Nicola Sturgeon deserves to lose

FAILURE: First Minister’s record leaves a lot to be desired.

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, April 5, 2021.

*****

There are no moral victories at the ballot box and no consolation prizes. The losing side sometimes tells itself otherwise to cushion the blow of another rejection. Neil Kinnock is said to have won ‘the battle of the campaigns’ in 1987, because his ground operation was savvier and his presentation slicker, but come election night Mrs Thatcher was returned for the third time in a row with another landslide majority. Democracy is not a morality play, it is cold, hard numbers.

The cold, hard numbers tell us that the SNP won more than double the constituency vote of the Conservatives and Labour in 2016. For the Tories to become the largest party after May 6, they would have to hold on to every seat they took last time then take a further 17 from the SNP. To say this is a prospect not entertained by current polling would be an understatement.

No political party is entitled to win an election but oftentimes governments deserve to lose them. No government in the devolved era has deserved to lose quite as thoroughly as this one.

Nicola Sturgeon’s response to Covid-19 has been spun as a triumph but when the lights go down on her daily BBC Scotland slot, the facts remain the same. As of last week, Scotland has a higher infection rate than England or Wales and a higher daily mortality count than any other part of the UK. The UK Government has serious questions to answer over its handling of the pandemic but at least it gets asked them. The SNP has been underscrutinised for its lack of preparedness ahead of the pandemic and its management in the early weeks and months of the crisis.

Health chiefs warned during a 2016 pandemic planning exercise that there were ‘significant business-as-usual staff shortages, making stepping up in an emergency even more challenging’. Internal emails have also shown that the Scottish Government was aware of shortages in PPE supply before the pandemic hit. In the event, hospital staff were issued with expired equipment, including out-of-date respirators.

Patients were transferred from hospitals to care homes before a testing regime was put in place. Health Secretary Jeane Freeman told Holyrood only 300 patients had been moved under these circumstances when the actual figure was 900. More than 3,000 people have died in care homes where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, a third of the overall total.

The SNP failed to provide supermarkets with lists of persons shielding in time for the launch of special delivery slots; mistakenly told 9,000 to shield when it was unnecessary; and missed its one million vaccinations target by ten days. The Office for Statistics Regulation reproached Sturgeon for claiming ‘the prevalence of the virus in Scotland, right now, is five times lower than it is in England’. Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf told MSPs last June that ‘approximately 20 per cent of travellers’ had undergone spot-checks upon entering Scotland. No such checks had taken place. A Covid outbreak in Edinburgh city centre was withheld from the public and only came to light thanks to a journalistic investigation.  

Margaret Ferrier remains a member of the SNP despite having travelled across the country by train after being diagnosed with Covid-19. So far three ministers in Sturgeon’s government have been caught breaking social distancing rules during the election campaign, with Sturgeon herself having violated the regulations in December. Her chief medical officer, who was forced to resign after contravening travel restrictions to visit her second home, has since been appointed to a top job with NHS Scotland.

The pandemic has become a convenient excuse for the Nationalists whenever their lacklustre record is questioned. Yet in health in particular the statistics show that problems long preceded Covid-19. True, more than 1,500 children have been waiting over a year for a mental health appointment and 25,000 calls to a crisis helpline have gone unanswered since last March, but this isn’t all that new.
SNP ministers introduced a target in December 2014 that said 90 per cent of patients referred to psychological therapies had to begin treatment within 18 weeks. That target has never been met. Before the pandemic, A&E waiting time targets were last met in 2017 while the 62-day standard for cancer treatment has not been achieved since 2012.

Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Children, first pencilled in for winter 2012, finally opened its doors last month. The St John’s children’s ward in Livingstone was forced to operate part-time between 2017 and 2020 thanks to staff shortages. An inquiry into the £842 million Queen Elizabeth ‘super-hospital’ in Glasgow found cancer patients were ‘exposed to risk’ by flaws in the building’s design.

Before coronavirus made its way to Scotland’s shores, education was sold as Nicola Sturgeon’s number one priority. The reality is very different. Her Curriculum for Excellence has been branded ‘vague’, ‘lacking in clarity’ and ‘wishy-washy’ by one leading educationalist while another says ‘a whole generation’ has been ‘betrayed’ by it. CfE has driven down subject choice, standards and performance. Almost four in ten of the poorest pupils leave primary school without attaining the requisite reading and writing skills. Scottish schoolchildren perform worse in maths than students in Estonia, Czechia and Slovenia.

The attainment gap between the best- and worst-off pupils ought to be a source of deep shame for the Nationalists. An Audit Scotland report published last month warned: ‘Progress on closing the poverty-related attainment gap between the most and least deprived school pupils has been limited.’

The government’s concern for the educational interests of children from poor backgrounds was on display during last year’s marking scandal, when thousands of youngsters had teacher-predicted grades adjusted downwards by the SQA. Poorer pupils were disproportionately affected, yet it took Education Secretary John Swinney five days to act.

Swinney also played a central role in another grim saga of Nationalist rule. After the Scottish Government ignored the advice of counsel and pressed ahead with its defence in Alex Salmond’s judicial review, the Court of Session found that a harassment procedure had been used against the former First Minister in a manner that was ‘unlawful’. Salmond was awarded costs in excess of £500,000, met by the taxpayer.

Despite MSPs twice voting for Swinney to publish the relevant legal advice, he twice failed to comply and only later, when his own job was on the line, did he agree to release a partial version of events. He also refused to allow certain witnesses to appear before the inquiry while four senior civil servants who did testify later had to ‘clarify’ their evidence — despite the government having spent more than £75,000 preparing witnesses.

While the James Hamilton review appeared to clear the First Minister, the parliamentary inquiry found that she misled MSPs. Serious questions remain about who leaked information to a Sturgeon-friendly newspaper, the inconsistencies between Sturgeon’s testimony and that of SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, and whether, as has been alleged, the name of a complainer was shared with one of Salmond’s representatives.

Despite a hectic few years, one item has clung to its place at the pinnacle of the SNP’s agenda. No matter how long waiting lists grow, how far behind poor children fall, or how many Covid infections are recorded, there is always time for independence. One of the last things the Nationalists did in the parliament that has just risen is publish a draft Bill for a second referendum. One of the first things they will do in the next parliament is press ahead with that Bill.

I write this column from my parents’ house, where I have been living throughout the pandemic. It is in a constituency where the SNP can be relatively relaxed about victory. The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation listed this area among the 20 per cent most deprived in Scotland in 2020. And in 2016. And in 2012. These are cold, hard numbers too.

From here, 14 years of the SNP has meant 14 years of indolence, triangulation and savvy media management. Fourteen years of clamouring for more powers, then failing to use them for anything transformative or that even approaches Nicola Sturgeon’s social democratic posturing. Fourteen years in which the thing that has mattered most to the people running Scotland is the thing that will matter most to them for the next 14 years and the 14 after that. If only we had a government as invested in the nation as this one is in nationalism.

Elections are not a matter of morality or desert and, in that, the SNP is fortunate. This government not only deserves to lose on May 6, it deserves never to see the inside of a government building again.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

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