Michael Russell: Tory hysteria over Scottish Budget is naked gesture politics

Every politician must admit that they have at some stage gone over the top in their campaigning and regretted it afterwards.

Regretted it not just because such behaviour is nearly always counter-productive but also because in retrospect it was, simply, the wrong thing to do.

That is because if you succumb too easily to the lure of what you (often mistakenly) believe to be momentary party advantage you can lose sight of the longer term good of the people you are pledged to serve, to their detriment.

There are now less than five weeks to Brexit day. Businesses are trembling on a cliff edge of uncertainty, prices are rising, labour shortages are biting, vitally needed EU citizens are packing their bags, ‘No Deal’ planning is absorbing huge amounts of time and money and the Prime Minister’s spin about progress in negotiations is being revealed for the sham it always was.

Yet the Scottish Tories, who at one stage not only recognised the crippling effects of Brexit on Scotland but also spoke out against them, are now utterly obsessed by opposing a policy on workplace parking that many of their local government colleagues have in the past supported, to the exclusion of almost any other issue.

It is industrial-strength fiddling whilst Rome burns.

Go the Twitter timeline of any ambitious young Tory MSP – say Miles Briggs, the Lothian Regional Member who was once a Tory party staffer in the Parliament – and you will find it full to overflowing with angry and aggressive items about what his party has christened the “SNP’s hated” parking tax.

This latest Tory fixation has even, no doubt temporarily, overtaken the one they have about Scotland’s journey towards independence, and how people choosing their own future is a thoroughly bad idea in a democracy.

Miles isn’t stupid and many of my younger SNP colleagues have nice things to say about him as a human being. Yet the fearful threat that is Brexit has had nary a mention from him in recent days. Instead “parking tax” hyperbole rules to the extent that at one stage he was claiming that there were 100,000 workplace parking spaces in Edinburgh, all of which were going to be taxed, with the charge falling to be paid be each and every individual driving each and every one of those (fictitious) 100,000 cars.

That is, not to put too fine a point on it, mince. In fact all that has happened is that the SNP Government in a budget deal with the Green Party have agreed to enable councils to set a levy on workplace parking if they so choose.

This is a power already available to councils south of the border, which has only been used once. No Scottish council has yet said it wishes to use it and indeed many have indicated they don’t want to do so. Previous discussion of the idea, as a possible legitimate tool in the fight against pollution and traffic gridlock, has been backed by councillors of all parties, including the Tories.

Moreover if any council did choose to use it they would be subject to the usual process of democratic and electoral scrutiny.

The Conservative contribution to the Scottish Budget process this year consisted of constant demands for tax cuts and extra spending without putting forward any ideas about where the money would or could come from. Had they engaged constructively with Derek Mackay they might now be able to argue that there were alternatives to accepting Green Party priorities. But they didn’t and neither did Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

So the “parking tax” hysteria is naked gesture politics, designed to distract attention not only from that failure, nor just from the fact that – in my own area of Argyll and Bute and elsewhere – Tory-run councils are actually actively hiking parking costs to an extraordinary degree.

It is also an action borne of a desperate discomfort at the disaster of a shambolic and deeply damaging Brexit that is unfolding before the horrified eyes of voters the length and breadth of Scotland and which is solely the responsibility of the Tory party.

There is a time and place for the rough and tumble of politics but it it isn’t here and it isn’t now. Things are far too serious for that.

So as the clock ticks down to the unthinkable but increasingly likely day of ‘No Deal’ and the louder the Miles Briggses of the Parliament shout, the more obvious, embarrassing and shameful their failure to stand up for a Brexit threatened Scotland becomes.