Scotland is “worse than it has ever been” thanks to the independence debate causing total political paralysis at Holyrood on major domestic problems, a former first minister has said in a damning indictment of devolution.
Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale said the country was “stuck in treacle”, with no progress on issues ranging from education to the economy to record drug deaths as both sides of the constitutional debate wait for another referendum.
The former Labour first minister, who was ousted from power by the SNP in 2007, said nobody at Holyrood “engages with the actual issue itself” as everything is seen by MSPs as being a proxy for the independence debate.
Asked whether the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 had improved the country, a clearly moved Lord McConnell remained silent for several minutes and expressed his sadness that it had not worked out as he had hoped.
He told Holyrood magazine he had campaigned for devolution from the age of 18 with the hope of creating “a new quality of public debate” and better policy choices in Scotland.
With tears welling up in his eyes, the former maths teacher said: “But I think we’re in a situation now where probably Scotland is worse than it has ever been. And I find that just incredibly sad. I’m really, really, sad.”
A country plunged into crisis
His extraordinary intervention came as it emerged the Scottish Government agreed to provide a 25-year financial guarantee worth £586 million that allowed steel magnate Sanjeev Gupta to take over an industrial site in Fort William in 2016.
The Financial Times obtained the figure for the Lochaber smelter deal following a two-year Freedom of Information battle. However, the Scottish Government now estimates the net present value of the remaining guaranteed payments at only £285.9 million.
It was claimed that the investment would create 1,000 direct jobs and a further 1,000 indirect jobs, but only around 50 posts have been created.
Mr Gupta’s GFG Alliance was plunged into crisis in March following the collapse of its main financier, Greensill Capital. It emerged in November that the French authorities have opened an investigation into Mr Gupta’s business empire.
Lord McConnell said “almost nothing has changed in Scotland” since the 2014 referendum in terms of public opinion on independence and “everything else as well”, including policy areas such as education and employment.
“Some things are slightly worse and at its heart is the polarisation around the constitutional issue,” he said.
“Public discourse in Scotland has got us to a stage where there is no potential in the immediate future, I don’t think, to change any of the policies or the delivery in areas where things could be improved, because all we are doing is waiting for the next referendum.”
He said there was “no public debate and no public accountability” for the Scottish Government, a situation he said was “the exact opposite of what I believed and hoped for from the age of 18 about devolution.”
‘Stuck in treacle’
The former Scottish Labour leader said he had been left dispirited by this year’s Holyrood election campaign, the dominant issue of which again was whether to have another independence referendum.
He added: “Right now, I genuinely feel like we are stuck in treacle and I don’t know how we get out of it… I mean, you look at the situation in transport, in education, in care-experienced kids, and you wonder whether we even have ministers.”
Bemoaning the “lack of accountability for poor performance”, he said incompetent ministers “just don’t get kicked out of the cabinet” and that had been a problem for the last 14 years of SNP rule.
He said he was “particularly angry” about the “lack of engagement” with local authority education directors about the impact of schools being shut during the first lockdown last year, saying there was “the denial of there even being an issue”.
An SNP spokesman said: “If Lord McConnell seriously thinks the Scottish people living under repeated Tory Westminster governments we don’t vote for, is preferable to running some of their own affairs, then frankly he has shown his true colours.
“Devolution has manifestly made the lives of ordinary Scots better on a range of indicators – allowing us to make different choices on areas like free personal care and abolish tuition fees, and develop our own social security system.”