The presentation of the SNP’s programme for government makes me think that Scottish politics is going to be many things for the next few years, but dull is not one of them. Both in the bills it is bringing forward and in the way it does its business there are plenty of things that should have people in the Northern Isles sitting up to take note.
The way in which the tendering of the ferry service has been undertaken is causing real concern to local people and businesses in both Orkney and Shetland. That NorthLink will not be attending a major world travel fair this year may be understandable from its point of view, but it could be damaging to our local tourist trade at a time when we should be doing everything we can to help it to grow.
Likewise the determination of the SNP to push on with its plans for a single police force covering the whole of Scotland can only be viewed with trepidation. It is not that long since nationalists were calling for control of the coastguard to be devolved as their response to a Department for Transport plan to centralise all coastguard activity in Aberdeen. Why the coastguard would be treated differently from the police and fire services is far from clear.
If there is a discernible pattern emerging from the Edinburgh government then it is one of increased central control of public services from Edinburgh. If this is allowed to continue unchecked it will ultimately be bad for us in the isles. The late Donald Dewar famously said that devolution was a process rather than an event. That has widely been seen as having left the door open on further powers being devolved from London to Edinburgh (as is currently being done with the Scotland Bill at Westminster).
I always saw Donald Dewar’s statement as meaning more than that. If devolution is a process then it ought to be one that does not just stop in Edinburgh. It ought to be a process that sees power and decision making move down from government in Edinburgh to the communities most directly concerned. I watched in amazement the recent debate in Edinburgh over the building of a new tram network. Part of my amazement was that, as a resident of the Northern Isles, I do not really understand Edinburgh’s transport needs in the way that Edinburgh councillors must. But if people in the isles cannot be expected to understand Edinburgh’s trams then how can people in Edinburgh be expected to know how to run our ferries?
That is why devolution from Edinburgh downwards is not some abstract or theoretical policy. It is a very real and necessary protection for our communities. It seemed in the early days of the first SNP government, that it had some understanding of this. That, however, was when it was a minority government. Now that it has complete control we may see a different beast emerge. Time will tell.
Alistair Carmichael MP