I was brought up as an ‘army brat’ – my father worked for the forces and we led a peripatetic existence, following his work from posting to posting. So I attended more than my share of primary schools. A constant that followed us around was a series of songs we all knew and were always belted out to a strict tempo piano accompaniment hammered by one of the female teachers. One of them went:
London Bridge is falling down
Falling down, falling down
London Bridge is falling down
My fair lady.
I was thinking of that as I headed South on Saturday across the Forth rail bridge (opened in 1890, still going strong). As I gazed up river the ghostly grey structure of the road bridge merged with the mist; not a vehicle visible anywhere along its graceful deck, not a light to be seen.
It made me wonder if Scottish children in a hundred years’ time might be singing
Forth road bridge is falling down … my fair lady.
I don’t know who the fair lady of the original nursery rhyme/children’s song was and of course the road bridge isn’t falling down as far as we know. On the other hand, the lady I had in mind for my updated version of the song, Nicola Sturgeon, isn’t actually that fair (in a political sense I hasten to add).
You see, as if you needed telling, the problems with the road bridge have occurred on the SNP and Ms Sturgeon’s watch. Not only on their watch but eight years into it during a period in which they have removed tolls from the bridge (to the greater benefit of those who can afford to own a car), abolished the Forth Estuary Transport Authority and handed over the operation, management and maintenance of the bridge to a private sector contractor.
I’m not making any necessary causal connection between these events, but on the other hand the serviceability of a publically-owned, man-made structure is more within the control of the government than, say, the weather.
Precisely what has happened and why will doubtless emerge and a number of questions are already being asked and partly answered. Being neither bridge engineer nor sage I don’t know the truth but some of the issues are worth setting down for future reference.
- What precisely is the fault that has been discovered on the bridge and what caused it?
- Could it have been predicted and found earlier?
- Have inspection and maintenance routines contributed to the problem?
- Have maintenance budgets been cut and might that have contributed to the emergence of the problem?
- Has the privatisation of the bridge’s operation been a factor?
- Were ministers warned of any risks in relation to what has now happened, and if so when and what, if anything, did they do about them?
- What will the cost of the, hopefully temporary, closure of the bridge be to the economy of Scotland?
- Will any action be needed to avoid the recurrence of similar problems?
As I write, today – Monday – is the first working day of the first full week the bridge has been completely closed. Ensconced somewhere North of Fife I’m not immediately affected by it but tens of thousands of commuters, shoppers, retailing, distribution and manufacturing industry all are. On this day, Ms Sturgeon has chosen to attend the Paris climate change conference.
It is as if on the first day the stock markets opened after the Royal Bank of Scotland crashed, Gordon Brown had set off to observe a peace conference between, say, North and South Korea. He would have stood on the sidelines, perhaps given a speech to some fringe event and toured an associated exhibition of Korean co-operation. But he would have had no role and no influence. He would have been grandstanding and it would have sent a desperately poor message.
This is precisely the situation our first minister has chosen to place herself in. The UN conference in Paris is an event for nation states. You can pretend as much as you like but Scotland isn’t one and isn’t going to be one. It is, in European terms, a regional government. In international terms, for some of the delegates in Paris it will be ‘Where? Never heard of it.’ The world does not revolve around us. And while we’re at it, the SNP Scottish Government’s record on climate change is not as good as they’d have you believe, missing their own carbon emission targets several years in a row.
But never mind. Nero fiddled while Rome burnt. My fair lady performs, ineffectually, on the fringes of a world stage while something else the SNP has touched turns to dust.
By the time this is over, the bridge fault and closure will surely be something that merits an independent enquiry. I have my doubts as to whether our parliament with its SNP majority, SNP government, SNP committee chairs and SNP presiding officer has the gumption to look itself in the face and seek honest answers to honest questions about the subject. But don’t worry, there’s always that international stage to help build Scotland’s profile.