrified. It hadn’t been signed off by the cabinet either, which was surprising given the weighty economic consequences of the decision.
Another example is a planned new levy on supermarkets and larger stores that sell tobacco and alcohol. This was part of Finance Secretary Shona Robison’s tax-raising budget in late December, not that you’d have known it if you’d listened to her statement. There was no mention of the levy – which could impact on jobs and investment – in the speech. It was only spotted later in the fine print of the budget documents. David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium, has criticised a “worrying ad hoc and piecemeal approach” that “smacks of incoherent policymaking within government.”
Whatever your view of the policies in question, or of any special pleading on Lonsdale’s part, it’s hard to disagree with this analysis.
And there’s more. Again, this time out loud in her actual budget speech, Robison promised a “national conversation” on NHS reform. This is a big deal, and something the British Medical Association and other health organisations have been asking for with increasing desperation for many months. As they’ve watched the health service creak and fail, medics have repeatedly pushed ministers to undertake a sweeping and open-minded review of how the NHS operates.
But the announcement, when it came, amounted to no more than a single, fleeting line: “we will take forward a National Conversation to help shape the NHS for the future.” There was no advance warning to the BMA or anyone else, and I’m told there has been no contact with them since. I don’t believe the words “national conversation” have publicly passed the lips of the Health Secretary Michael Matheson, who anyway has other problems to face. Is it happening? If it does, is the government’s heart in it? Where’s the sense of urgency?
All of the above speaks, as David Lonsdale puts it, to a “worrying ad hoc and piecemeal approach” – to an administration that lacks coherence, confidence and purpose. Indeed, it’s telling that Yousaf seems happiest and most energised when unveiling yet another fantasy paper on how wonderful independence would be – £10,000 more for the average Scottish family! – prepared by civil servants who might be otherwise, and arguably more fruitfully, employed.
The Scottish electorate’s capacity for forgiveness may be wearing rather thin.
[See also: How much trouble is Ed Davey in?]