The Scottish Parliament and transport – transporting us into a new era?

Mick Cash argues opportunities have been missed but the struggle is not yet over

Debates around the history of the Scottish Parliament often raise the question of powers, whether it has enough, and how it has used the powers it does have. With regard to the transport and offshore sector there has been a lot of fog and confusion and inaccuracies about the powers of the Scottish Parliament which have not helped that debate. Take rail passengers services, for instance, where there has been debate, for example, around why the current SNP Scottish Government won’t nationalise Scotrail services or why the Westminster Government won’t devolve more powers over rail.

The reality is when the Parliament was first established, power was devolved to allow the parliament to be responsible for Scotrail services. A large neo-liberal snag to this was these powers were conditional on the continued requirement for a tendering process and Scotrail services being operated by the private sector. So, in many ways the transfer of power was illusory and, with the prevailing neo-liberal consensus at that time, there was little objection from any of the main Scottish political parties.

Fast forward to the Smith Commission, and Scotland and Britain had now stomached years of rail privatisation and there was an appetite to at least support a public alternative to privatisation. Yet again, however, there was monumental missed opportunity when it came to rail. All the parties on the Commission at the time supported new powers for the Scottish Parliament which would allow for a ‘public sector bid’ for Scotrail services. This merely meant that at the end of any franchise services would still be put out for tender but there could be a public sector bid for that service.

Whilst Humza Yousaf in his role as Transport Minister seemed more positive that such a process could lead to a publicly-owned Scotrail, his successor Michael Matheson seems less keen, talking ominously of a level playing field between public and private sector. The RMT will, of course, work constructively with the Minister, but we might not be in this position if the main political parties at the time of the Smith Commission had argued that the Tory Railways Act 1993 (which requires the tendering and private operation of rail passenger services) should no longer apply to Scotland.

Thankfully, Labour and the Greens are now doing just that and with the Westminster Government’s current review of rail there is an opportunity for the Scottish Government to be clear in its submission that it wants the compulsory franchising or bidding process for the Scotrail services to end. We await to see the Scottish Governments submission with interest – but at the moment the signs are that Scottish Ministers are more interested in using the review to take compete control of the nationally publicly-owned rail infrastructure manager, Network Rail. This a move that would cause more damaging fragmentation and possibly further privatisation of the rail system.

When looking back on 20 years of the Scottish Parliament, it’s not only the balance of power between the Holyrood and Westminster parliaments that we need to consider – we also have to consider the relationship with the European Union. When it comes to transport, this is an important issue because the EU’s fourth rail package will soon make it compulsory for member states to tender rail services and will also prohibit states fully integrating rail operations and infrastructure. Similarly, EU laws have been the source of much aggravation surrounding Scottish Ferry services with successive Scottish Governments using EU directives as a cover to tender Calmac Ferry services.

What is definitely the case is that the Scottish Parliament has allowed for far closer and intensive campaigning and lobbying of politicians. RMT successes around supporting industrial action with political campaigning against Driver Only Operation or the privatisation of Calmac are the best examples here. The ferry services are also a case in point where RMT campaigning with others saw the Lab/Lib coalition at that time defeated in a parliamentary vote on the tendering of Calmac ferry services, representing the first time in the Scottish Parliament’s history that MSPs actually overturned the Scottish Government!

Mick Cash is General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union.