Brian Wilson: The SNP’s insistence on difference comes at a cost

Yesterday, I received a Christmas card from Nicola Sturgeon. Alas, my initial joy turned to disappointment when it became clear her Season’s Greetings were far from exclusive. Maybe the whole country got one.

Ostensibly, the purpose was to convey information that has been conveyed a thousand times before. In the unlikely event these cards might do a blind bit of good, why should they be in the name of a politician rather than the Chief Medical Officer? The redundant Christmas card was a reminder that politics is never far from the pandemic and no opportunity is wasted.

The myth of the wise leader is back in vogue. Last week, the lawyer for bereaved families of elderly Scots who were herded out of hospitals and into care homes suggested that Ms Sturgeon might go to jail for alleged dereliction of duty. Being a kindly soul, I have no wish to see her in jail but neither do I want a self-promoting Christmas card at public expense.

At a time it would be useful to have faith in governments not to play politics, there is less reason than ever for that trust. In Whitehall, every decision is tainted by suspicion of a calculation to balance scientific advice against the dafter wing of the Tory party which has turned against the Prime Minister for reasons unrelated to public health.

In Scotland, as ever, there is the over-arching need to create difference and then have a row about it. We got another major dose of that yesterday. Yet here is not a shred of evidence that differences in approach over 21 months have made any impact on outcomes, except to do extra damage to our economy.

I heard a BBC Scotland interviewer pose the question in a form that is music to the ears of those who seek division: “Does the row about Covid funding not make the case for independence unanswerable?” Ye gods, is this really the level of debate we should expect about what is supposed to be a public health crisis?

Separately, I heard Murdo Fraser, the Scottish Tory finance spokesman, being hectored about a claim the latest £220 million from the Treasury is not “additional money”. The priority seemed to be to rubbish anything delivered, yet the record shows the last thing the Scottish Government has been short of through the pandemic is extra cash – like every part of the UK.

Mr Fraser’s efforts to point out that the Auditor General for Scotland had just criticised the Scottish Government for lack of transparency over how previous billions have been spent were brushed aside as an inconvenient diversion from the script.

The Auditor General deserves a little respect so let me quote his precise words: “The Scottish Government needs to be proactive in publishing comprehensive Covid-19 financial reporting information which clearly links budgets, funding announcements and spending levels. This will increase transparency in the Government’s financial reporting in an area of significant parliamentary and public interest.”

That would be a better starting point for behavioural changes in St Andrew’s House and BBC interviewers than the perennial cooked-up “rows” about us being short-changed, even when the cheque is in the post. There is much to criticise the Tory government for but unfair treatment of Scotland in the distribution of funds is certainly not part of the charge-sheet.

Yesterday’s report by Professor David Bell for the Institute of Fiscal Studies advocated increased borrowing powers for devolved administrations both routinely and in exceptional circumstances like the pandemic if conditions vary between one part of the UK and others. That seems perfectly sensible but of course it would never be enough.

Professor Bell pointed out that if the exceptional circumstances arose in England, then Barnett consequentials might not follow for Scotland. Can you imagine any circumstances of flood, plague or pestilence in some part of England where that reasonable approach would not lead to a “row” with Edinburgh under the current regime?

Lots of things are possible within the devolved framework but you always come back to the point that it requires a modicum of mutual goodwill to make it work constructively. Unfortunately, rows are seen as more politically profitable while the Scottish economy and society stand still.

This week, I heard the Mayor of Teeside relate how three big inward investment projects were won from Scotland because of the SNP’s refusal to join the freeports concept. It was an object lesson in how the insistence on being different comes at a cost, mainly to other people’s jobs. But let’s just have a row instead.

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