Orcadian 13/09/16

Nine years after first getting elected, I have finally notched up a nomination in the Scottish Politician of the Year Awards.  

The breakthrough has come in the newly-created Community Politician of the Year category, where my appearance on the three-person shortlist is justified by the judges in recognition of “my immersion into Orkney life”. This is bafflingly vague and suggests guests at the awards ceremony next month may need to brace themselves for a video montage of less than elegant displays of strip-the-willow, bagging the bruck and picking a ball out of a net.

In other political news, the former Prime Minister, David Cameron appears intent on not immersing himself in Witney life. Having been afforded the opportunity to spend more time with his constituents, he has taken two months to conclude this is not for him. I suspect it was the bagging the bruck.

Mr Cameron’s legacy in office, much as he might protest, will be as the Prime Minister who recklessly gambled the country’s place in Europe. And lost.

The consequences of that gamble are still to play out, but those drawing comfort from recent economic statistics should bear in mind that Brexit has not yet happened. Moreover, short term stability has been bought at a hefty price through interventions by the Bank of England.

Theresa May’s mantra of “Brexit means Brexit” tells us little while the Ministers in charge of Brexit preparations seem incapable of getting from one day to the next without either contradicting each other or being ‘slapped down’ by the PM.

Where things are have come into sharper focus is on the international stage. The recent G20 summit offered a foretaste with Mrs May’s Japanese hosts pulling no punches about the risk for inward investment into the UK, while the US and Australia sought to ‘manage expectations’ about timeframes for future trade deals.

Little surprise then that Brexit has been high on the agenda since MSPs returned last week after the summer recess. It featured prominently in two parliamentary statements by the First Minister on successive days, including one on the government’s legislative programme for the year ahead.

Unfortunately, for Nicola Sturgeon the priority appears to use Brexit as an excuse to re-run the referendum on independence. As if the answer to the uncertainty surrounding Brexit is to pile on even more uncertainty, this time with a neighbour that accounts for four times as much of Scotland’s exports as the EU.

After campaigning all summer, Ms Sturgeon intends to bring forward legislation paving the way for indyref2. Before that, however, we are to have a ‘national debate’: the biggest listening exercise ever, according to the First Minister.

Sound familiar? Did we not have a National Conversation when the SNP entered office in 2007? Were we not then treated to a three year referendum campaign after they won in 2011? Was none of that about listening?

Many in Scotland are indeed anxious about what Brexit will mean. Their voice and Scotland’s interests must be heard in the negotiations that lie ahead. But Nicola Sturgeon should not, as she did again last week, conflate the interests of those in Scotland with the SNP’s interests. They are not the same.

As for the rest of the First Minister’s government programme, it lacked any real urgency in the face of some serious challenges ahead here in Scotland.

In education, SNP plans for national testing in primary schools, last introduced by Michael Forsyth, look a woefully inadequate response to gaps in attainment and falls in numeracy and literacy. Health, meanwhile, seems set for the SNP’s centralising treatment, with island health boards under threat, and mental health provision, particularly child and adolescent services, is crying out for urgent attention.

Farm payments remain a mess; investment in transport links is desperately needed; future support for renewables is up in the air. The list goes on.

This is what should be occupying the attention of Scottish Ministers. And frankly, you don’t need a nomination for immersion in Orkney life to know that these are where the priorities for our islands lie.

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