James Heale and Michael Simmons

Nicola Sturgeon’s secret state

As Westminster grapples with the P&O scandal, a very different farce over ferries has been playing out in Scotland. In the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, a Glasgow shipbuilder went bust and was rescued by a Scottish National party adviser. It was later awarded a £97 million government contract to build two ferries. Neither emerged. The cost now stands at £240 million and last month Scots learned that there will be another eight-month delay to the boats. What happened? Why did so much public money change hands? Was the taxpayer swindled?

Those trying to get to the bottom of these questions have hit a problem common to Nicola Sturgeon’s Scotland: much of the relevant documentary evidence has vanished. Jim McColl, the businessman who funded the original bailout, now says the deal was ‘for political capital’, but no one has been able to prove anything. This is not a one-off. Poor planning, wilful waste and absence of accountability have characterised so many episodes in the SNP’s 15 years in power.

Under first Alex Salmond and now Sturgeon, Holyrood has become one of the most centralised and opaque regimes in the democratic world. The power devolved to Edinburgh in 1999 has been hoarded by a party and a government – it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other starts – that specialises in dodging accountability. The SNP’s record of failure on public services is matched only by its ability to conceal the extent of that failure.

All major decisions are expected to be signed off by Sturgeon’s office; even junior officials talk of referring decisions to her apparatchiks for final approval. The Scottish government’s 175 communications staff dwarf the BBC’s 34 reporters, meaning that even the publicly funded broadcasters have one person asking questions for every five who answer them.

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