SNP ministers are obsessed with being “world-leading”, but somehow it never works out that way. As one over-hyped, ill-thought-through initiative after another turns to dust, the case for basic competence is overwhelming.
The utter shambles into which the Gender Recognition Reform Bill has quickly led them is the most recent example. However, there are more coming down the tracks which have so far grabbed fewer headlines but are heading in a familiar direction.
We heard endlessly about Scotland’s “world-leading” targets on climate change. Last month, it came as no surprise when the Committee on Climate Change found “glaring gaps” between headline-grabbing targets and the dull old work of delivery. So why not just do a decent job and then take pride in it?
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The irony is that while aspiring to global acclaim, they carelessly undermine fields of Scottish excellence which really have been world-leading since long before Holyrood was heard of. Scottish people and institutions went out and did world-leading things, rather than boast in advance, as a political totem.
Take the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill going through Westminster. Among leading researchers in this field are the James Hutton Institute (which brought together establishments that have done world-leading agricultural research for generations) and the Roslin Institute, which led the world with Dolly the Sheep among other achievements.
The logic of the Scottish Government’s position would be to order a halt to all related work in these establishments, so heinous is the offence to nature. They won’t do that because, in reality, what motivates them is the juicy prospect of another conflict with the UK Government. Never mind the science. Let’s have a political row.
Regulation of genetic modification is devolved and the bill applies to England and Wales. However, it affects food products which would cross the Border so the Scottish Government wants to withhold consent for the bill and create our own little trade war instead.
Inconveniently, the Scottish Government’s former Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Ann Glover, is among those who have dismissed a scientific rationale for this intervention while pointing to environmental, as well as productivity, benefits from gene-editing. The Scottish NFU wants its members to benefit from scientific advances, not block them.
Or how about potatoes for which Scotland has a global reputation? The James Hutton Institute’s Lesley Torrance warns against turning our backs on gene editing which “is going to be increasingly used to breed new varieties in the coming years. This will fast-track production of better plants in the future which are likely to be demanded in many of our export markets”.
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So where, in contrast, is support for the SNP’s petulance coming from? Well, the Greens, of course. For them, the bill is “meddling with nature” and “would promote untested, controversial and unlabelled gene-edited plant and animal products and undermine environmental standards”.
However, there is a difficulty ahead. The Scottish Government justifies its position by saying it is in line with the EU, rather than hated Westminster. But what happens when the EU changes its mind, as is likely to happen? Will “meddling with nature” become acceptable, once Brussels has said so?
Seafood is another of our world-leading products and contrary to dire prognostications has survived Brexit pretty well. The threat now comes from another direction – Edinburgh and specifically the grandly-named Bute House Agreement which accommodated the Harvie-Slater wish-list with minimal regard for consequences.
I see this one through the prism of the Hebrides where shellfish is the mainstay of fishing effort. That is now threatened by a consultation on Highly Protected Marine Areas where prohibitions will include all forms of fishing, aquaculture and seaweed-gathering. It is a safe bet that waters of the North-West which are already littered with environmental designations will be in the front line.
Once again, we are told that designating “at least 10 per cent” of Scottish waters as HPMAs, will make the Scottish Government “world-leading”. Duncan Macinnes, secretary of the Western Isles Fishermen’s Association, says the 10% figure is “based on no scientific rationale whatsoever” and poses an existential threat to the islands catching and marketing their world-leading products.
The prohibitions proposed are truly draconian and those whose livelihoods depend on heading them off are now forced into a rearguard action to protect themselves from something in which they had no part of planning. As Duncan Macinnes says: “Nobody asked anyone in the Western Isles about an SNP-Green agreement but we are now faced with its implications”.
Another industry in which Scotland is indisputably world-leading is the distilling of whisky, thanks to generations of craftsmanship and marketing. It too is now on the receiving end of a doubtless “world-leading” initiative to ban all marketing, right down to a prohibition on caps and t-shirts which carry the name of an offending product. So close down your visitor centres.
The consultation is based on the remarkable contention that each generic spirits category – whisky, gin, rum – is basically the same stuff, differentiated only by marketing. Understandably, this has caused offence to people who have devoted their working lives to the fine arts of the whisky trade. For their efforts to be dismissed with such disdain in a Scottish Government consultation paper is indeed startling.
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Of course, the logic of a domestic clamp-down on brand promotion in any shape or form would not go unnoticed in export markets. Would they be expected to treat Scotch whisky in the same way? Once again, what doubtless seems a great idea in Byres Road or Bute House runs into difficulty when it comes into contact with the real world.
The bonkers Deposit Return Scheme is another accident waiting to happen. It’s the same old story of the boast being the enemy of the deliverable. Bottles don’t respect borders and common sense says this scheme should be on a Britain-wide basis but of course, we have to be different without a clue about costs or practicalities.
So stand by for another fiasco costing hundreds of millions of pounds. In that respect at least, we are truly “world-leading”.