HOW we had missed the double act. It was simply not the same without them. The certainties of life seemed less certain, the reassurances less reassuring. But on Tuesday they were back. Ladies and gentlemen of Scotland, a big hand please for Nicola Sturgeon and her podium.
To be fair to the First Minister and her podium, they generously share the stage with others when the televised occasion demands. This week, as Ms Sturgeon spoke of her alarm at the number of new Covid cases and the possible reintroduction of curbs, she was flanked by the Chief Medical Officer, Gregor Smith.
Otherwise, the First Minister and her podium fly solo, save for a BSL interpreter. It is not Ms Sturgeon’s style to surround herself publicly with advisers, which is just as well as a bigger stage would have to be hired. Given the number of advisers and press officers on the public payroll, we are talking at least the Pavilion if not the SSE Hydro.
As reported this week by Hannah Rodger, The Herald’s Westminster correspondent, Ms Sturgeon has appointed a record number of special advisers. There are 15 of them, more than double the number hired by Donald Dewar, being paid between £41,442 and £108,062.
A couple more will be added to the tally when two Scottish Greens become Ministers as part of the cooperation agreement, taking the bill for advisers beyond a cool million for the first time.
To the bill for advisers must be added the costs of more than 50 press officers. As was pointed out by the Times, which obtained the figures, there are now fewer BBC reporters – 34 – asking questions of the Scottish Government than there are press officers to answer them.
For the entire Scottish Government’s press operation the latest bill came in at £2.8 million, up from £2.5 million in 2016-17.
Given the amount spent, you might think Scotland would be the best governed, most transparent small country in the world, to paraphrase the slogan coined by Jack McConnell (12 advisers). And yet, where to begin? With the ferries fiasco, drug deaths, a record-breaking deficit of up to 25% of GDP, the breaking of treatment times guarantees, a failure to close the attainment gap in education, the lack of new affordable homes … you get the idea.
While the calculator is out, what is the final bill for the failed proceedings against former First Minister Alex Salmond and the subsequent inquiries?
That would be the sort of question that would be well worth an answer from an adviser or press officer, but even MSPs, with parliamentary privileges, have trouble extracting clear responses from this Government.
When Labour MSP Jackie Baillie asked for the final Salmond bill (in addition to the half a million pounds costs awarded to the former First Minister), parliament was told by Leslie Evans, the Scottish Government’s Permanent Secretary, that it was not possible to calculate this.
What is at the root of the Scottish Government’s apparent addiction to spin? Why do Ministers, and this First Minister in particular, feel the need to have a football team-plus of advisers by their sides and so many press officers doing their bidding?
Not since New Labour has any government been as enamoured of spin as the current Scottish administration. In New Labour’s case, an army of spin doctors was first deployed to transform the party’s image while in Opposition. It was when these flak-catchers followed the party into power that the trouble began. Instead of attacking opponents, advisers and press officers turned to promoting their own Ministers. The fighting that ensued went on for years.
New Labour could at least lay claim to needing so many aides on its side, arguing the party’s case. Large sections of the press were overwhelmingly hostile to Labour. They really did have it in for them. Witness the Sun’s front page at the 1992 election: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”. That was mild in comparison with some stuff.
Similarly, the SNP, often with considerable justification, could be forgiven for adopting a siege mentality when it came to the media and getting their points across.
But as with New Labour, it is one thing to be constantly on the front foot while in opposition and quite another when you are in power.
The SNP, despite having all the trappings and advantages of being in government, still thinks of itself as the scrappy outsider, fighting for its very survival. Its members look at the make-up of the press and feel outnumbered in hostile territory. In the case of the BBC, slights are assumed automatically, war is declared without hesitation.
When it comes to special advisers, the Scottish Government could argue that its powers and responsibilities are much greater today, therefore it needs more advisers than previous administrations. But just as duties have grown, so too has the civil service. In June 2020 there were 43,500 civil servants in Scotland, 21,400 of them in the devolved civil service. The total number was up 1% year on year. From these massed ranks, one might assume, Ministers can count on receiving solid, impartial advice.
It is not the same as the service provided by special advisers. They may have expertise in a particular field, but their job first and foremost is to provide political guidance. To be the eyes and ears of Ministers, provide some of that blue sky thinking, anticipate and act.
As such, special advisers occupy a grey area in modern politics. Being the point of contact for lobby groups, controlling access to Ministers, they wield considerable power and influence.
Despite their expanding role, and growing number, there is no way for the public, and parliament, to know whether they are worth the money. How can employing even more of them be justified when so little is known about the ones there already?
Questioning the amount spent on special advisers and press officers may appear irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Yet quite apart from the costs being incurred, it surely says a lot about a government that it needs so many people standing between itself and the public it is there to serve.