Joan McAlpine: Coalition's coastal drift a case of wilful blindness

Danny Alexander's clumsy attempt to offset Westminster's refusal to engage on the Crown Estate reveals much

THE phrase "wilful blindness" popped up last week at the select committee appearance of the Murdochs. But it was a government minister who gave us a striking demonstration of wilful blindness in action. In a cynical, if cack-handed, piece of political opportunism, the chief secretary to the Treasury, Highland Liberal Democrat MP Danny Alexander, flew to the Western Isles to announce the establishment of what he called a Coastal Communities Fund.

The announcement appeared from nowhere, like a goose-bumped Aphrodite rising from the Hebridean waves. There was no consultation, no engagement. The fund allocates a limited share of the profits from the Crown Estate's marine income in Scotland to communities - who must bid for it via the Big Lottery Fund.

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Such was the speed of the announcement, my understanding is that the Lottery Fund people were taken somewhat by surprise, unable to answer detailed media queries about the scheme. That's perhaps just as well, for why should Scottish communities have to beg for public funds that are, by right, already theirs?

There is a reason for the rushed and shambolic nature of this stunt. It is an unconvincing attempt to deflect attention from the embarrassing volte face of Scottish Liberal Democrats in government and grab the agenda from the Scottish Government, which has campaigned for Scotland to get Crown Estate funds.

In opposition, the Lib Dems also campaigned for the devolution of the Crown Estate administration and revenues - to Scotland. It is public land run for public benefit under the jurisdiction of Scots Law. That it should be managed by an unaccountable organisation based in London - the Crown Estate Commission - defies logic and the spirit of devolution.

The party has had several chances to put matters right now it is in government in Westminster. Coalition ministers could have supported amendments to the Scotland Bill devolving Crown Estate administration. They voted against it.

The First Minister Alex Salmond asked for the devolution of the Crown Estate when he met the Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland shortly after the election in May. He was told to submit detailed proposals - these appeared in a Scottish Government paper submitted in June. It proposed control of the Crown Estate in Scotland as well as a fund for local communities that would enhance the infrastructure needed to realise the potential of Scotland's marine energy resources.

This is when the wilful blindness struck. The UK government did not respond to this paper - even though it built on a consultation last year with organisations across Scotland, including local authorities, who urged more accountability in the management of Scotland's seabed and foreshore. Instead, the coalition tried to win back highland liberal votes by side-stepping the Scottish Government and "buying off" rural communities with the promise of funds - though given an initial 1.85m is allocated to the Highlands and Islands, it's difficult to see it going particularly far. The Liberal Democrats signed up to the Calman Commission, part 4.1 of which recommends: "In all circumstances there should be mutual respect between the parliaments and the governments and this should be the guiding principle in their relations." The coastal communities announcement makes a nonsense of such promises. It takes a special kind of arrogance, liberally peppered with political stupidity, to behave in this way. It demonstrates contempt for the government of Scotland and the people of Scotland who elected it.

For all the talk of "picking fights" with Westminster, it is the Scottish government that has followed due process, submitting papers on borrowing, broadcasting and the Crown Estate, conducting ministerial meetings in the spirit of co-operation, and welcoming even the smallest concession - including the coastal communities fund - as a step in the right direction. The response from coalition politicians has been confusing and spiteful - threatening to dictate the timing and terms of any independence referendum and pressing ahead with a Scotland Bill stitched together by parties whose policies where overwhelmingly rejected in May. Their refusal to engage on the Crown Estate illustrates a broader failure to acknowledge the mandate the SNP have received - it's as though they cannot quite believe what the people have told them.

Both the Highland and Western Isles councils have greeted the coastal communities fund in lukewarm terms, pointing out that it fails to address the issue of accountability. It also fails to recognise the need to save revenues for the future, encouraging spending as opposed to responsible investment.

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The attitude of all the unionist parties suggests that hostility to the SNP is transforming into hostility not only to the Scottish Parliament as an institution, but the concept of Scotland as a nation with unique institutions and democratic rights. This retreat into a unionist laager will surely see Labour follow the Scottish Liberal Democrats and Tories into electoral oblivion.

Labour's Tom Greatrex offered a taste of this when he warmly welcomed the coalition's coastal communities announcement, sneering at the very suggestion Holyrood should have any say in the matter. The member for Rutherglen's response shows where Labour is going wrong in Scotland. They have placed themselves in the same camp as the coalition, which a poll last week found was more unpopular here than elsewhere in the UK. They also use the same language as the Tory governments of the 1980s and 1990s. I would not expect Mr Greatrex to remember, he was at school in Kent at the time, but Thatcherite ministers accused of ignoring the democratic will of the Scottish people often resorted to the argument that they were in favour of "real devolution not more government in Edinburgh". Michael Forsyth argued that elected school boards were devolution in action, Malcolm Rifkind that the privatisation of utilities such as Scottish Gas and Scottish Power was true democracy for Scotland.Those arguments failed for the Scottish Tories then and they will fail Labour and the Lib Dems now. Their blocking of constructive moves to make Scotland and England's relationship more equal inside the UK sends out a clear message: the Union will not be reformed. That leaves only one option - and it will be put to the people of Scotland before the end of this parliament.

• Joan McAlpine is an SNP MSP for the South of Scotland