On Wednesday, the most powerful democratic politician in Scotland’s history stood up to tell us what he was going to be doing for the next six months and proceeded to smother us with good intentions.
Alex Salmond is more powerful than any previous First Minister because he has an absolute majority and can pretty much do as he pleases, a privilege never enjoyed by Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish or Jack McConnell.
The First Minister is more powerful than any former Secretary of State because he not only has more legal authority delegated to him by the Westminster parliament but also has a democratic legitimacy that a minister appointed by a British Prime Minister could not previously enjoy. No matter that Scots such as Tom Johnson, James Stewart and Willie Ross were representing parties holding a majority of Scottish MPs, they were not elected as leaders to take the post of Secretary of State, but owed their allegiance to their Prime Minister and his government.
Of course Scots that served as British prime ministers, such as Ramsay MacDonald, Alec Douglas Home, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have been more powerful in Britain – but in many ways their writ did not count in Scotland. Firstly, the size of the state was far smaller 80 and 50 years ago, and secondly, Scotland’s own legal system, separate educational traditions and a fiercely independent Kirk always had to be taken into account. More recently, the considerable amount of devolved power means Alex Salmond is can do much as he pleases.
Despite all the bluster and rhetoric, he could actually reduce personal or business taxes now without waiting on independence. And for those taxes where he argues he is limited in action he could institute rebates that would deliver exactly the same result. He could also raise taxes, introduce new ones and institute charges for services if he so wished. Nobody, certainly not David Cameron could stop him.
He has all the power he needs over the NHS in Scotland and could abolish the health boards or merge them or make them entirely democratically elected. He has all the ability to change Scottish education, from nursery schools to primaries, secondaries, FE Colleges and universities. He can do what he wants with Scotland’s transport, our environment and the way our councils work.
He has, of course, already done some things such as creating one single police force and one single fire service. One wonders why he bothers with local councils at all. Why not just abolish them too and have one education directorate (like New Zealand) and let Transport Scotland run the trams like it decides so much of what happens on the roads and railways already?
So with such grand omnipotence at his disposal, with such legal powers and such an unparalleled political majority, the First Minister has the opportunity of a lifetime, nay a generation, to take Scotland by the scruff of the neck and shape it through his ambitions and dreams.
So what did he do with it? Did he reform Scottish education, that has over the last ten years fallen behind the achievements of English schools? Has he sought to make all these faceless arms-length government agencies and quangos more accountable to the Scottish parliament? Has he thought to abolish the despised council tax, an idea he once had to drop because he did not have a majority?
No, he is doing none of those things.
OK you may say, those things can wait, the most important thing is to get the economy going, to create jobs – and to especially focus on youth unemployment. So what is he doing there? Are we seeing proposals to roll back the morass of regulations that make doing business more expensive in Scotland than it is in England? Are we seeing legislation that would, even temporarily, suspend some laws and rules that get in the way of economic growth – like the coalition government in London is proposing?
No, that’s not in his legislative programme.
Is he willing to review all the laws that have been passed since Holyrood came into being to see which ones are clearly not working or are getting in the way of creating a prosperous Scotland.
No. That’s not on Alex Salmond’s agenda.
No, like Nero fiddling while Rome burned, our very own Emperor is playing his own merry tune and focusing instead on trying to achieve independence. The 15 Bills he is proposing are hardly going to make the Scottish economy the powerhouse of Britain, never mind Europe.
Fair enough, Alex Salmond believes independence will give him greater powers to build what he says will be a better Scotland, but one can’t but help notice that he seems unable to use the existing powers to change taxes, reform our public services or repeal bad laws that prevent economic growth.
Is it that he’s scared his ideas might lose him support in the referendum? Has he run out of ideas?
It does leave me thinking what would he actually want with any more power than he currently has – when he seems so reluctant to do anything with what he has.