Progressives with a banker blindspot

Isobel Lindsay suggests that the SNP in Government has faced mainly left but with a right track

Tom Nairn described nationalism as Janus-headed, looking at the same time to the past and the future. It might be more relevant now to apply the metaphor to the left/right spectrum. Does the Scottish Government face both left and right? Halfway through the Scottish Parliamentary term is a fair point at which to assess what the SNP has achieved. As well as examining what the evidence suggests about its ideological complexion, there is also an important question about how effective it has been in its administrative role. For any government, having its heart in the right or wrong place is one important issue; the other is whether it has the ability and nerve to turn values into successful outcomes.

One of the most important contributions that the SNP has made to good governance in Scotland was simply to win. That in itself has greatly improved Scottish politics. All governments eventually get stale and arrogant as they come to take power for granted and a third Labour/Lib Dem coalition would have conveyed the message that things can’t be changed. To believe that things can be changed was important for the parties and important for the public. It was also important for all those networks that relate to the public sector and had come to take for granted Labour’s Scottish dominance with all the patronage powers that went with it. More than a few people found that they didn’t have any of the right names in their contact books.

A second achievement, unrelated to particular policy agendas, was to show that minority government can work and is an option for any future Parliament. This has opened up choices that were envisioned by many of those involved in work on proposals for the Parliament’s constitution in the 1990s but were viewed by most commentators as not viable. Using administrative powers to the full – as the Welsh Assembly has shown – gave considerable scope for action without having to jump through the legislative hurdle. Also opposition parties will struggle to unite on many issues. While the SNP has had to select its programme with a view to minimise the chances of defeat, it has been able to promote its own agenda more effectively than had it gone into coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

These have been two important contributions to improving Scottish politics before any assessment of policy content.

The Left Track

In comparison with what has been done by governments at Westminster, the dominant ideological position has been weighted to the left but there has been something of a dual track. On most of the devolved powers there has been a fairly clear social democratic, centre/left position. That was also broadly true of the previous administrations but it has been more consistent with the SNP.

The rejection of PFI has been important not just because of the cost but because it ends the transfer of significant aspects of management to private companies. The absence of borrowing powers has not made alternatives easy but during this Parliament, Scotland should not be saddled with more costly, rigid, privately-controlled management of core public amenities.

In health services, there has been a rejection of market mechanisms and private outsourcing on the English model and a commitment to welfare state principles as with the phasing-out of prescription charges (following the Welsh example). In school education there has been firm support for the comprehensive principle and no flirtation with city academies and other opt-outs from the local authority. The abolition of the remaining fee element for university students has been in the tradition of the post-war settlement. On housing, there has been some support for new council housing and more restrictions on the sale of social housing. Justice policy has taken a much more ‘progressive’ agenda than the tabloid-driven approach of the previous administration. Energy policy has been fairly green although the same can’t be said of transport. The reduction in attempts to micro-manage local authorities is rather closer to practice in the rest of the world. On the reserved issues of defence and foreign policy, they have firmly positioned themselves on the left in relation to nuclear weapons and opposition to the Iraq war (although ambivalent on Afghanistan).

From a European perspective, the SNP Government would be seen as mainstream social democratic across its areas of responsibility. From a Westminster perspective, it would be seen as far left.

The Right Track

Alongside this centre-left profile, there is another face. It is a smaller face and is complicated by the fact that much of the more right-wing positioning of the SNP relates to reserved powers and there is no evidence of what it might have done in practice. But we can look at policy positions and at some choices made in Scotland.

Support for very low corporate taxation and light touch finance and business regulation has been part of SNP policy for over a decade. Where there have been Holyrood powers, they have been used to reduce business rates without any solid evidence of the employment outcomes. The SNP Euro MPs did not support implementing the 48 hour maximum working week in the UK. Business pressure for the M74 extension and other transport issues have had a positive response.

Some in the SNP leadership were swept along with the dominant economic ideology. They became true believers, more attracted to the Irish model despite the evidence of its sharp increase in inequality and an unsustainable property boom, rather than the Finnish or Norwegian models

Whether the SNP leadership’s engagement with aspects of the neo-liberal agenda arose from expediency or conviction is not clear. There is (or was) an obvious expediency argument. A party seeking radical change needs to cultivate allies and, equally important, to try to neutralise powerful opponents by offering them what they want to hear. The business ‘voice’ (not always the same as actual business) was strongly against devolution in both referendum campaigns. Any independence referendum could expect the same opposition so one can see the attraction in not frightening the boardrooms. But there is a distinction between the business ‘politicians’ who make a lot of noise and many serious business people who have experience in operating in varying political environments.. Also there will always be the business mavericks – Sir Hugh Fraser in the 1970s and Brian Souter today – who will break with the consensus irrespective of the CBI voice.

But expediency appears not to be the only reason for cultivating the bankers and promising a low post-independence corporate tax regime. Some in the SNP leadership were swept along with the dominant economic ideology. They became true believers, more attracted to the Irish model despite the evidence of its sharp increase in inequality and an unsustainable property boom, rather than the Finnish or Norwegian models. They became much too close to the Edinburgh bankers and avoided ever criticising business. The Council of Economic Advisers lacked any members with a trade union background. In the UK context this was, of course, in no way unusual.

Have They Delivered?

In government having the right aspirations is not enough. Ministers need to be effective in fulfilling their aspirations. Overall the SNP as an administration has been more impressive than its predecessors but the picture is mixed. Nicola Sturgeon has taken a complex brief at Health and handled it with great competence and openness. She has entrenched core values and addressed problems by openly admitting where there have been failures. This is in contrast to Education where Fiona Hyslop, despite being intelligent and articulate, has not been an effective minister. It is an interesting comparison and it is not about different ideological perspectives. Both are more left than centre. A good minister needs to keep in touch with what is happening on the ground and needs the edge to cut through the defensive departmental cultures that pervade many areas of government. In school education, we have had almost five years of the Curriculum for Excellence. The aspirations have been good but the implementation has been abysmal, caricaturised by jargon-ridden generalisations that have cost substantial amounts to produce and left most teachers struggling to understand what it means in practice. This was inherited by the present minister but she failed to get an early grip. Postponing implementation and throwing more money at the problem may work but confidence in the change has been seriously undermined by bad administration. Her Department has also been poor at manpower planning but instead of recognising that there was a problem with unemployed, post-probation teachers, the Education Secretary went into denial mode and accepted the questionable figures given to her by her civil servants. Similarly with class sizes and education cuts. The Department’s approach to universities, one of Scotland’s success stories, has been one of pacification without vision.

Linda Fabiani had similar problems with the Arts portfolio. Nothing wrong with the values she brought to the job but ineffective at cutting through the bureaucracy. In contrast Kenny McAskill at Justice has been an admirable minister, bravely taking on a difficult reforming agenda with confidence and nerve. The contrast could not be greater to the cynical, tabloid-driven previous Labour ministers and their current spokesman. One hopes he continues to get the support he deserves from the rest of the Cabinet.

Finance has been handled very competently by John Swinney and, given the minority status of the Government, it is not entirely clear what budget choices are the outcome of horse-trading and what are the Government’s priorities. From a left perspective, the freeze on Council Tax is not a simple issue. Were it a fair tax, this would be seen as a move to the right but it is a seriously flawed tax which is very low for the wealthy and disproportionately high for many low-earners and retired. The SNP’s local income tax proposal would have been a much more progressive tax but Holyrood does not have a sufficient range of powers to implement it properly irrespective of whether there was a majority for the legislation.

In neither Transport nor the Environment has there been an effective programme but the lack of coherence is not primarily about the ability of ministers but about the SNP’s lack of a clear philosophical base on these issues. Ministers take issue-by-issue decisions, some may be good some bad, but they do not add up to an environmental vision. So we get some good decisions on energy bolted onto a very traditional range of policies on transport and development.

Going back to Janus, the god who can look in opposite directions at the same time, does the evidence of the past two years suggest that the SNP is looking both left and right? It would be fair to say that rather than two equal heads, the gaze is mainly to the left with the other head opening its eyes only from time to time.