Brian Monteith: Secret Scotland under Salmond

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WHO WOULD have thought it? Scotland, proud Scotland, the inventor and creator of so much of the modern world both philosophically and practically, thanks chiefly to our renowned education system that spread learning to common boys (and later girls too) has seen itself overtaken by so many other countries (including England) that it is outside the top 20.

Never mind, at least we can pride ourselves in our new shiny wee Parliament (13 years is still new as parliaments go). After all, it introduced freedom of information to show how we lived in a new, open, transparent era. Better still, we might be independent of those dastardly English soon, and then we’ll be really free, really open and really transparent. Why, politicians will just glance at themselves up and down and they’ll see through each other immediately. Shame we can see through them 
ourselves already.

I mention the issue of freedom of information intentionally, for one would be forgiven for thinking that the British state, the former Empire of all Empires, where wheels turned within wheels, would be the most secretive of institutions and that as it slowly released its charges to their freedom would still seek to hang on to its old ways and be one of the most secretive of all things known to man.

Pity then that this week the Scottish Information Commissioner has punctured our pompous bladder that was long fit to burst with the news that information about government goings-on is in fact harder to come by than – yes, you guessed it – Merrye Old England.

Not content with being better at drinking more alcohol, smoking more tobacco, consuming more drugs, having more heart attacks, eating more chocolate snacks (deep fried or plain) per head of population in the whole of the UK we have to go one better and be the most secretive too. I suppose if we can’t win the World Cup at footy, rugby or golf we might as well be the most taciturn; nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more, say no more.

What’s more unbelievable, were it not so predictable, is that we have gone this way under, of all things, the rule of the Scottish National Party in the short space of the last five years or so.

That’s right, those same politicians in the SNP who used to complain about how secretive the Scottish Executive was under the days of the Labour and Lib Dem coalition. I can remember John Swinney, Nicola Sturgeon, Mike Russell and all the others (except Salmond, who was on his expenses joyride of a Westminster sabbatical) were girning and moaning about the difficulty of obtaining information and how they would make it all so different. Well, they’ve had their chance and have blown it – big style.

Their defence is simple: the reason for the slip in providing the information that people want is that all the commercially confidential contracts cannot allow them to release information because it would leave them in breach of faith. To be fair to the SNP, its politicians were against most of the private finance contracts (although they never explained how they would have built all of those schools and hospitals that came our way more quickly than they otherwise would) – but this does not let them off the hook, and here’s how.

Firstly, the other group responsible for holding back lots of information are those quasi-autonomous non-
governmental organisations (quangos to you and me) such as Transport Scotland, Historic Scotland, Creative Scotland and Visit Scotland (a distinct lack of imagination in name calling!).

The point here is that these organisations are only quasi-autonomous, not fully autonomous, and therefore can in most respects be brought to heel. They also are in receipt of public funds – which is a surefire way of getting them to do a government’s bidding. And of course the SNP has parliamentary authority – it just needs to mention the words bonfire, abolition and reform and any self-respecting quango looking for self-preservation would open up its deepest vaults to the bright rays of public scrutiny.

Secondly, the SNP has form. In fact it’s fair to say that His Excellency King Eck, Emperor of all that he surveys and much more besides, has the best form, for it is he that is on record for spending not just thousands but hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money in seeking to prevent simple serfs from finding out the truth.

What, pray tell us, King Eck, what will be the impact of introducing Local Income Tax on mere mortals? What, pray tell us, King Eck, what will be the impact of Scotland becoming independent on membership of the European Union? In either case King Eck has not been prepared to say and has been prepared to go to court to 
prevent release of the details.

This from the man who says we shall have our freedom in an independent Scotland. Aye, right, a strange sort of freedom – where information is more easy to come by in England rather than Scotland! Edward Longshanks must be laughing and Robert de Bruis must be birlin in his grave. Freedom of Information? Make no surprise, it will be Salmond’s Secret Scotland, that’s the size of it.