The Scottish Affairs Committee goes on a road trip
Sketch: The Scottish Affairs Select Committee questions John Swinney
The members of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee sat on stage, lined up like vampires behind a blood red tablecloth, as the audience filed in. The committee was meeting in Perth for the day and the setting, a small University of Highlands and Islands lecture theatre, was a world away from Westminster.
Tory Christopher Chope watched on placidly from the end of the table. The two Labour MPs, Stephen Hepburn and David Anderson, sat on either side of the SNP members.
Kirsty Blackman and Margaret Ferrier chatted. Chris Law, MP for Dundee West, had given up on tweed suits, temporarily anyway, but retained his trademark beard and ponytail. He hunched over the table, waiting for proceedings to begin, looking like a professor of motorbikes, or a hippy commune’s favourite accountant.
Pete Wishart, meanwhile, the MP for the area and committee convener, sat in the middle, openly delighted everyone had come to his town. It was the first time the Scottish Affairs Committee has ever met in Perth and he seemed on best behaviour.
In fact, having left Westminster, they all seemed on best behaviour. As if the monkeys had escaped the zoo and decided that, exposed to new surroundings, they should stop flinging faeces at each other.
Wishart started off by somewhat apologetically warning the audience heckling was not permitted. “You will just need to listen to us,” he said, almost regretfully.
The aim of the session, Wishart explained, was to find out why negotiations between the UK and Scottish Governments over the fiscal framework – the new financial deal underpinning the Scotland Bill – have taken so long.
And it has taken ages. Whole seasons have passed since negotiations began. Jeremy Corbyn has had time to conduct an entire reshuffle. Sir John Chilcot has not only almost finished the Iraq Inquiry, but the UK has even had time to bomb Syria and set the wheels in motion for his next one.
Still, though, to date, there is no fiscal framework, meaning the Scotland Bill cannot move forward, and the committee wanted to know why. So they asked John Swinney.
So what is causing the delay? “What I would say to you, I think, is that all of the issues are out on the table,” the Finance Secretary calmly explained.
The committee was sitting at a table. Members glanced at it. But the explanation wasn’t there.
Swinney, it seemed, was referring to an imaginary table. In fact, he did so a few times. After spending all day dealing in finance, he had started messing around with metaphors.
But still, it didn’t really answer the question. Indeed, it led to further questions. Specifically, if the explanation for the delay is on a table, where’s the table?
Keen to elaborate, Swinney said there have been meetings and detailed discussions. “The issues have been presented and well aired,” he reassured the committee.
It was starting to look like he had lost the table. So Hepburn pressed him, asking, “Why won’t you just tell people what the issue is?” he asked. “Is the British Government holding it up?”
Swinney explained: “It’s the fact we haven’t got agreement on a block grant adjustment mechanism,” he said. “That is the difficulty.”
The negotiations on agreeing a block grant adjustment mechanism have not concluded because they haven’t agreed a block grant adjustment mechanism. Fair enough.
Next, in what appeared to be an attempt to bamboozle the committee, Swinney denied he could see into the minds of the Treasury. “I cannot see into the minds of the Treasury,” he claimed.
Undaunted, they pushed further. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” Swinney explained, somewhat metaphysically.
They weren’t making much progress. Chope attempted a different approach. He said: “It doesn’t seem as though you and the UK Government are anywhere near having a shared understanding of the principles of this agreement.”
That didn’t work either. Swinney just started talking about the lost table again. The committee looked alarmed. Swinney moved to reassure them, adding, “We are not at the moment of no agreement yet.”
There is no agreement yet, but we are not yet at the moment of no agreement. But yet, there is no agreement. The committee didn’t look completely satisfied.
Swinney, perhaps riding high from the success of his table metaphor, moved to clear things up.
“We are not at the end of the road yet. We are getting very close to the end of the road and I think we’ve still got a lot of distance to travel, but the material we need to inform the decision-making that will get us to an agreed position at the end of the road is, I think, available for all of us.”
We are not at the end of the road, but we are near the end of the road, and also quite far from the end of the road. The answer is clear: John Swinney wrote down the agreed fiscal framework but then left it on a table at the side of a road somewhere.
Excellent. All the committee has to do now is find the table so the Scotland Bill can be passed and the devolution journey can move further down the road.