Almost daily reports of failures in Scotland’s ferry services are the predictable, indeed inevitable, outcome of years of government mishandling of an area that not only provides a crucial lifeline for islanders and coastal communities, but has implications for industries from heavy engineering, to freight, to tourism.

In the past week, at the height of summer traffic, there have been further cancellations at short notice, stranding tourists and locals, and the announcement – with no warning – of a ban on motorhomes and caravans. Increased demand from UK holidaymakers and coping with Covid and staff shortages have compounded these problems, but they are not the principal cause.

More than half of Calmac’s vessels are over 25 years old, and there have been more than 1,000 delayed or cancelled ferry sailings in the past five years; frequently as a result of mechanical issues. Yet government plans for maintenance and upkeep of the service have been an even greater fiasco than these constant breakdowns.

Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), which owns the ports, and the ferries that Calmac leases and operates, are both state-owned. And now, thanks in no small measure to the incompetence of the former, and the ministers who ought to have been supervising it, so is Ferguson Marine, the yard commissioned to provide two ferries. They should have come into service in 2018-19, and now look unlikely to materialise until February 2023.

The yard, taken over by the businessman Jim McColl at the Scottish government’s own request, effectively as a favour to them, might reasonably have expected support from ministers and a productive working relationship with CMAL, the nominal customer.

Instead, it tendered early, then demanded constantly changing specifications. An initial budget of £97 million has now entailed writing off £45 million in taxpayer-funded loans and an estimate of another £110-114 million on the bill for “remedial” works, after the government shamefully pulled the plug and nationalised the yard in 2019.

Whether critical businesses and services should be state-owned or state-run used to be one of the primary fault lines in political discourse. Twenty-five years after the Labour Party ditched Clause IV, with its references to “ownership of the means of production”, there are still many ideologically committed to both sides of the argument, but the default position in recent decades has usually been pragmatic.

Most parties have argued that government’s primary roles are the protection and regulation of the industry and workforce in question, or to safeguard its customers and ensure the service they are supposed to receive is provided.

There can certainly be a case for government interventions, particularly in vital infrastructure such as transport: in recent years, even Conservative administrations have taken the East Coast rail mainline in and out of public ownership to preserve the service.

But the justification is that the provision appears; that matters improve. It might even justify situations where “turnaround” directors, such as Tim Hair, get paid £1.3 million of public money, though few people would count a £100 million loss and still no ferries to show for it as a successful turnaround. The indisputable point about government control and oversight, however, is that ministers carry the can.

The disastrous handling of what should have been routine upkeep and preservation of a central part of Scottish transport infrastructure involves four parties: government, CMAL, Calmac and Ferguson Marine, and for all of them the decisions, the budgets and, ultimately, the buck stops with the SNP government, which has watched this issue slip out of control for the best part of a decade. As Anas Sarwar, the Labour leader, recently pointed out, there has been a complete “lack of a coherent plan or strategy”, rendering every part of this set-up “unfit for purpose”.

The government’s failures demand a complete rethink, and accountability; realistic improvement probably requires them to get out of the road altogether and find somebody competent to run ferry services and procurement. The ministerial track record on this front does not, to put it mildly, bode well for ScotRail, which comes under government control next April.