It was halfway through First Minister’s Questions when the Presiding Officer called a backbencher. The name sounded like ‘goujon’, though that might have been because lunchtime was approaching. From the din of desk-thumpers behind Nicola Sturgeon — She Who Must Be Applauded At All Times — up popped Mairi Gougeon, who it turns out is the MSP for Angus North and Mearns.
Up in the press gallery hacks, newly christened ‘you lot’ by Ruth Davidson, exchanged puzzled looks. The SNP backbenches are the Bermuda Triangle of Scottish politics, where the mad, the mediocre and the mystifyingly electable go when the party wants to hide them. Over time, they become an anonymous mass, there only to bang the tables and press the voting buttons. You could save a lot on salaries and just retain a couple of octopuses.
Our Mrs Gougeon was evidently feeling brave. She demanded, a sharpness in her voice, that the First Minister ‘urgently investigate’ her ‘serious concerns’ about a local health unit facing closure. Her constituents had ‘not been consulted’ and the decision-making process was a breach of health chiefs’ guidelines. It was, in short, ‘a box-ticking exercise’.
There were audible gasps from the Nationalist benches. For a backbencher to bring up a problem in the NHS that can’t be blamed on the Big Bad Tories was daring enough. But to tell Miss Sturgeon to do something ‘urgently’ — a euphemism for ‘what are you still standing there for, get a move on’ — was bold. SNP MSPs looked bewildered. This was First Minister’s Questions. It was hardly the time to be asking questions of the First Minister.
Miss Sturgeon was briefly flustered then announced that the Health Secretary would get on the blower to the health board. This is textbook Sturgeonspeak. Whenever she can’t answer a question, she promises to get someone to look into it.
Edinburgh Southern MSP Daniel Johnson asked about a ten-year-old girl in his constituency who had been told she’d have to wait almost two years for an appointment with a specialist. Miss Sturgeon: ‘I do not know all the details of this case. If they can be passed to me, the Cabinet Secretary for Health will investigate the matter and discuss it with the health board.’
Labour leader Alex Rowley tried to quiz her on a housing development that was meant to be ready in time for Christmas but was being held up. Again, the First Minister hadn’t the foggiest but if someone sent her the details, she’d ‘make sure that the matter is properly looked into’.
Hear to Help, a service that assists the deaf in the North East, was losing its local government funding, pointed out Tory MSP Liam Kerr. It only needed £17,000 to stay open — couldn’t the First Minister have a word with council bosses and throw the charity a lifeline? ‘I am not aware of all the details of this particular project, but given that the matter has been raised with me in the chamber, I will make sure that it is looked into.’
Miss Sturgeon’s syntax is exquisitely calibrated to avoid taking responsibility in the here and now. Every answer contains a subject, an object and a feasibility study. Thus are tough questions dodged and the SNP’s failings shunted out of the spotlight until all concerned have lost interest. The SNP isn’t a government as much as a never-ending review that just changes its remit every few months.
When Labour leadership hopeful Richard Leonard queried whether she was planning to change the rules for the free bus pass — there is, you’ll be shocked, a review into this on the go too — Miss Sturgeon took the opportunity to have a pop at Labour’s internal woes. ‘We fight for Scotland,’ she declared. ‘Scottish Labour just fight among themselves.’
Nothing to do with the bus pass, as the Presiding Officer noted, but at least the First Minister had finally answered a question.
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