In 1969, the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published her theory that, after a shocking loss, grief comes in five stages.
First, there is denial, which gives way to anger, and then to an attempt to bargain away the pain. After this, comes depression and finally, when the truth can be postponed no longer, there is acceptance.
The SNP is still very much in denial about what happened last Thursday. Losing 12 seats to the Conservatives and a further nine to Labour and the Liberal Democrats has left Nationalists traumatised. They are wandering around in a daze, pinching themselves and hoping to awaken and find that no, of course Alex Salmond didn’t lose Gordon to a Tory. (A Tory!)
Rona Mackay, Nationalist MSP for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, is mourning in her own unique way. The SNP backbencher has lodged a question to be asked in the Scottish Parliament today. It reads: ‘To ask the Scottish Government what impact it considers negative media coverage of the education system could have on pupils and teachers.’
Once you have recovered your jaw from the breakfast table, or perhaps the floor, let’s try parsing that sentence. Apparently, what ails Scottish education is not the ongoing failure of SNP policy but journalists’ impertinence in reporting it. And because we report it, we are being ‘negative’, as if there were an upbeat spin on 60% of secondary two pupils from poor families being unable to write properly that we’re just missing.
Then there’s the weasel words: ‘impact… on pupils and teachers’. The SNP doesn’t want journalists to stop reporting its incompetence for their sake; they’re doing it for the kids. Publishing the facts about literacy and numeracy attainment, exam results, and access to university might hurt the feelings of youngsters and their educators.
The Nationalists should bottle chutzpah and sell it; the way things are going, it would quickly eclipse oil revenues. Lest anyone be in doubt, Scotland’s Press pack are not skulking behind the bike sheds, waiting to pounce on the next unsuspecting teacher to come along. Rather, we scrutinise government — all governments; yes, even the SNP — and relay information to the general public, in the form of news reports, analysis and commentary. This is what used to be known as ‘journalism’, back when it required more than a grievance, a WiFi router, and too much time on your hands. Far from being callous or careless, reporting of government failings is essential for transparency, accountability, and so the problems revealed get fixed.
Instead of blame-shifting and posturing, Miss Mackay might want to consider that teachers and pupils have more pressing concerns than her overly-annotated newspaper clippings file. Concerns such as stagnant or plummeting literacy and numeracy attainment, the 4,000 teachers cut on the SNP’s watch, the 150,000 fewer college places than when the Nationalists came to power, and the scandal of Scotland being the hardest place in the UK for a gifted student from a deprived background to make it to university.
Teachers might also be feeling the ‘impact’ of the Nationalists’ Curriculum for Excellence, which the unions warned would hamper their members’ ability to teach with its additional workload. Needless to say, the SNP ignored their appeals and railroaded the policy through — only to learn that the unions had been right. As education expert Keir Bloomer memorably put it, the Curriculum has ‘four capacities, twelve attributes, 24 capabilities, five levels, seven principles, 16 entitlements, eight curriculum areas, four contexts for learning and 1,820 experiences and outcomes. That is self-evident lunacy.’
It’s not as if none of this could have been predicted. When you inflict a succession of Fiona Hyslop, Mike Russell, and Angela Constance on the nation’s schools, you make it clear that academic excellence is not high on your list of priorities.
Ms Mackay surveys this record and decides, in the familiar cry of a thousand desperate shills, there there is no story here. She recalls the Iraqi Information Minister during the final days of the Saddam Hussein regime, who would hold press conferences denying US forces were nearing Baghdad while American mortars exploded in the background. Her effort to reassign blame for the SNP’s discredited policies is of a piece with Nicola Sturgeon’s rote accusation that anyone who criticises her government is ‘talking down Scotland’.
Rona Mackay is a former journalist herself, which makes her demagoguery all the more contemptible. Then again, paranoia about the news media is now as fundamental to the Nationalist worldview as independence itself. This despite the fact that Nicola Sturgeon’s party has never before enjoyed the editorial backing it gets today. That includes three Scottish newspapers, a coterie of on-message columnists, and platoons of bloggers who spend much of their time trying to prove the BBC’s Jackie Bird is an MI5 asset. It is this very alternative universe, free from unpalatable truths and heterodox opinions, that is allowing the Nats to sustain their denial of the electoral thumping they received last week.
The Nationalist cause trumps (and Trumps) truth and so struggling schools must make do with warm words, reports and surveys that highlight failures are scrapped, and those who dissent accused of undermining the confidence in the classroom. When they cannot deliver, they dissemble. What they cannot fix, they fiddle. Who they cannot convert, they cajole. This is the modus operandi of the SNP and it has served them well.
Until now. For the election they are still struggling to process was no mere blip. Unionist Scotland has finally got its act together and the SNP can no longer bluster its way through crises of its own devising, blaming the media or Westminster or crypto-Tory nurses out to embarrass Nicola Sturgeon on TV. From now on, the SNP is going to have its record tested, challenged and pushed into the spotlight like never before. It will not be able to spin the old hits about independence and how much better everything will be when Scotland’s free. They will cease to be a permanent campaign and become just another government, with all the burdens and banalities, vulnerabilities and vicissitudes that come with it.
As unwelcome as the news may be to most Scots, the election campaign for Holyrood 2021 has already begun. We are seeing the terms and the terrain it will be fought on forming before our eyes. Ruth Davidson took 12 seats from the SNP by damning them for not getting on with the day job. The seats she takes in 2021 will come by damning the Nats for what happens when they do.
Conventional wisdom says Nicola Sturgeon’s party has made such a boorach of education because they have been distracted by pursuing their constitutional aspirations. But what if that’s not true? What if, when all the rhetoric about ‘Stronger for Scotland’ is stripped away, they’re just not very good at running the country? The next four years will test that and if the SNP is found wanting it might find itself out of government for the first time since 2007.
If the Nationalists don’t snap out of denial and jump ahead to acceptance this won’t be the last election result they find themselves grieving.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.