Yes folks – on Alex Salmond’s nominated ‘Independence Day [today, 24th March 2016], with Conservative Leader, Ruth Davidson saying a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to the indy NO voters on top of a windy Calton Hill, dominating the architectural kitsch potch that is the Scottish Parliament, current First Minster, Nicola Sturgeon, tried the boldest stunt of the lot.
It takes some brass to decide to sell your three worst failures as your headline achievements in an election campaign to win a third term in office.
But this is a one-party state, zombie Scotland. The glaze on the eyes of the cult members, if a tad thin, is still in working order and that third term is unquestionably assured anyway.
Ms Sturgeon has chosen to found her party’s claim to re-election on three core areas in which it has most substantially and seriously failed in office since 2007:
- The Economy
Now that’s talking.
Finance Secretary, John Swinney has serially underspent on the budgets for both Health and Education; most recently and in large measure, in 2014-15. Since he came into his office, he has neither matched nor bettered the per capita spend by the UK Government on NHS England.
The planning and project management for the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital, south of the Clyde, has been a national embarrassment in amateurisn and ineptitude.
NHS Scotland is critically understaffed. Ms Sturgeon’s recent triumphalist announcement that her government will use its new powers to hike the income tax take from middle earners – whom she wrongly and dishonestly describes as ‘the highest earners’ – will include seni0r nurses, along with teachers, police officers and local authority middle managers. That taxation plan can only obstruct vital recruitment.
A&E units are routinely understaffed and over used.
The measurement of hospital waiting times is massaged and still fails regularly to meet targets.
The Scottish Ambulance service is short of paramedic drivers and has resorted to sending out the vehicles, to emergency calls, one-up.
There is unrest in the profession in Scotland and the deeply unimpressive Health Secretary Shona Robison has taken the easy way out of addressing concerns – by literally buying them off with a generous pay rise and dollops of praise.
GP surgeries across Scotland are finding it all but impossible to recruit doctors to the service and to their areas.
This is the scenario Ms Sturgeon is to trumpet as a success of her government after nine years in office.
Where do you start?
Both primary and secondary education is failing its pupils, with official investigations finding levels of numeracy and literacy declining quickly; Numeracy in primary school pupils fell by a whopping 7% in thee years; literacy has fallen to the extent that not much less than 50% of the measured secondary cohort was below competent performance.
Many Scottish Universities have had no choice but to introduce remedial classes in literacy or numeracy for students whose capability in these core skills was not up to the demands of the first year of their chosen degree courses.
On formally measured performances, the Scottish Government – despite its persistent self congratulatory rhetoric – has not managed to make any appreciable closure of the gap in educational attainment between pupils from the best and least well off backgrounds.
Instead of addressing the problem of pupils left ill prepared for the demands of degree level work by focusing on improving the universally crucial standards of achievement in primary and secondary education, the Scottish Government has chosen the easy way out of simply lowering the threshold on access to university courses for those from more deprived backgrounds.
All that this can do is dilute the value of degrees, forcing Scottish education further down the vital performance leagues that attract both students and the research funding central to establishing of centres of the highest levels of expertise that any advanced country needs.
Many Scottish Universities have reported alarmingly high figures for the drop out rate of first year degree students – at, for example, over 14% in both the University of the West of Scotland [Paisley] and the University of the Highlands and Islands.
With free third level education in Scotland, this drop out rate demonstrates a serious waste of public money.
This will bear some relationship to an inability to cope with the demands on their ability by students ill prepared for entry level degree work by their previous education; and it will have an additionally negative impact on the already unacceptable drop out rates of first year students.
The woefully inadequate Education Secretary, Angel Constance, has lost [if she ever possessed] the confidence of the Universities by trying to railroad through measures affecting university governance which the principals agree can only damage the operation of the sector.
The colleges sector so important in the underpinning of a wide spectrum of satisfying careers important to the Scottish economy – is in chaos, its budgets cut to shreds, understaffed, eviscerated – directionless.
Perhaps worst of all, it has emerged that the level of serious weapon carrying in Scottish schools is very much more serious than is recognised – because teachers routinely do not report discoveries to the police for fear of damaging the reputation of the schools. This matter appears to take precedence over the safety of their pupils and their retention of life itself.
This is the scenario Ms Sturgeon is to trumpet as a success of her government after nine years in office.
The Scottish economy
The Scottish economy is in a mess.
It has just been revealed to be in deficit to the tune of £15 Billion [9.7% of Scotland’s GDP – twice that of the UK’s deficit of £89Bn at 4.9% of its GDP]; and with Mr Swinney recently shown by The Guardian newspaper to have secretly been borrowing at a level calculated to reach £50 Billion by 2019-20. This led the Auditor General to call for the publication of whole accounts by the Scottish Government, as the Scottish people are entitled to know what is being spent on what, earned from what, lost on what and borrowed for what. This has been an authoritative and qualified call for democratic fiscal accountability- unanswered by the secrecy-prone SNP.
The volume of job losses and business losses involved in the North Sea oil and gas industry as a result of the continuing global glut; and the permanent change to the nature, profitability – and taxability -of the sector [with the industry itself looking to a long term ceiling of $50 a barrel], sets the Scottish economy – as sold by the SNP in Ms Sturgeon’s indyref romance of the White Paper on Scotland’s Future – an unanswerable challenge.
With ‘free revenue’ now off the table, the SNP must look to taxation and to business [and investment] growth to raise the revenues to fund their wildly extravagant benefits promises. These promises have been made with no account of the means to pay for them but have been made to buy the votes of the underinformed and unquestioning who will be the most vulnerable when this gig goes belly up.
Finance Secretary John Swinney’s adventures to date with both taxation and the incentivising of business development have shown a serious lack of understanding of the relationship between cause and consequence; and an inadequate grasp of the operational realities.
His replacement of the UK’s Stamp Duty – the Land and Buildings Transactions Tax [LBTT] – required emergency surgery in its early days as its performance was clearly well adrift of its maker’s intentions. It has since performed erratically, with doubts as to whether it will meet its revenue earning targets this year; and with industry concerns that it has damaged the resilience of sectors of the property market.
This – and the Landfill/Aggregates tax – have also both cost a great deal more to implement and administer than had been estimated.
The complexity and costs of the administration of the SNP’s proposed welfare regime are hugely higher than was indicated in the SNP’s assertions of the ease of the transfer to independence during the indyref campaign. The negotiations over the fiscal framework to manage the implementation and impacts of the new powers to be transferred to Holyrood in the Scotland Bill led to Mr Swinney making a plea for additional assistance with set up costs to handle the new powers. The British Government then agreed to double to £200 million the £100 million it had proposed for such support. There never is anything as good as the bank of Mum and Dad.
The First Minister has announcement that the SNP government will raise both income tax and council tax on middle earners [a full £2 billion heist, by Ms Sturgeon’s own figures]. This can only make it more expensive for such people – the backbone of any successful and thrusting economy – to live and work here, as opposed to south of the border.
It is beyond understanding how this is expected to allow Scotland to remain competitive in recruiting securing and retaining the contributions to the Scottish economy – and to its core public services – of such people.
Ms Sturgeon has an insubstantial answer on this very substantial question. She is ‘sure that Scots will be happy to pay a little more’ – despite the fact that her party comprehensively lost an election on that very plea – ‘A Penny for Scotland’.
Mr Swinney’s adventures to support and incentivise business growth have also been signally unattended by success.
His key policy – the use of enterprise zones, has just been pronounced – and agreed – to have made virtually no difference to the employment that drives economic growth.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise [HIE], one of Scotland’s two enterprise agencies, has courageously made public the results of its investigation into the impact of the fifteen designated enterprise zones.
It found that:
- within these areas, there has been only a ‘small’ growth in employment – and that this modest addition simply took jobs from elsewhere;
- in nine out of the fifteen Enterprise Areas no new employers had moved in; and in others, new employers had planned to move in anyway
- many companies moved into Enterprise Areas without knowing that that’s what they were;
- no evidence could be found of any inward investment into an Enterprise Area.
These deficiencies are about as serious as it gets. The Finance Secretary and Deputy First Minister could only mutter that his policy ‘continues to evolve’.
The creation of and focus on enterprise zones was a flagship policy upon which much of Mr Swinney’s so-called economic development ‘strategy’ rested.
This ‘strategy’ hadn’t a scooby about what to do with the west coast – from a Finance Secretary and would-be Chancellor of Scotland who had no ability to create one.
Other individual measures designed to incentivise business development have been no more successful.
Two instruments copied from elsewhere – the SNP’s default modus operandi – were Business Improvement Districts [BIDs] and Tax Incremental Financing [TIFs].
The first of these, BIDs – agreed in a specific district by universal vote of all businesses within the area defined – imposes a mandatory annual levy on all such businesses, with the local authority putting in a contribution – the aim being to tart up a district to make it more appealing to clients of its spectrum of businesses. This instrument has arguably thrown up more problems than it has resolved.
The second, TIFs – is described thus by the Scottish Government: ‘TIF uses future additional revenue gains from taxes to finance the borrowing required to fund public infrastructure improvements that will in turn create those gains. When a public project such as a new road system is constructed within a specific area, increases in the value of the land as well as new property and business investment can occur. Resultant increased site value and investment generates increased tax revenues. These increased tax revenues (whether domestic or business property) are the ‘tax increment’. In Scotland, extra public revenues would come from Non Domestic Rates (NDR) raised.’
For Argyll;s account of the process is a little different. We have said that, basically, councils hold a wet finger to the wind, divine its direction and take an almighty punt. They are effectively betting on the accuracy of their own judgment that a project they plan:
- will work;
- will be attractive to businesses;
- will be attractive to the audiences of those businesses;
- will therefore see increases in revenue from business rates;
- will also see increases in council tax revenues from new domestic as well as commercial properties;
- will, overall, lead to increased local tax revenues.
With TIF’s, if local authorities are sufficiently persuasive in the case they put forward they may see their schemes approved for adoption, with the Scottish Government then lending set up finance against their prospective future increased business rates revenues.
This is far less a measured than a highly and not necessarily competent speculative proposition. The success of TIFs looks no more promising than that of BIDs – and the less than impressive Argyll and Bute Council has had a TIF proposal adopted – the massively optimistic ‘Lorn Arc’ project, So Argyll will see sooner than many how the TIF funding pans out in action.
After this scheme was well under way and after several local authorities – Aberdeen, Argyll and Bute, Edinburgh, Fife, North Lanarkshire and Glasgow – had TIF projects approved, John Swinney announced that he was going to revalue business rates for a second time since he took office in 2007.
The failure of his first revaluation [upward] in 2008 for implementation in 2010, was unfortunate in coinciding with the prolonged economic downturn caused by the financial crises of 2008. Businesses have struggled since to cope with the higher rate he imposed upon them then.
The revision to come – for introduction in 2017 – will therefore be downward this time, with overall rate revenues expected to fall by almost 5% – from £4,569 Million to £4,348 Million.
The borrowing requirements of each of the cluster of pilot projects approved for TIF loans from the government were calibrated on what is the current [higher] business rate, the Non Domestic Rate [NDR].
The problem is that now, with that rate to be revalued downwards by almost 5%, the NDR income predictions of the pilot TIF projects – on which their capacity to service and repay the loans in question is calculated – are certain not to be able to meet the predicted income levels. At the most optimistic, they will bring in 5% less in NDR revenue.
Mr Swinney, in announcing his forthcoming business rate revaluation had no apparent idea that such an action could seriously impact upon the estimated revenues of the TIF projects already approved – and thereby fundamentally destabilise them.
This was one of a worrying number of incidents testifying mutely to the Finance Secretary’s inadequate grasp of the complex relationship of fiscal cause and consequence.
This coming election is taking place in the context of two incipient busted flushes.
Finance Secretary Swinney is already being seen to be significantly less competent than the the SNP’s relentless mythologising and his own stern demeanour have prompted.
First Minister Sturgeon is also being seen to be far less honest than the same mythologising process and her Blair-like eyes-wide-open ‘I’m just a regular guy’ sales pitch suggests. Ms Sturgeon has very recently been seen to have been consciously deceptive with a very concerned and opposed Scottish public over an aspect of the controversial Named Person / State Guardian clause 4 in the Children and Young People [Scotland] Act 2014.
This is to come into full and Scotland-wide implementation later this year.
Ms Sturgeon attempted to face down political highlighting of serious inherent flaws in what is a highly illiberal measure by saying that it was voluntary anyway; that parents and children had no obligation to accept it, that it was an entitlement not a requirement.
This was knowingly deceiving since, whether parents and children engage with the provision of a NamedPerson / State Guardian or not, that person will be appointed and will have authority over the child or young person.
The Named Person /State Guardian is not required to consult or inform parents on all matters arising in relation to their child, and may – on their individual judgment, initiate draconian action capable of damaging irreparably a relationship between parent and child that may be misread or misunderstood by a not necessarily sensitive teacher.
The situation becomes obviously precarious when you set the crucial stability of judgment of the Named Person / State Guardian in the context of some teachers acting in this capacity already having – in addition to their core teaching duties – a caseload of several hundred children for whom they are legally the Named Person /State Guardian.
Ms Sturgeon’s palpable dishonesty in the false impression she sought to give the public on this matter – that the Named Person/ State Guardian provision is optional, when it is not, is now a matter of record that will eventually cause eyes to open with a clearer vision of her than is the case at present.
Neither of the pictures of the more realistic capabilities and natures of these two senior SNP politicians – the most competent of the current Cabinet – will damage the electoral success of the party in the May election.
These are, however, smoking guns with serious destructive power.
We expect them to make their impact in the next five year term, at the end of which we have said that the SNP Scottish Government may well have no choice but to play the indyref 2 card to try to secure election.
‘May you live in interesting times’ is said – apocryphally – to be a translation into English of a traditional Chinese curse. We live there now.