Do you find your job dull and unfulfilling? Do you spend your days seeking out distractions or furtively pursuing your real interests?
Millions find themselves in this position and pass the time meandering on Facebook or searching for a new career.
Fair enough, you might think. There are some pretty humdrum posts out there but bills need to be paid.
One line of work you might not expect to be afflicted by such self-seeking ennui is being First Minister of Scotland. The office is the most senior government sinecure in the land, second only to the Prime Minister, and its inhabitant wields the kind of power the rest of us can only dream of.
The head of the Scottish Government presides over an annual budget of £38 billion and runs an executive unmatched anywhere in the world for the sheer scope of its powers over a sub-state region. The First Minister can change lives, change an entire society, from a desk in Bute House.
But it’s not enough for Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP First Minister — let’s dispense with the fiction that she’s Scotland’s First Minister — isn’t interested in changing lives. She wants to change history.
This week, she forced a vote through the Scottish Parliament calling for a second referendum on independence. The First Minister who assumed the office amid airy promises about education being her number one priority has reverted to form. Independence first; everything else, take a ticket.
But when the First Minister gets diverted on the job, the consequences are more serious than a few minutes wasted on social media. This is the quandary presented by devolution — the more powers transferred in concession to nationalist demands, the more widespread the damage from the nationalists refusing to use those powers.
The impact on public services is a matter of record — and makes for grim reading.
In health, 95% of patients are supposed to be seen within four hours of presenting at Accident & Emergency but health boards continue to miss that target. At the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, a £842 million campus on Glasgow’s south side, more than one in five patients waits longer. Cancer targets are not being met either. Those referred by their doctor are supposed to begin treatment within 62 days; across Scotland one in eight doesn’t and in NHS Lothian that rises to one in six. Almost half of junior doctors working in Scotland’s NHS report sleep deprivation on the job but SNP health secretary Shona Robison has U-turned on a promise to limit their shift patterns to no more than 48 hours a week.
Education is an intractable morass, with ten years of substandard ministers and ill-considered policy decisions combining to embed failure as the default setting. The number of primary four pupils performing well or very well in numeracy has been falling since 2011. Only four in ten secondary two children are making the grade in maths. There are almost 4,000 fewer teachers in schools than ten years ago and only one in every 20 schools is even inspected. Things are so bad, the SNP has withdrawn Scotland from two of the three major international surveys that evaluate the quality of education in maths, science and literacy.
If that is what comes of being made a ‘priority’ by Nicola Sturgeon, most parents would rather the First Minister forgot about their children altogether.
Childcare, yet another flagship for a First Minister who hands out promises like lollipops, is struggling to meet the SNP leader’s headline-grabbing pledge of 1,140 hours’ free early years and nursery provision. Of course, it’s only ‘free’ in the same way as those cups of coffee handed out gratis by high-end supermarkets to entice you inside. As with most things in life, there’s still a bill at the end. According to the National Day Nurseries Association, nurseries in Scotland are running at a funding shortfall of £1,000 per head for three and four year olds. The Annual Nursery Survey reports: ‘In 2017 the sector is set to see more nurseries increasing their fees and rises higher than in 2016. Most nurseries have negative feelings about the 1,140 hour expansion, with only half saying they are likely to provide places.’
Police Scotland has a projected deficit of £47 million and the Scottish Government is pressing ahead with its latest nationalist vanity project — scrapping the British Transport Police against the vocal opposition of everyone involved. The SNP can’t get cancer patients seen on time but it certainly springs to action when there’s another chance to score the word ‘British’ out of public life in Scotland.
All this and the Scottish Parliament hasn’t passed a single bill other than the budget in over a year. Only the SNP could do nothing and still make things worse.
Individually, these look like discrete crises but they are all branches of the same poisoned root: A government which refuses to govern and opts instead to use the levers of power to campaign for independence.
Even this the Nats cannot get right. For Miss Sturgeon’s Brexit gambit was met with stony resolve by Theresa May. Scotland voted No, the Prime Minister calmly explained, and the SNP was not going to provoke a constitutional crisis in the middle of Brexit. Mrs May is too polite to say it but her message to Scotland’s separatist in chief was essentially that delivered by her feistier colleague earlier this week: ‘Sit down’.
What now for the SNP? That is not clear. The Nats are biding their time, a canny decision but one that will quickly antagonise their restive membership. (The SNP was once divided between fundamentalists and gradualists; now the fundamentalists are in the cabinet and the gradualists are in the Scottish Labour Party.) After five years of inciting their members against Westminster, the MSM, and Tunnock’s tea cakes, the Nationalists are a revolutionary cell paralysed by indecision.
The rank and file would like to see Miss Sturgeon call Downing Street’s bluff and announce a rogue referendum. This would pose significant political, legal, and constitutional questions. The chief drawback would be non-cooperation from the Unionist side. It is unlikely that the Tories, for instance, would have anything to do with a plebiscite they deemed illegally constituted. A boycott by Unionist voters would hand victory to the Nats but it would be a Pyrrhic one, delivering a lopsided result that reeked of banana republic politics. It would also entrench division between nationalists and unionists to a degree that those who theorise an ‘Ulsterisation’ of Scottish politics could no longer be chided as melodramatic or distasteful.
Another option would be holding a referendum on whether the Scottish Government should pursue a second vote on indepedence or a poll asking if Scots would prefer to be an independent country within the EU or part of the UK and leaving with it. An advisory referendum would not empower the Scottish Government to pursue a particular course of action but could supply an almighty cudgel with which to pummel Westminster. Still, it’s not guaranteed that Unionists would want anything to do with a poll not sanctioned by the UK Government.
Alternatively, the First Minister could maintain her present stance, the longest political sulk since Ted Heath, and hope either that public opinion in Scotland changes or that Downing Street gets so sick of her they let her have her referendum and tell her not to let the hard border hit her on the way out. The second scenario is unlikely though Miss Sturgeon’s tactic of provoking anti-Scottish sentiment in England could very well bear fruit. To this end, she plans to use parliamentary procedure to block Brexit if the UK Parliament gains powers from Brussels that she believes should be held by Holyrood.
Her spokesman tells the Times: “We wouldn’t in those circumstances be giving legislative consent. We have no intention of facilitating or enabling the removal of powers from this parliament.”
This would see the Scottish Parliament refuse to cooperate with Westminster and would surely ignite a constitutional crisis. Miss Sturgeon is said to have calculated that the UK Government would have no choice but to force through Brexit over the objections of the chamber in Edinburgh. This, the plan goes, would spark a backlash north of the border and cause a surge in support for separation.
If this is indeed the SNP leader’s blueprint for Brexit, it is the manifesto of a wrecker and not of a stateswoman. It is confirmation that the First Minister has wrapped herself so tightly in the flag that she’s cut off the oxygen supply to her brain. The voters, including those whose attachment to independence is still political and not yet devotional, will take a dim view of a leader bent on anarchy while pensioners suffer stoically in agony in Accident & Emergency waiting rooms. They will think her cold, cruel, and, worst of all, political.
Should Miss Sturgeon aspire to be more than a constitutional vandal, there is one option left open to her. It is risky but politics always is when the stakes are this high.
The gap that the Nationalist leader must close is between her political will and the authority to exercise it. Put simply, the First Minister lacks a mandate for her current course. If we accept that such a mandate is even possible when the constitution is reserved — devolution is a hurtling van with no brakes and no reverse gear — it does not follow that the 2016 SNP manifesto provides consent for another plebiscite. That platform, which stated only that Holyrood “should have the right to hold another referendum”, failed to secure a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, seeing the SNP reduced to minority rule. An additional difficulty comes with the scenario envisioned by the manifesto, that of ‘Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will’, which would require a remedial referendum to retain or return Scotland to the EU. However, the Nationalists have been sending mixed messages on this subject, with their foreign affairs spokesman Alex Salmond suggesting they could settle for membership of the European Free Trade Association, and through that the single market, instead.
Yes, they have the Scottish Greens onside. Patrick Harvie has taken a radical environmentalist movement and turned it into a nationalist lobby group. A bold voice for a different kind of politics has become a timid echo for the SNP, the party of business-as-usual with a different flag. But drawing on Holyrood’s six Green MSPs is problematic. They were each elected on a manifesto that the people, not the politicians, would decide the timing of a second referendum through a citizens’ initiative. The Greens will back the Nats no matter what — this is Patrick Harvie’s idea of a recycling scheme: Nicola Sturgeon throws the bottles and he picks them up again — but they have done perhaps irreparable violence to their credibility.
The path forward for those who want a fresh referendum in the near future is clear: Miss Sturgeon and her government should resign and take their case to the country. In forcing fresh elections to Holyrood, the First Minister could seek a mandate with an explicit manifesto commitment to hold a second plebiscite. If she could win a majority in the Scottish Parliament on that platform, Theresa May would have no choice but to bow to the popular will.
Nicola Sturgeon might wish to ponder her tactics for another reason. When confronted on her execrable record, she insists it’s because Holyrood doesn’t have enough powers. When she loses a vote at Holyrood, she usually ignores it. When told she can’t have another referendum when she stamps her feet for one, she says Westminster is conspiring to steal Holyrood’s powers away. When she chooses grievance over governance, she makes Holyrood look small and dysfunctional.
So much so that voters will eventually conclude either that Holyrood is a failure — in which case, why not decrease its powers? — or that the SNP is better suited to running down Holyrood than to running it. That should concern the SNP, not for the constitutional harm they are doing but for the injury they are inflicting on their own brand. Yes, they’re electorally unassailable just now but will they be after another five years of incompetence and belligerence. If the SNP can’t govern Scotland without independence, maybe Scotland won’t choose independence — maybe it’ll get rid of the SNP.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.
Feature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.