As I See It
Tory bashing will only make ministers stop listening
As I stated in this column soon after she left the stage on that first day of the SNP conference Nicola Sturgeon delivered what was probably her best speech. She took command and made it clear where she stood in the Brexit debate.
She must have caused some genuine fear and alarm to spread among the Tory hierarchy who have been left in no doubt that she will not let them get away with sidelining Scotland in the negotiations.
As I have said before, she is particularly strong when she can pummel a weakened opposition. There are more holes in the UK government’s Brexit ‘strategy’ than in Blackburn, Lancashire (apologies to The Beatles) and this is making it even easier for the SNP leader to make her case.
It is also helping her to divert attention from the shortcomings in her own government’s performance. Having given her a loud cheer for Thursday’s ‘Scotland in Europe’ matinee, I added the caveat that in yesterday’s finale we needed a similarly rousing speech on behalf of the Scottish economy.
While her “Open for Business” comment grabbed a few headlines, in truth the speech was focused too much on Tory-bashing and was weighted – inevitably – toward more commitments to education, health and welfare.
The country is in the middle of a constitutional crisis that has raised big questions for the economy. Ms Sturgeon’s tub-thumping clarion calls to retain access to the single market may have laudable aims but she is now in danger of forcing the argument too far. To suggest, as she did on the Andrew Marr programme, that Scotland could be in the single market while England is out is just not going to happen and is bordering (excuse the pun) on the delusional.
Even if she won the hearts of other EU nations, Scotland would fail by having a budget deficit of about 10% of GDP, which is way above the qualifying level. To continue with this campaign is therefore not only misguided, it is misleading the public.
Aside from this Euro-dreaming there was little of substance in her address about tackling some of the underlying and, to some extent, self-imposed problems on home soil.
Ms Sturgeon always blames the big bad Tories for leading the country down a road to ruin. Huge chasms are appearing in the politics of Britain and Ms Sturgeon may be justified in claiming her party to be the true opposition in Westminster.
But this constant Tory-bashing and ridiculing of UK government ministers, is unhealthy and may even prove self-defeating. Ms Sturgeon demands that Scotland’s voice is heard, but people stop listening if they are being constantly and publicly berated. It builds resentment and resistance to co-operate. Ms Sturgeon needs to ease off and find other says to get her argument across.
As stated above, she is stronger when taking the argument to the vulnerable. Her government has been given new powers in Holyrood and it would have been helpful to hear how it intends to use them.
Comments on the Scottish economy were actually limited to a few scraps. She confirmed that the small business bonus would continue, reminded us that the government saved the Dalzell steel works (credit for that) and that in the summer she pledged a £500 million loan scheme to help small firms. Her new plans extended only to offering more help and advice for companies trading with Europe, which took her back to the safety of the Brexit battle.
She said that “creating jobs, expanding the economy and growing tax revenues – these priorities must be at the centre of everything we do.” This is hardly an original set of ambitions and she offered no new ideas as to how they were going to be achieved.
For too long Scottish governments have limited their economic ‘strategy’ to distributing hand-outs and churning out advisers on an industrial scale. The country is awash with advisers for business and advisers for government. It has created a new industry in consultancies and commissions, yet Scotland’s economic growth continues to lag the rest of the UK.
It is necessary to pause here to acknowledge some of the good things that are happening. Support for enterprise has never been better and the general level of collaboration between the private and public sectors is arguably as good as it gets. It has helped create a valuable ecosystem across a number of sectors, not least in the new technologies.
Yet there are some niggling shortcomings in the relationship, not least a continuing belief that companies are seen as a resource to be tapped for taxation rather than wealth creators deserving of support.
Ms Sturgeon may have proclaimed yesterday that Scotland is open for business, but behind the rhetoric is a burdensome business rates regime, threats of tax rises on high earners and the possibility of a second independence referendum that business, by and large, does not want and sees as a potential closed door.