In my time as MP for Orkney and Shetland I have made it my business to take an interest in shipping matters. Remarkably few MPs do but as a representative of island communities in a parliament of an island nation it has always been something of a no-brainer for me.
I hope I am better informed on most politicians when it comes to the shipping industry and its politics – even if that is not setting the bar very high. Even I, however, would never dream of doing what the Scottish transport minister Stewart Stevenson did last week in telling NorthLink to run on two engines instead of four. It is possibly one of the most inappropriate examples of ministerial interference in the running of a public service that you are ever going to find.
What qualification does Mr Stevenson have to make a decision like this? Surely at the very least it ought to be a decision for the NorthLink board if not the masters of the ships themselves. If it is not then why do we have them? The decision is bad but the way in which it was made is even worse. Had Mr Stevenson consulted the local local people and businesses about the impact that these changes will have he might have learned a bit about what is inevitably going to be a false economy. That may be why he chose to act without consultation.
Remember that these cuts in NorthLink’s running costs are being made at a time when the Scottish Government continues to pour money into a Road Equivalent Tariff “pilot scheme” in the Western Isles. That is a pilot scheme which is never going to result in a full-blown RET for us or the other island communities in the Inner Hebrides who are meantime being put at a competitive disadvantage.
This is a day that we always knew was coming. When the SNP took power in Edinburgh in 2007 it would not say “no” to anybody. Anyone who said that this was never going to be sustainable were ignored. The good times were going to run for ever. Curiously, they did not. Since then one manifesto pledge after another has been ditched or scaled down and the sense of disappointment has grown.
There are lessons here for all politicians as we approach a general election. The most obvious is that the affordability of what you offer matters. Promising the earth when you can not afford it is bad for everyone but ultimately worst for politics itself as undelivered promises only lead to greater disenchantment with the political process.
Secondly, we all know that with a UK deficit of £178 billion there are going to have to be cuts in public spending. Difficult decisions are inevitable. When these decisions are to be made they must be made in a way that is fair to the individuals and communities affected. They must be allowed to have their say. They know better than government ministers. Mr Stevenson last week failed on both counts.
Alistair Carmichael MP