It was a rather ragged end to the year in Holyrood. Political staff seemed tetchy, MSPs grumpy, hacks bored. The last sessions of First Minister’s Questions were pretty dire as even Alex Salmond’s wit deserted him. There’s a general feeling that, well, the action is elsewhere. Holyrood has fallen off the map.
Labour insist this is because the SNP government has run out of ideas and is ‘doing nothing’, and there is a grain of truth in that. Ministers are showing signs of exhaustion and while there is no shortage of bills going through the parliament, a lot of the excitement has gone. The rows over the Scottish Futures Trust and local income tax refuse to go away, like blue tack stuck to the sole of Alex Salmond’s boot.
But SFT and LIT are pretty synthetic political issues. I mean, in the midst of the greatest economic crisis in 80 years, who really cares? Lives are not at stake over alternative models of public sector procurement; wars are not fought over local authority funding methods. That these seem the only issues in town only confirms that the town is some distance from the action. Which right now is in London - where the key economic decisions are being taken over bank rescues, fiscal stimuli, corporate bailouts, interest rates and such like. Such is the nature the devolution settlement - however there is a danger of Scottish politics looking petty-mind, as if Scottish politicians were reluctant to address the great issues of the day. Instead of continuing with vapid adversarialism, I wonder if it might be time for the Scottish parties to pool their intellectual resources and start presenting a common front.
The economic crisis poses similar political problems for both the main Holyrood parties. As the government of the day, Alex Salmond risks being blamed for economic problems for which he is not responsible - like the mass unemployment. Similarly, Iain Gray, the new leader of the Labour Party in Holyrood, risks being blamed for decisions taken by the Westminster government. Salmond needs to demonstrate that the Scottish government is more than just a constitutional ornament; Gray that he isn’t just an apologist for London Labour. It may be that they they can do this better right now by working together than by working apart.
They don’t need to form a national government, but they should seriously consider putting together a common plan of action for the Scottish economy. The Scottish voice needs to be heard loud and clear in Westminster and there’s more chance of this happening if the parties start speaking a common language. This recession will be different from previous ones in that its epicentre is in the financial services sector in London. A lot of articulate metropolitans are going to be demanding support from government in the “middle class recession” as it’s being called. There is real danger that the rest of the country gets forgotten about. It bodes ill that, in the emergency budget last month, the Chancellor almost imposed a crippling increase on Scotch whiskey by duty mistake.
I am not saying that oppositons should not oppose, or governments not govern. But right now there is a broad consensus about what is needed in Scotland; more social housing, better transport, manufacturing, support for higher education and training. Get Iain Gray, Alex Salmond and Tavish Scott in a room together and there wouldn’t be a cigarette paper between them on the big economic issues. If there are to be Obama-style public works programmes, then a fast rail link to Scotland should be top of the list. Renewable energy is a great Scottish resource but it needs public investment to turn it into a great industry. Whatever you think of the Barnett Formula, now is not the time to be cutting public spending in Scotland, under the current review. The Homecoming is all very well, but we need to do more than celebrate the short-bread tin.
The Scottish political classes need to stop bickering about side issues like SFT and LIT and start thinking about how to use the Scottish budget constructively to promote employment and growth in Scotland. Elements of the £30bn budget could perhaps be reallocated to promote job creation. If fiscal stimulus is the order of the day, could there be a case for using the existing Scottish tax powers to give the economy a boost?
Could all parties not press for the Scottish govrnment to be allowed to issue debt - bonds - to finance more public works projects to promote economic activity. Why not? Every local authority has the power to issue bonds, why not the Scottish government? It would allow infrastructure projects in Scotland to go ahead without wrangling over the method of funding. And, yes, if public private partnership really is the only game in town, why not use that if it can be made to deliver value for money? There could be other taxation moves, perhaps on corporation tax or fuel duty to mitigate the overcentralisation of the economy in the South East.
For there is a real danger that Holyrood and Scottish politics could be sidelined for a decade or so until the economy stabilsies. After the economic crisis broke in earnest in September, you could almost feel the power draining away from Holyrood. This was most evident in the way that Gordon Brown brushed Alex Salmond aside in his pursuit of a shotgun marriage between HBOS and Lloyds. When bank workers in Edinburgh started to fear for their jobs, it was to Westminster, rather than Holyrood, that they looked for salvation. Businesses left high and dry by the collapse of corporate credit are looking to Westminster for anwers, not Holyrood.
The home rule debate has been sidelined as people have started to focus on their financial security. The Calman commission is becalmed; the national conversation muted. Nationalism has tended to be a fair-weather phenomenon in Scotland - autonomy is something voters seek when they are feeling reasonably confident and prepared to take political risks. That isn’t the case right now, and the experience of bankrupt Iceland - and the rest of the ‘arc of insolvency’ - while not directly relevant to Scotland, has dampened enthusiasm for constitutional innovation. It’s not so much that Scots don’t want self-government any more - polls confirm they do - but that they have other things on their minds.
The Scottish political classes need to open their minds. Action is needed to prevent capital, skills and public investment being drawn inexorably south. This is an opportunity to put Holyrood’s much-vaunted cooperative model into practice. And after all, this is the season of goodwill.