Is inertia creeping into the Scottish Government?
A breakdown in communication has allowed accusations of hypocrisy, delay and obfuscation to emerge
Language, and the negative connotations that words such as ‘benefits’ and ‘welfare’ could have, was the focus of a Scottish Government consultation on how it would shape the country’s first ever social security system.
“Making dignity, fairness and respect real is about the culture that the [new Scottish social security agency] embraces,” said the social security minister, Jeane Freeman, at the launch of the 13-week consultation back in July.
So, there is some irony in that it has been this government’s failure of words to communicate the reasons behind a deferred timetable for that new system that has allowed accusations of hypocrisy, delay and obfuscation to surface and fill a vacuum.
And while the criticism may be unwarranted, it feeds into a growing narrative that this is a government too timid, too hesitant and too obsessed with independence to get on with the day job.
Now, the reality may well be that to apply caution to the implementation of something so serious, so vital, as a new social security system for Scotland is right. After all, any hiccup in getting a payment system right for those already living on the breadline could be catastrophic.
Indeed, the people who would suffer most because of any mistake seem content with a decision to put off the full transfer of responsibility because they literally can’t afford for anything to go wrong. The fiasco that surrounded the payment of Common Agricultural Policy subsidies earlier this year, which arguably cost Nicola Sturgeon her parliamentary majority, attests to the consequences of a systems error.
But neither can one ignore the surprising failure to play the small ‘p’ politics by a nationalist government who wanted to create an independent Scotland within an 18-month timeframe, that has constantly attacked the UK Government for its heartless approach to welfare and that has now asked that same UK Government to slam on the brakes for a couple of years so they can get this transfer of welfare responsibilities right.
Perception is everything in politics and rests on sound communication. But in this case, something has gone seriously wrong and the opposition parties have rightly used it to hammer home the view that this is a government too slow to act.
And what makes it worse is that in Jeane Freeman Sturgeon has a respected, experienced and hard-working minister who is more than capable of speaking for herself, but even she has fallen prey to a growing narrative that the SNP is, as Ruth Davidson put it, “dithering not delivering”.
And it is perhaps because Freeman is a minister to be reckoned with, and that this is a policy that cuts to the very core of what this SNP government says it is all about in terms of tackling inequality and supporting Scots who are living at the fringes of society, that makes this failure to effectively articulate what is going on and why so revealing.
Last week marked Sturgeon’s second anniversary as First Minister and now is as good a time as any for her to take stock and look at who she has around her and how they are feeding into this impression that she leads a government that isn’t working.
On education, health, transport and local government her government appears under constant attack for its failure to deliver. On specifics like the named person, offensive behaviour at football matches and on council tax reform it has been found wanting on the actual policy detail. On the economy it was as if the publication of the GERS figures was a surprise. And globally, with the farce of the Chinese deal-no-deal and Sturgeon’s personal reaction to the election of Trump, there have been glimpses of an immature approach to international relations.
One only needs to glance at the Scottish Parliament website to see the dearth of activity in terms of bills to be discussed. As of Friday, there was one.
So, where is the activity, the energy, the intelligence, the policy, the direction coming from?
Where are those learned advisers that used to prowl the corridors of power and ensure the media were listening and understood?
And where are the ministers emboldened enough to talk through policy and ideas out with a set-piece interview?
Even on the core issues of Brexit and independence the message is confused.
For too many people it feels like the energy has been sucked out of the independence argument and here is why. Those closest to the SNP leadership don’t believe they can win it.
Strategically, even though she didn’t expect it, Sturgeon perfectly tee-d up in her manifesto the prospect of a second independence referendum in the event of a Leave vote.
If she announced a second referendum tomorrow, she would start in a position immeasurably ahead of when the first one was called.
We are now living in a world where the goalposts of certainty have moved unrecognisably, which makes independence as much of an uncertainty as the next fellow.
And in a world where Brexit and Trump can win by sheer force of assertion, then that too is a weapon she can apply.
Brexit is a great distraction and the fact that the UK Government has no plan is the First Minister’s greatest asset, but she has also raised expectations that she can do something.
If, however, she continues to allow the perception to fester that her approach to something as fundamental as welfare is as delayed as the trains, then Nicola Sturgeon will have more than just the rail franchise to get back on track.
The rise of the right means it is time for vigilance and resistance, writes Tom Freeman
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