Scotland needs more than Boris Johnson's pick n' mix sweeteners - Lesley Riddoch

Lucky bags and pick n’ mix. Why do images of the sweetie shop spring to mind unbidden, when Boris Johnson talks about capital spending in Scotland?

Monday, 12th October 2020, 7:00 am
Updated Monday, 12th October 2020, 8:21 am
Boris Johnson will need to do better than vague promises, says Lesley Riddoch
Boris Johnson will need to do better than vague promises, says Lesley Riddoch

Perhaps it’s because the Prime Minister is deliberately dangling high-energy but nutritionally empty spending when this country desperately needs to detox and embrace a more nutritious, treat-free diet.

Of course, it’s true that Westminster’s proposed investments are not bonbon-sized.

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A bridge to Northern Ireland would cost around £20 billion, whether it attempts to straddle Beaufort's Dyke - a deep submarine trench littered with one million tonnes of wartime weapons - or connect remote Tor Head in Country Derry to the equally remote Mull of Kintyre.

Boris Johnson believes he can make a business case for both routes - experts are doubtful.

Freeports in the Cromarty Firth or Grangemouth would see millions foregone in tax and customs duties and local businesses are generally keen. Analysts - less so. The European Parliament says Freeports have facilitated money laundering and tax evasion, and Professor John Tomaney of University College London, believes they poach work from existing centres and create jobs which are often ‘low quality, low paid, poorly protected and quite unstable.’

Is either proposal really Scotland’s top priority?

After all, that’s our tax they’re spending.

If savvy Scots had an input, might they not demand a ports and marine strategy from Holyrood instead of these non-negotiable fait accomplis?

Scottish Conservative MP Andrew Bowie thinks not.

Writing for a Sunday newspaper he insisted; “the UK Government is giving a much-needed boost to cash-strapped local authorities [and shining] a light on how poorly they’ve been treated under the centralising, separatist government in Edinburgh. The UK Government is back in Scotland. Get used to it.’

Ah the harmony, outreach and commitment to collaborative working promised by Mr Bowie’s gentle words - like the sweet scent of Parma Violets crushed in an iron fist.

But let’s overlook the tone (snarling) the context (another Indy-positive opinion poll) and the timing (days after Holyrood was excluded again from Brexit planning).

Is the First Minister rejecting viable big projects just because they’ve been selected, financed and badged by the UK Government?

Or is she quite right to believe that a well-managed, planned, transformational Green transition will not be aided by random, disconnected vanity projects delivered by Number Ten in the pot-luck, unintegrated, non-consultative, dogma-driven style for which the British Government has become famous?

Westminster frequently talks very big but delivers small and very slowly. It’s great, for example, to see that Whitehall will finally approve subsea cables to harvest the massive renewables potential of the Northern and Western Isles. But the deals are not yet sealed and two long decades of Westminster indifference has stifled development and caused fuel poverty and depopulation. Whether it’s a Tory, ConDem or Labour government at the helm in Westminster and whether Prime Ministers have hugged penguins or promised wind energy for every house in Britain, the islands have remained essentially disconnected from the National Grid and the energy ‘market’ devised by Margaret Thatcher, remains broken and profoundly unfit for purpose. Still, never mind. Someday soon, the cable’s coming.

Probably.

The successful completion of projects, is a particularly weak point for this UK Government, as its Covid response demonstrates. If there’s been a way to bypass the public sector and devise fiendishly complex systems that produce administrative nightmares but also multi-million-pound contracts for City pals - Boris and his team have managed to deliver. Every other hyperbolic promise - not so much.

But the real problem with the one-off capital investments being dangled by Number Ten is their lack of integration into Scotland’s wider economy and democracy.

Unless the Prime Minister really does intend the mother of all power grabs, it’s hard to see how projects, funded and controlled by a distant government, can properly mesh into local service delivery and devolved political priorities. Or does that just not matter?

If Scotland’s voted for a just green transition - and we have - can a road bridge, road tunnel or even new trunk roads really be top priorities?

Where’s the long-term plan they help to deliver - and did a majority of Scots vote for it?

German economic success is built on thorough planning, good design, ultra-local democracy and excellent everyday systems - not the sensational projects and pork barrel politics now favoured by Downing Street. In short, patient planning and painstaking collaboration are the boring bedrock of most successful democracies - but this approach doesn’t interest Westminster.

The Scottish Government however, must also take note.

Despite Westminster’s dodgy track record, its proposed freeports, roads and bridges will gain traction with voters, Chambers of Commerce, businesses and councils desperate for investment and recognition as important economic players because money speaks and Scotland remains one of Europe’s most centralised societies.

Westminster may only be flattering to deceive, but communities that currently feel powerless and shut out of long-term planning by Holyrood, may be surprisingly easy to sucker.

Meanwhile, the country and the planet need far more from capital spending than a pick n mix wish-list. Beyond road-building, bridge-building, Covid and Brexit, the climate crisis still looms and demands unparalleled levels of planning and collaboration - not cheap shots or brinkmanship.

The existential threat we face demands the opposite approach - citizen-endorsed strategies funded and implemented by governments who can work together or can agree to let Scots get on with establishing new constitutional arrangements. The Scottish Citizens Assembly has kickstarted the process with an online meeting to create an atmosphere of dialogue, respect and common cause. Amidst the border warfare they just might be able to hatch a meaningful plan for Scotland’s long-term recovery - delivered by the grassroots for perhaps the first time in our history.

Of course, it’s hard to resist Westminster’s one-off spending proposals.

But we are a country that’s finally managed to curb our sweet tooth.

So never mind the bonbons - where’s the beef?

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