In fairness to Nicola Sturgeon, Kezia Dugdale started it.
The Scottish Labour leader, spoiling for a fight, told First Minister’s Questions: ‘This week, the Scottish National Party unveiled plans to cut taxes for wealthy air travellers and voted to cut off puppy dogs’ tails.’
The First Minister bared her teeth. John Swinney yapped excitedly at her side. The lapdogs growled in their backbench kennels. It was going to be one of those days.
New figures showed the number of college students down to the lowest level since 2006. What did the First Minister make of that, Miss Dugdale wanted to know. ‘We do not agree with the methodology.’ Come again? The Labour boss hadn’t got these numbers off a bloke in a pub. They were from Audit Scotland, the public accounts watchdog — folk with spreadsheets and modelling and fancier calculators than anything you had at school. A minister not agreeing with their ‘methodology’ is like a housebreaker disputing the local bobby’s interpretation of the Picking Locks and Pinching Tellies Act.
Still, the First Minister piled in, telling Miss Dugdale she should read page eight of the report and that would prove her wrong. I have the report in front of me as I write this. It is open at page eight. It says: ‘Student numbers decreased slightly in 2015-16 and FTE [full-time equivalent] is at its lowest since 2006-07.’ Miss Sturgeon wasn’t just struggling with her sums, she was having trouble reading too. The Education Secretary really has a job on his hands raising literacy and numeracy standards.
Admittedly, the First Minister wasn’t on the top of her game, coming off the back of a run-in with Ruth Davidson. The Tory leader enquired, oh so casually, if everything was okay with farm payments. This was odd. The SNP infamously fouled up the EU subsidies last year, leaving farmers short of cash. Wait, they couldn’t have done it again… Oh yes they could. For the second year in a row, farmers will have to wait for their money. Miss Sturgeon was visibly bored. She rambled around her answer, shouted ‘Brexit’ a couple of times, and sat back down. She’s not terribly interested in rural Scotland. When she heard there was another delay to farm payments, she probably thought it was a new storyline on Emmerdale.
It’s this kind of remote cluelessness that has tested the public’s patience to breaking point. Her approval ratings are in the mud precisely because voters reckon she is out of touch. She seems completely oblivious to this, and sincerely exasperated at all these impertinent wretches lining up to have a go at her. Near the end of First Minister’s Questions, she went off on one, branding a peerage for a Tory MEP ‘an absolute abomination’ and having a go at a Labour MSP who praised the SNP’s baby box policy but suggested some slight improvements.
Why, she demanded to know, genuine frustration in her voice, wasn’t Labour praising her achievements? Cruelly, Kezia Dugdale’s group broke into sarcastic applause and cheering. The SNP leader was baffled by it all. You would be too if you got your news from The National and had rules against internal party dissent that make the Chinese Communist politburo look like a model of open debate.
The First Minister was a study in ennui yesterday, rolling her eyes, shaking her head, issuing that curious angry gulp she makes whenever confronted by a contrary point of view. When she could be bothered to engage, it was to rant at her critics and insist she was the greatest First Minister in all First Ministerdom. It was like watching Donald Trump’s Twitter stream come to life in slinky heels.
The SNP leader swept into office on a wave of blather about a ‘new politics’ and ‘one Scotland’. The Salmond smirk had been wiped away and replaced by consensus and unity and jolly japes on social media between Miss Sturgeon and her opponents. What a difference a couple of years makes. No longer Mother of the Nation, she is now at war with the country’s puppies. The First Minister has somehow gone from Indira Gandhi to Cruella de Vil.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.