Orcadian Column, 20 April 2023

20 Apr 2023

Motor homes have not enjoyed this much notoriety since convoys of them rolled into rural Scotland after lockdown restrictions were first eased in the summer of 2020. These are strange times.

Strange indeed was the feeling of arriving back at Holyrood this week after Easter recess to news that SNP Treasurer, Colin Beattie MSP had been arrested. This latest dramatic twist in the crisis engulfing his party is the last thing Humza Yousaf needed as he prepared to unveil to parliament his programme for government.  

Without doubt it has been the ‘honeymoon’ from hell for Scotland’s new First Minister. Since the arrest of Peter Murrell, the SNP’s former Chief Executive and Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, at the start of the month, the party has been in meltdown. Astonishing images of the Sturgeon-Murrell home as a crime scene, complete with forensic tent, blue police tape and officers in high viz jackets were splashed across the media worldwide. Since then, the drip, drip of further damaging revelations has been relentless and remorseless.

Over the weekend, video footage emerged from March 2021 showing Nicola Sturgeon telling SNP National Executive Committee members that the party’s finances had never been healthier and dismissing claims of financial difficulties. Weeks later, police began their investigation into complaints of financial mismanagement.

Reacting to all this, SNP MSPs, MPs and leading activists have been busy taking lumps out of each other on social media, dispensing with the usual anonymous briefings from ‘unnamed sources’ in preference for full frontal attacks. Meanwhile, Humza Yousaf’s regular media appearances have only helped add fuel to the flames as he succeeds in parroting allegations made against his party and raising yet more questions rather than closing them down.

For Nicola Sturgeon it represents a remarkable fall from grace: unimaginable back on 20 February when she announced her resignation. Even back then, I thought it unlikely she would want to serve out this session as an MSP, but offers of alternative roles, including on the international stage, may be unforthcoming while police investigations continue and a sizeable cloud hangs over the former First Minister and her legacy.

All of this, of course, distracts Ministers from the ongoing challenges in almost every area of policy, from health to education; from justice to the economy. We even had the remarkable spectacle this week of the army being approached to help deliver ferry services as the Scottish Government’s ferries fiasco plumbed new depths.

And this is not the only issue exercising coastal and island communities at present. This week also saw the government’s consultation on Highly Protected Marine Areas conclude amidst mounting concern, including the release of a protest song, The Clearances Again by Scottish folk band, Skipinnish.

HPMAs were a ‘red line’ demand from the Greens as part of the Bute House Agreement with the SNP and would halt all activity in 10% of Scottish waters, a third of which are already designated for protection, by 2026.

I met last week with representatives of Orkney’s fishing sector, who are extremely anxious about the potential impact locally. To date, Orkney has done more than most in responding to earlier government demands that local fisheries develop sustainable practices and build the scientific evidence for future policy-making. All that is now at risk from an arbitrary designation imposed by an arbitrary deadline set to coincide with the next Holyrood election.

HPMAs may well have a role to play in the protection of our marine environment and both at UK and EU level plans are being developed. However, these appear more flexible, evidence-led and subject to realistic timeframes. The rigid approach being proposed by the Scottish Government risks doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. 

Opposition is quickly building across communities and across parties to the extent that the government would almost certainly lose a vote on the issue in the Scottish Parliament. Putting in mind another flagship policy with Green Party fingerprints all over it, HPMAs are taking on the appearance of a Deposit Return Scheme for the seas. In coastal and island communities, they are likely to be as popular as a ferry full of motorhomes – always assuming the ferry is running, of course.