Quoth a Minister: “We’re just not gonnae dae it.”
Said SNP minister was commenting, privately, on the prospect of whether Scottish Water might be mutualised.
You remember mutual status It was enjoyed by several building societies before they started pretending to be banks.
It was the co-operative image projected by insurance companies of old.
For those who advocate public ownership of water, mutualisation presents a snag. Mutuals can and often do demutualise. Just ask the customers of Standard Life.
In May last year John Swinney, the finance secretary, responded to the Howat Report which examined Scottish Executive/Government spending.
The report made many recommendations. But up with one in particular Mr Swinney was not going to put.
He said: “Scottish Water will retain its current status. This is our clear policy position.”
Has that crisp, clear water now become just a little muddied? At Tory prompting, MSPs debated water.
Bear with me, this matters.
Tories say: review SW, look at options including mutualisation, act this parliament. LibDems say: mutualise but don’t privatise. Labour says: keep SW public but “keep under review” its status, including the option of mutualisation.
How does the Labour position differ from the Tories? One is active mood, one is passive. “Review” is active. “Keep under review” is passive.
By definition, pretty well everything is kept under review by governments at all times.
The overnight briefings became firm statements from ministers and backbenchers in the debate that mutualisation is a non-starter.
So how to dispel the cloud? What’s going on? Firstly, I think ministers were primarily motivated to defeat the Tory motion which calls for an active review.
Hence the attraction of the (relatively imprecise) Labour amendment.
Secondly, I believe there are SNP ministers who are potentially attracted by the savings to the public purse which would follow mutualisation (and its attendant power for SW to borrow in the market.)
Thirdly, there are SNP backbenchers who adhere to the following syllogism. Mutualisation = privatisation = a victory for evil.
I think, in sum, that this little episode reflects the competing strains and stresses of minority government.
Is John Swinney signalling that he is ready, soon, to mutualise Scottish Water? No.
Is he retaining the “clear policy position” of last May that change is to be ruled out utterly? No. Scotland will return, collectively, to this issue, possibly in the next parliament.