‘When the facts change, I change my mind,’ said the economist John Maynard Keynes. When the facts change, the Scottish Government changes the facts.
This secretive, control-crazed administration has been caught changing the facts again. This time their blue pencil set to work on an Audit Scotland report into colleges, a sector which has suffered acutely from a decade of SNP mismanagement. Audit Scotland is supposed to be the independent watchdog but this is one form of independence the Nationalists are not keen on. The original draft of the report noted that since the SNP came to power in 2007, student numbers at colleges had plummeted by 41 percent. However this fact did not appear in the final draft and documents obtained by one journalist showed why.
After being sent the draft report in May, senior Scottish Government civil servant Paul Johnson wrote to the Auditor General urging her to alter the review. ‘It is felt that the tone of the report could be more balanced,’ he complained, and went on to object to a graph depicting falling student numbers right back to 2007. When the ‘redrafted’ report was published, not only had the 41 percent statistic disappeared but the graph had been cut back to include only the past few years, where college enrolments have declined more modestly.
For its part, Audit Scotland insists revisions did not come about because of Scottish Government interference but as a result of ‘evidence-based decisions’. Presumably the evidence was knowledge of how St Andrew’s House operates and the decision was not to get on their bad side.
That the Scottish Government can water down an independent report into its own performance is both absurd and wearily familiar. For this is not the first time this has happened; it’s not even the first time it’s happened to Audit Scotland. In July, it emerged that the Nationalist regime had gone to extraordinary lengths to censor a critical report on the health service. ‘The NHS in Scotland 2016’, published by the watchdog in October, warned that SNP cuts and rising staff costs were putting hospitals under strain. Once again, government pen-pushers deputised themselves as the tone police and cautioned Audit Scotland that its write-up was full of ‘subjective, alarmist and sometimes clumsy language’. A section on health boards’ failure to balance their books was criticised for sketching an ‘unduly negative picture’, suggesting Scotland’s civil servants are either worryingly out-of-touch or endearingly chipper souls. In total, the government ‘requested’ 35 changes and 51 ‘clarifications’. This time, Audit Scotland pushed backed on many of the gripes and left those parts in tact.
It is a curious coincidence that so many independent figures who criticise the SNP end up back-pedalling after a phone call or a meeting. Take Naomi Eisenstadt, the anti-poverty tsar, whose conclusion that the council tax freeze was regressive was diluted after a one-on-one with Nicola Sturgeon. During the independence referendum, Professor Louise Richardson, then principal of St Andrews University, voiced her fears about cutting off Scottish higher education from UK funding. Alex Salmond’s office drafted a statement backtracking on her remarks and demanded that Professor Richardson issue it. When she refused, Mr Salmond telephoned her personally in what was reported to be a ‘loud and heated’ call.
Last month, Highland Spring chief executive Les Montgomery urged Nicola Sturgeon to stop grandstanding on independence and get back to governing. The SNP’s Economy Secretary Keith Brown ordered his flunkies to contact Mr Montgomery about his comments and ask if he wanted to ‘discuss them further’. The following day, the businessman issued not one but two apologies and stressed that Highland Spring had ‘an open, positive and collaborative relationship’ with the Scottish Government. Very collaborative, by the sound of it.
When they’re not endeavouring to play the ref, ministers are working hard to prevent you knowing the score. The SNP government’s attitude to freedom of information is so obstructionist it could make any journalist yearn for the openness and transparency of the UK Cabinet Office. In June, two dozen Scottish journalists — including the Scottish Daily Mail’s political editor Michael Blackley — signed an open letter rebuking the Sturgeon administration for its secrecy and questionable practices. They described legitimate requests for information blocked or delayed without good reason and the scandal of ministerial special advisers — taxpayer-funded political operatives — ‘screening’ FOI responses before civil servants released them. The SNP’s approach to accountability is that of the officious head spook in a thousand spy thrillers: ‘It’s on a need-to-know basis and you don’t need to know’.
It’s not just the public, either — the Scottish Government prefers to keep itself in the dark too. When two respected international surveys of educational attainment showed Scotland slipping from ‘above average’ to ‘average’, the SNP withdrew from them. Last year, the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy painted a grim picture of decline in primary and second schools, where the fortunate pupils were the ones whose schooling had merely stalled rather than regressed. The Scottish Government released the figures then duly announced the scrapping of the survey.
It is one thing to withhold information from the public. All governments fear the toll of full disclosure. It is another thing entirely to deny yourself, as an executive, up-to-date and accurate information on which policies are working and which ones need to be overhauled. It is a deliberate and destructive act of self-deception, one enabled by a veritable army of PR flacks. The Scottish Government employs 14 special advisers at a cost of roughly £1m a year and a further 45 spin doctors. (For comparison, the Welsh Government manages with 21.)
Why do the Nationalists conduct the business of government in this fashion, like mobsters running a protection racket against reality? For one, they are simply mimicking the iron-tight party discipline that has turned the SNP into New Labour without the spontaneity. For NatBots, facts unhelpful to the cause do not compute. They are unfacts. The other reason is that Nicola Sturgeon and those around her are scared. It feels like the independence moment might have passed and, without a second referendum to gin up the crowds, Miss Sturgeon’s team will be judged more closely than ever on performance, delivery and competence. Given their track record, it’s not surprising they’re afraid.
Until now, the Nationalists have inhabited a rarefied world where theirs is the only truth, where all extraneous details could be dismissed as a flimsy gossamer of Unionist lies. All that mattered was realising the ultimate goal. This closing of the SNP mind has made for a party that is averse to facts, allergic to scrutiny, impervious to reason, unwilling to listen, and coolly at ease with manipulating, obscuring or downplaying evidence it doesn’t like. What it cannot face, it buries. What it cannot bury, it spins. When it cannot spin, it cajoles and traduces and tries to shut down.
Nicola Sturgeon can lead her party on that basis if she wants but it is no way to run a country. The First Minister and her colleagues are about to learn that reality can’t be blocked out and truth cannot be treated as trivial and contingent on political circumstances. The next few years will test whether Miss Sturgeon is up to the job. If she can’t change to meet the changed times, to say nothing of changed facts, eventually the country will decide it’s time to change the government.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Have your say on the issues raised here by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, remembering to reference the column. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.