14 April 2021

Competitions for all! A new ‘national challenge’ says it all about the SNP’s dire record


You’ve really got to admire the SNP’s chutzpah. Most political parties wait until after polling day before admitting that they have no idea how to run the country. But not Nicola Sturgeon’s lot, oh no! In the absence of an economic policy of their own, the SNP have announced a “national challenge competition” that will offer a £50 million prize for projects with the potential to transform the economy.

That’s usually the political parties’ job, isn’t it?

But this approach is refreshingly honest. Perhaps after 14 years of looking blankly at various economic papers produced by the civil service, and being unable to make head nor tale of them because they contain very few mentions of independence, ministers have just given up the ghost. “Och! Can we no’ get someone else tae dae this?”

To be fair to the nationalists, governing is difficult. True, their purpose in getting into office was simply to take control of the civil service and get them to produce lots of glossy, expensive white papers explaining to a sceptical public just how great independence would be. And to instruct every police station in the land to fly the St Andrew’s flag (note: in Scotland, this is known as civic leadership; if it happens in England, it is flag fetishism).

But then other matters like health, the economy, fisheries, welfare and taxes started demanding their attention and how on earth are we supposed to campaign for freedom with all these distractions?

This latest initiative could well redesign modern democratic politics. Instead of busy politicians having to worry their pretty little heads about policies, they can simply run competitions to see who else can run the country better than them. Perhaps we can expect another competition to find new innovative ways of providing health care? “Extra points will be added to your score if you can suggest how to open hospitals on time.”

The possibilities are endless. Public procurement, for example, has proved a challenge too great for Sturgeon’s administration: they tried to buy a couple of ferries for state-owned CalMac, chose the dearest bidder instead of the cheapest, saw prices rocket, and ended up with two unfinished vessels five years after they were due to be delivered.

If this is what they can achieve in Scotland today, just imagine what they could do for an independent Scotland!

And it might be appropriate, in the wake of Holyrood’s very own #Me-an’-aw scandal, for the SNP to run a competition to create a human resources policy that’s fit for purpose. Nicola Sturgeon spent the first seven years as Alex Salmond’s deputy insisting he was the least sexist man she knew, and the next seven years – after she discovered feminism – apologising for his behaviour in the first seven. Submitted entries should explain how the system could run effectively even when the senior minister responsible suffers from conveniently large gaps in her recollection.

There may also have been a suggestion that the SNP manifesto invite ideas for developing a new regulator of the ministerial code, but it turned out the First Minister is more than happy with the existing one.

There could be other, quick-fire rounds, perhaps for smaller prizes of a million quid each: ‘Devise a new electoral system for Holyrood’ (answers must include longer terms, because five years really isn’t long enough); and ‘Why Freedom of Information requests don’t need to be answered by ministers who already have “Freedom” embroidered on their jim-jams’.

Of course, the entry qualifications for all these competitions would be stringent. Ministers got their fingers burned when Creative Scotland handed a six-figure sum of public money to a publisher who just happened, entirely coincidentally, to be a strong SNP supporter who was planning to publish My Big Book Of Inspirational Nicola Quotes. Although that was, of course, totally above board (because Nicola said it was and who wouldn’t take her word?), any new competition will have to be seen to be scrupulously fair. 

Applications will be able to be downloaded from the SNP website, but you’ll need your party membership number to log in first. Alba Party supporters need not apply.

Weak-chinned Unionists will fret that all of this suggests that SNP ministers want an easy life, that inviting ideas from beyond the Scottish Government is merely a new tactic to allow them to escape accountability for their departments’ failures. This is utter nonsense: Scottish ministers have been doing that quite successfully for years.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.