All aboard the Gravy bus Square

Ahh Bisto! All aboard the SNP’s Gravy Bus

POLITICS has always suffered from systems of patronage, where after winning elections a political party hands out jobs and rewards to supporters. It is well understood in our politics that this sort of thing goes on, nepotism and corruption is nothing new. But less well understood is how the Scottish National Party has quietly constructed its own spoils system at taxpayer’s expense.

Normally in British politics gongs are dished out by to party bigwigs in the form of CBEs, MBEs and occasionally even a peerage. This sort of sordid largesse has undermined the integrity of a system which is designed to – and often still does – reward genuinely sincere contributions to the kingdom. But the incumbent SNP opposes such antics, refusing to nominate any of its members to places in the House of Lords for example. It’s a position of principle that many can sympathise with and respect. But what, then, is a governing party to do when it opposes said honours system? No party which has governed for fifteen years can hope to avoid cronyism, and the SNP is far from being ‘whiter than white’ in these matters.

The fact is, the evidence shouts out it is not above stooping to handing out patronage to key backers in civic Scotland. The SNP has, it seems, managed to magic-up an innovative alternative to the honours system: quangos and procurement contracts.

The Herald reported in March that almost 100 people sit on multiple public bodies across Scotland and are raking in nearly £2m a year. The normal justification for this would be to emphasise how important it is for any government to secure intelligent and expert input. But this defence goes flying out the window when we observe that “many of the quango appointments, which usually involve just a handful of days of work a month, were rewarded with an average salary of more than £22,300 per role, with the highest wage reaching £130,500 for two board roles.”

If these boards play such a vital role for good policy and proper governance, why are there 34 “professional” non-executive directors, whose only employment is apparently board membership? These are people earning full time salaries for a couple of hours work a week, and the taxpayers are footing the bill.

Under the SNP we have witnessed the creation of more than 200 new “executive posts”. And analysis published reveals a growth of 29 per cent in the numbers of directors paid to sit on boards of Scottish Government agencies and health bodies. According to Telegraph reporting “the number of senior positions rose by 223 over the period to 774, the document said, with total salary costs coming to just under £8 million per year despite the SNP promising a “bonfire of the quangos” in the 2007 Holyrood election.”

Bonfire of the quangos? Maybe not so much, especially if we listen to SNP MP aide and spin-doctor Sally Donald. According to a grinning Ms Donald it’s time to get “all aboard the gravy bus”. I note the SNP local election campaign bus is emblazoned with the message “Ease the squeeze”? But perhaps it should really be “easy money!”

For those of us hoping to see Scottish politics move out of the current constitutional phoney war over a second independence plebiscite that just is not happening anytime soon, this is depressing. And for anyone who supports independence, it must be disheartening to realise the incumbent SNP seems far more interested in its own personal gravy train bus.

Scottish A&E waiting times have not been met since 2017, child poverty rates (both relative and absolute) are rising and were before the pandemic. Food insecurity ticking up and the great dragon of inflation – thought slain for good by Baroness Thatcher – is roaring back with vengeance. Yet none of this is apparently the focus for an SNP apparently more focused on the retention of power than actual policy delivery.

Of course, we should not overlook the politics of procurement contracts either. Who can forget the unfolding ferry fiasco? A situation where two ships that were supposed to only cost £97m fixed price now cost £250m. This is an incredible situation where SNP ministers overruled the Scottish publicly owned corporation Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), and signed off procurement deals without full taxpayer refund guarantees.

And if we listen to the then owner of the shipyard which landed these contracts (and at the time a supporter of independence) business tycoon Jim McColl, the deals were rushed through for “political purposes”. It has been alleged by Mr McColl that the ferry procurement process was handled in such a speedy way as to allow the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon good press and a nice line ahead of her first speech to SNP conference as leader.

If true, that is straight-up political corruption, yet it fits with a pattern of SNP largesse in office.

The elephant in the room that too many are reluctant to acknowledge is that Nicola Sturgeon is a rubbish technocrat. Her track record pulling the levers of power to obtain desired outcomes is poor. But none of these things matter to the governing party of Scotland it seems.

It is now a matter of urgency we confront the incumbent SNP’s spoils system.  Just how much longer can we tolerate its gravy bus?

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