Friday, 6 February 2009

Who's out of touch?

It's hardly novel to hear accusations that politicians are out of touch with the real world, and this is perhaps particularly so regarding the business sector. Thus the lead story in today's Scotsman is about concerns that three of the SNP's major donors from the world of commerce have about the Scottish Government's handling of the economy and public sector. The three prominent businessmen - including Tom Farmer and Brian Souter - will apparently meet First Minister Alex Salmond to discuss these issues.

Hardly new, either, are their concerns about the planning system and its sclerotic effect on economic activity, but that they reportedly think many politicians and local authorities don't appreciate the profundity of the current economic slowdown is clearly of a different nature.

More interesting, however, is their claim that the SNP government is failing to curtail the increasing reliance of Scotland on the public sector, and particularly damaging is likely to be the accusation that Mr Salmond's administration is like Labour in "SNP clothing".

While the "Salmond three" apparently acknowledge the Scottish Government's limitations with respect to minority administration and the devolution settlement, perhaps their disappointment with regard to the lack of substantive political change demonstrates how out of touch business is with politics.

In relation to business and the economy, should the SNP really have been expected to be fundamentally different to Labour? Since the party's raison d'etre is an independent Scotland, to that extent there's nothing to prevent the SNP being a broad church in other respects. Of course, it has its socialists and "Tartan Tories", but if it's possible to categorise the party from an armchair in Dundee then it looks distinctly left-leaning on social issues (indeed, politically correct), economically redistributionist but with a business-friendly face and largely embracing the market - no one can forget Alex Salmond's slip regarding the fact that us Scots "didn't mind" the economics of Thatcherism.

Thus the party looks distinctly "third way" and to that extent perhaps nationalist social democrats, and to some degree a 'tartan new Labour', at least regarding social and economic issues. Therefore - and notwithstanding idealistic but unrealistic manifesto commitments such as the Scottish Futures Trust - should business really be too surprised about the SNP's failure to rein in the public sector? Which government doesn't promise efficiency savings and suchlike, but then fails to deliver any substantive progress? And why should business have perceived the SNP to be any different in this regard - the "bonfire of the quangos", for example, was quickly doused to a few glowing embers, with the limited progress thus far to a large extent merely window dressing by shifting staff onto the central government payroll. Plus ca change, as Bill Jamieson says in the Scotsman, and he sums up the current situation and future prospects in the following terms:
As for Holyrood, its concerns remain bleakly those of a parliament for the public sector, not for the nation. Outside of this world, there is a widespread sense that government in Scotland is far too big. Indeed, it seems the only growth industry we have left. But relying on an ever-expanding public sector for recovery as the enterprise sector buckles and tax revenues plunge is to place Scotland on an utterly unsustainable path.
Corruption and cronyism are also an integral part of politics and the public sector and this, of course, is well documented. However, in this regard and with respect to business being out of touch with politics, a couple of recent newspaper pieces brought these two issues into focus. First, news that a Holyrood employee would receive £270,000 as part of a redundancy plan that the official herself was involved in drawing up.

At the same time an article by Next chief executive Simon Wolfson rightly lamented the "arcane working practices", stifling bureaucracy and waste in the public services, and called for more "latitude for managers". However, to illustrate the point he said:
Let me give you one small example of the sort of change that could easily be made. Currently all public sector vacancies must be advertised externally and candidates interviewed even if the post can be filled successfully internally - often by someone who has been doing the job well while the post has been empty. This is money poured down the drain. Not only is the cost of advertising high, the process of phoney interviews along with all the paperwork wastes hours of time. We should leave it to managers to decide whether to advertise a vacancy rather than making it an article of management dogma.
Of course, there is some merit in his suggestion, but on the other hand this looks like a licence for cronyism - perhaps the "phoney interviews" are unnecessary if someone has effectively been selected for the post on merit, but what if the job is going to a friend, relative or party political associate?

Yes, in some respects more 'management latitude' is desirable, but not too much! A few days ago I repeated Lord Acton's famous dictum: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." In a more contemporary and prosaic manner the constant need to keep politicians and officialdom in check was ably demonstrated by Stephen Glenn's recent compendium of (George Dubbya) Bushisms, one of which is:
If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator.


Not a Village in Westminster said...

I think part of the issue that the SNP encounters is that it is more of a broad evangelical movement in some senses (united by a faith in independence) than a unified political party.

This isn't meant as a partisan attack, but just from observation. The SNP, at least in its approach to campaigning, is very much a party of the Left in the West of Scotland, with members persuing policies which are very much in line with the SSP (and indeed helped fuel their electoral pact). Meanwhile, the SNP in the North East are a polar opposite, being much more conservative in nature. It has been testament to the SNP's party discipline to date (and the euphoria of success) that they have managed to keep such a diverse group of MSPs relatively unified.

I think that there is no doubt that were independence to occur then the SNP would split into different political factions in the new parliamentary body - again not a criticism. However, I think that this multitude of very diverse political opinions may explain the seeming disappointment which some SNP supporters in the business community feel with the Government.

The SNP have made some concessions to the right, and have demostrated in their close workings with the Tories that there is more common ground there than they may like to admit. However, they are also aware of their need to grow support in the West of Scotland and have therefore operated on a basis of being more Labour than Labour - a war cry which was repeated to great success in Glasgow East.

So there is a status quo in Scotland in relation to the public sector which none of the major parties are really interested in challenging or changing just now. However, if the political balance within the nationalist movement should change, the status quo could find itself shaken up too.

Stuart Winton said...

Thanks for the insight, NaViW; my interest in politics is very much from the armchair, and you don't get a feel for those naunces from the TV and newspapers.

The SNP here in Dundee don't seem to be particularly ideologically-driven, apart from the obvious; council politics are pretty consensual apart from the odd bit of posturing and over who actually runs the council.

Regarding your remarks about keeping the diverse interests unififed, of course it was the same with new Labour with the sniff of power and subsequent election success, but of course the wheels have come off that somewhat as things haven't gone to plan, and no doubt civil war will erupt if the party loses power at the next election. The SNP wlll probably end up like that as well, to a greater or lesser extent, but of course this will depend to a large degree on how the independence issue progresses.

subrosa said...

My post didn't post :( So here goes again.

Good post Stuart and also NVW. From my days as an SNP activist I concur with NVW. The membership stretches from the far-ish right to middle left, not an easy balancing act but they seem to have held it together quite well. Also NVW is correct about the divide between east and west. This area used to be staunch tory but for some years now it's staunch SNP.

When campaigning in Glasgow East it was very different. The saddest part of the experience was that people felt useless and so many remarked there was no point in voting. A marked difference from here (and that includes Dundee) - where most feel their vote is important. A cultural divide not necessarily related to wealth.

As for this meeting, I'm all for it. My only thought was would it have made the headlines if these men weren't SNP donors? Can't say I recall any labour or libdem donors ever approaching them when they were in government.

Dear Bill Jamieson, typical of my generation's outlook to the future of Scotland. 'We're doing fine, what's the point in having to think for ourselves when we've got a bunch of folk at Westminster to do it for us." Fortunately the younger generations are taking far more interest in politics, single issues maybe, but an interest in the process.

(From a desk not far from Dundee).

subrosa said...

Oh I should make clear than I have not been a member of the SNP for some years now. What I support is the policy for an independent Scotland. There are many tory voters round about here who do too :)

Kay said...

perhaps the "phoney interviews" are unnecessary if someone has effectively been selected for the post on merit, but what if the job is going to a friend, relative or party political associate?

It still wouldn't matter.

If a job is going to a friend, relative or associate, interviewing a thousand other people doesn't necessarily stop that "favoured son" from getting the job!

Also these rules are for public sector jobs, not private sector ones, so it is a lot harder for people to promote relatives or even friends without a single eyebrow being raised.

A job can be advertised internally within the civil service or local government without money being wasted on expensive advertising agencies and newspapers.

Simon Wolfson is spot on.

Stuart Winton said...

Kay, thanks for the comments and you're correct.

However, the point I was making (but perhaps didn't make well enough) and was perhaps implicit in my other comments was the inherent danger in giving public sector managers more latitude in that it opens the door to wrongdoing.

The specific point Simon Wolfson made about pointless advertising is, of course, sound, but at the extremes giving managers carte blanche isn't the solution either. I'm sure Mr Wolfson didn't entirely mean that either, but he should have perhaps made that clearer.

My point about the friends and relatives was less about advertising per se than nepotism, but I should have made this more explicit.

Stuart Winton said...

Subrosa, interesting to read your comments about the difference between Glasgow East and Dundee - are you comparing like with like (one of Dundee's worst schemes, say)?

As for Bill Jamieson, I suspect that if major UK Labour donors who are prominent businessmen were to meeet Gordon Brown then I suspect it would be all over the papers ;0)