Thousands of SNP party faithful are set to congregate online at the annual party conference this week. Nicola Sturgeon, the ultimate survivor of Scottish politics, trundles on and will no doubt be hailed as the party leader that delivered an unprecedented fourth term in power. But all is not well in Scotland, and Sturgeon knows it.
In May, voters failed to give Sturgeon the one thing the SNP so desperately craves: a majority government. That would have – in the minds of nationalists – legitimised the party’s one and only objective for their fourth term, a drive to re-enact the 2014 “once in a generation” vote. A second referendum, come hell or high water, is not just a basic tenet of the SNP creed; hope for one is the only glue that sticks its members together in support of the leadership. And the Scottish economy, and Scottish businesses, are suffering for it.
The SNP’s mind-boggling deal with the Scottish Greens has exposed how little stock Sturgeon puts on supporting our economic recovery and creating an investment-friendly environment in Scotland. If the SNP has some claim to be a moderate governing force, the Scottish Greens are unabashedly anti-business: Scottish Green minister Lorna Slater MSP had barely received her ministerial briefcase before she tweeted her antipathy to billionaires and embraced the term “radical”.
This, and more, from the Scottish Greens is set to create a chilling environment for businesses just when we need our economic engine to properly start heating up and delivering on jobs and wages. The Scottish Green manifesto was full of red tape and additional burdens on an economy already struggling during the Covid-19 pandemic. The wording of the coalition deal shows they have exacted a high price for their presence in government. But Sturgeon had no choice: she needs those pro-independence Scottish Green votes to force a plebiscite in the Scottish Parliament.
It didn’t used to be this way. The SNP once studiously courted businesses during party conference season. Reassurance from senior SNP figures was readily available at the dinners and bars at venues in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Perth, filled to the brim with company representatives wanting to share ideas with the party. Now that SNP conference fringe events are there to serve fringe interests things are different. By signing away Scotland’s prosperity to the Scottish Greens, it’s hard to see how businesses can be served by turning up.
Astonishingly, the topic of the economy or of post-Covid economic recovery is now not even set to be a major theme for the SNP conference. Independence has pride of place, of course, as do next year’s council elections, plus climate change. But jobs, taxes and growth have been downgraded from the top of the agenda. The SNP is single-mindedly focussed on re-running a supposedly irrevocable vote it lost less than a decade ago. The common social media meme “this is fine”, with a happy canine sipping tea while the house burns down around him, comes to mind.
The SNP, while misguided in its focus on independence, used to be a Big Tent party that accommodated business and economic interests. It always had a left-leaning wing, but Sturgeon’s deal with the Scottish Greens has tipped the balance decisively towards a newer generation of often younger leftist activists that joined the party in 2014/15. Stalwarts like former deputy SNP leader Jim Sillars, who were fixtures of conference till recently, feel alienated. As Sillars wrote in an extraordinary letter to The Times this week, “we in Scotland are lumbered with a government that is simultaneously for and against economic growth”, while the SNP “is brilliant at spin but lacks any solid achievement.”
A Unionist politician couldn’t have put it better and the thought occurs that plenty of other delegates gathering at party conference will share Sillars’ principled concerns over the wisdom of abandoning Scotland’s economy to the ravages of the Greens and the SNP’s new left.
But it is the sheer lack of leadership that is hurting our economy most. The dithering over the Cambo oil field was a case in point. Rather than having the courage either to support it in the best interests of the economy or oppose it as the Scottish Greens would have her do, Sturgeon has chosen delay and obfuscation, insisting the decision is not hers but that of the Prime Minister. The recent GERS numbers show Scotland’s annual budget deficit doubled to over £36bn in a sign of how much we need to be level-headed about private sector investment as a means to support public spending.
The SNP faithful will no doubt stand by Sturgeon at this year’s conference. The Scottish economy has, as always in the SNP’s single mindedness, been relegated to a sideshow during its annual get-together. And all of us in Scotland are set to pay the price.
Robert Kilgour is co-founder and chairman of Scottish Business UK.