Jonathon Shafi

Jonathon Shafi

What the CalMac Mess Tells Us

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Jonathon Shafi examines the torrid failures over CalMac, privatisation and the SNP.

This article is reposted from the Independence Captured newsletter.

Recent days have been fraught with controversy around the failure to deliver two new ferries to serve island communities. It shouldn’t need to be said, but maybe it is worth re-emphasising that such infrastructure is not an optional extra. It is a vital necessity.

The ferries are four years late, and vastly over budget. The failure to deliver these ferries has some obvious knock-on effects. Existing ferries are unable to meet demand effectively, and because of their age, unable to deal with the variable conditions of the sea on a sustained basis. This leads to an increase in cancelled sailings.

Bill Calderwood, secretary of the Isle of Arran Ferries Committee, puts it in stark terms:

“The situation is deteriorating. It’s unsustainable for the island, for our businesses and for our quality of life.”

It should be a benchmark task of the Scottish Government to deliver essential connectivity, and to build up Scottish manufacturing. Instead we have failure to deliver on the one hand, and on the other, we have Turkish yards building new ferries to serve the Islay routes. As reported recently:

“Cemre Marin Endustri has been announced as the preferred bidder for the order against three other yards which will increase vehicle and freight capacity by nearly 40 percent.”

This just adds yet more evidence to the view that there is no serious industrial strategy at play. Recently I looked at how Scotland’s wind and renewable energy potential is being squandered. We might also look at the failure to deliver other vital infrastructure projects, such as the failed high speed broadband roll out, which is running six years late without an end in sight. Something is not working.


Before we go on, I want to be clear with those who read this newsletter and who support independence, as I do. The growing record of ineptitude at the level of the Scottish Government cannot be simply batted away as a “unionist ploy,” or by sharing memes of the detestable rogues in the Tory cabinet. Perhaps such an approach works as a rhetorical device on social media. But in the real world, Scottish policy failures really do matter at a far more material level.

Put simply, the lack of progress being made at the present moment in devolved areas is going to have consequences, especially when relying on the constitutional question as political cover for botched domestic policy gets more difficult as a referendum recedes from view. For some, belief in the viability of independence itself can also come under growing strain.

Indeed, it is the double whammy of paralysis around the national question, combined with major domestic failings and big promises going undelivered, that has the potential to undermine the prospects for independence (such as they are).

Public relations over delivery

For some years it has become clear that the SNP has a very good public relations strategy, but that this comes at the expense of delivering tangible change. The standard of public debate has drastically depreciated across the board, and not just in Scotland. The reduction of politics to soundbites, social media outrages and the pressures of the 24 hour news cycle mean that well tailored press statements and “lines” on various issues can come to trump meaningful policy development and implementation.

Aesthetics are an important part of this process too. In the years that followed the referendum, it was as if the independence movement became personified by Nicola Sturgeon. That process was not just superficial, it was about establishing internal control too.

This is logical, and understandable, from the perspective of the party Special Advisors. After all, doesn’t the First Minister present far better to the public than any other mainstream politician? Don’t members offer headaches with demands more radical than can be tolerated. A presidential style of politics was – and is – deemed as preferable.

The problem is, this can only work for so long. Substance matters – and grand announcements wear thin if they are chronically under-delivered. That goes for independence as it does for devolved issues. There is a real emptiness about the SNP at the moment. The inevitable consequence of such a long period of unchallenged dominance? Perhaps. But there should, surely, be more to shout about given such unfettered political hegemony. Especially when it was granted in large part through the votes of working-class Scotland.

Project Neptune

Yet this terrain – evacuated of democratic input – is fertile for corporate interests to exert influence on the political agenda. Take the example of the National Care Service. Instead of a publicly owned and publicly funded service, the design was contracted to multinational consultancy firms PriceWaterhouseCoopers and KPMG.

As Lilian Macer, convener of Unison Scotland, said:

“PriceWaterhouseCoopers and KPMG have a track record of promoting private health and social care, this is not what most people in Scotland want. Care should be delivered in and for the community. It is a public service not a commodity. Big private equity firms have led us to the tragically dysfunctional care system we have now.”

This is something of a pattern. Not only has the case for independence been captured by corporate interests, but so has policy making in the here and now. The same is true when it comes to the future of state controlled CalMac.

In this case, Ernst and Young were asked by Ministers to conduct an in-depth examination of the government structure which runs Scotland’s ferry service under a brief titled “Project Neptune”. The government agreed contracts worth £560,000 with Ernst and Young to carry out the work. That’s over half a million from the public purse into the bank account of a private firm with an ideological and economic preference towards privatisation.

Of course, the Scottish government could have drawn on the civil service, the experience of service users, unions and other stakeholders instead.

At a recent day of action for a People’s CalMac organised by the RMT, Brian Reynolds, a CalMac union organiser said:

“We are here in Oban today because we are seriously concerned about the report commissioned by Transport Scotland called the Neptune Project. It might, and it is a might, promote privatisation of the unbundling of routes. We would be totally opposed to that. We are calling for greater involvement with unions at board level and with community groups at board level.”

The First Minister has denied that privatisation of CalMac is in the works:

“We have no plans whatsoever, we will not privatise our public service ferries and equally we have no plans to split up the CalMac network. That is the position of the Scottish Government.”

Such denials should not be required. Bluntly, it is a disgrace that a private company (recently fined for a botched audit of Stagecoach) has been handed contracts paid for by the Scottish public.

Let’s also be clear about this. If you oppose privatisation outright from the outset, you don’t get Ernst and Young to oversee a restructure of CalMac. The reality is, despite protestations to the opposite, that privatisation is often a longer-term process. Just look at, for example, foundation hospitals and the creeping privatisation of health services in England.

Scots deserve fully functional public infrastructure projects, from wind and care, to transport and broadband. The inability to deliver these in the interests of people, not profit, is a failure for the people of Scotland in the here and now. But it also undermines the industrial base required for independence.

The truth is the RMT are absolutely right about developing a People’s CalMac, just as they are correct to raise serious concerns about “Project Neptune.”

It is also worth remembering that the RMT were one of the few trade unions to take a formal pro-independence position at the last referendum.

Such support should not be taken for granted.

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