IT’S hardly begun and the SNP leadership dilemma becomes ever more peculiar. Last week it was about God. This week it is on to Mammon with an apocalyptic warning that “economic carnage” lies ahead.

The novelty was that this grim foreboding came from the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Economy in a Government which has relentlessly promoted the immediate source of the predicted carnage. “Physician, heal thyself” (Luke 4:23) one might have been tempted to comment, if this were last week.

“Economic carnage” sounds quite a significant destination and while the phrase may have been coined by Kate Forbes’ new media adviser with an eye to agenda-shifting headlines, it translates into grim reality for thousands of businesses. They now find themselves caught between two forces within the Scottish Government, each sending diametrically opposite messages.

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The official line is that the Deposit Return Scheme is going ahead as planned. All three candidates to lead our land say it shouldn’t. Who to believe? As James Porteous of the Electric Spirits Company put it: “We have the minister in charge informing the industry of huge, vague changes via an appearance on a TV chat show. Small businesses are fighting for their lives while second-rate politicians are engaged in third-rate politics”.

We know Ms Forbes has been on maternity leave and nobody would have wished to cut across her primary responsibility over the past eight months. However, Dingwall is not cut off from external communication and it seems unlikely she was entirely out of touch with matters of government or her temporary stand-in, John Swinney.

It would be interesting to know the point at which the thought entered her head: “These dolts I left behind in Edinburgh are leading Scotland towards economic carnage. O mo chreach! What will I have to sort out when I return in April?”. There is also the slightly inconvenient fact that problems with the Deposit Return Scheme were signposted long before she vacated her St Andrew’s House desk last June.

In Ms Forbes’ favour is the fact she is undoubtedly right, however belatedly. The lonely image of Lorna Slater, in whose Ministerial wheely-bin the Deposit Return Scheme landed, bereft of support when it was debated at Holyrood last week, suggested the direction of travel for those who installed her: that is, stay as far clear as possible of the poison chalice. When will someone tell Ms Slater?

HeraldScotland: Green Minister Lorna Slater cut a lonely figure as she defended the Deposit Return SchemeGreen Minister Lorna Slater cut a lonely figure as she defended the Deposit Return Scheme (Image: Newsquest)

To be fair, unlike other nonsenses being perpetrated, this was not a Green-inspired piece of legislation. It went through Holyrood in 2020 with cross-party goodwill. Everything that has gone wrong has been in execution rather than the principle. Yet again, the politics of “difference” took over and quickly transcended common sense and consensus.

There would be none of this chaos if two basic objections had been respected. First, it made no sense to develop a Scotland-only scheme rather than work with the rest of the UK to get it right. Second, including glass from the outset massively compounded the complexity. If these two realities had been acknowledged, we would now be working towards something workable, affordable and non-controversial. But what use would that be to the politics of constitutional division and empty boasts?

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The truly extraordinary point is that nothing seems to have been done until very recently to recognise that the plans cut across the UK’s Internal Market Act. Well, of course they do since that is the whole point of “difference”. The UK Government has a right, maybe duty, to intervene. Did the Permanent Secretary in St Andrew’s House never think of this? Or is he the latest to discover that bearing bad news is not part of the job description?

While not quite in Gender Recognition Reform territory as an ill-chosen hill to fight on when the UK Government says “hang on a minute”, the Deposit Return Scheme comes pretty close. If the Secretary of State uses his powers to kick it into touch, the vast majority of Scottish public opinion will decline to be indignant or to identify a constitutional outrage. Support for intervention will rise to 100 per cent among affected businesses.

It now seems 50-50 whether Mr Jack will even be required to act since the SNP leadership candidates are falling over each other to get there first and halt the “economic carnage” they voted to create. Ms Slater ploughs merrily on but she’s only the messenger. According to the terms of her appointment she “supports the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy” – i.e. Ms Forbes and, in her absence, Mr Swinney. They are her bosses.

Now it’s not so easy. Ms Slater spoke at the weekend of businesses having spent tens, even “hundreds of millions” preparing for the scheme – to the Greens, such numbers are flexible. Each one of them has a potential legal claim for compensation. Then there is a sprawling network of contracts which have led to serious investment in collection and recycling infrastructure. And of course, the Scottish Government has spent tens of millions of public money to get this far.

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All this was avoidable and was warned against over and over again, but nobody was listening. Now we have the ultimate irony of the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Economy warning against “economic carnage”. And for the photo opportunity, she chose to be surrounded with the demon drink in a brewery which, if another of her Government’s mad schemes ever sees the light of day, will be banned from advertising its products.

These are the legacies that Nicola Sturgeon is now walking away from and, of course, the underlying question is … why? There is no shortage of theories, some of which may owe more to wishful thinking than reality. She has bequeathed a field aspiring to succeed her that reflects a career which certainly did not include succession planning among its priorities. Quite the reverse, actually, since challenge was the last thing Ms Sturgeon wanted at any level.

So who knows what excitement week three will bring. After God and Mammon, just might it be Armageddon?

Brian Wilson is a former Labour Party politician. He was MP for Cunninghame North from 1987 until 2005 and served as a Minister of State from 1997 to 2003.