How to hold Nicola Sturgeon accountable

TEFLON: Criticism never seems to stick to the First Minister.

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, April 19, 2021.


The problem with ‘lines’ taken by politicians and parties is that they are all written by political strategists. These characters live, breathe, eat and sleep politics. Their idea of relaxation is catching up on other countries’ politics.

They seldom encounter regular people yet part of their job is communicating ideas to the general public in a way that chimes, that sticks in the mind and, ideally, convinces electors to vote for their party. Results are necessarily mixed.

Margaret Thatcher’s defiant cry, ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning’ — written for her by the playwright Ronnie Millar — cut through because it wittily lampooned media jargon while serving as a blunt statement of intent that everyone could understand.

A quarter-century later, the Tories’ 2005 campaign slogan, ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’, dreamed up by Aussie political bruiser Lynton Crosby, failed because it framed the election not as a question of whether Labour deserved another turn in government but whether the Tories did. The country might have fallen out of love with Tony Blair but it wasn’t ready to see eye-to-eye with Michael Howard.

Nicola Sturgeon’s explanation for Scotland’s drugs death scandal, dropped into the STV debate with faux candour, very much belongs to the latter category. Challenged by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, the First Minister replied: ’I think we took our eye off the ball on drugs deaths and I’ve said as much to the Scottish Parliament.’

Her expression as she spoke these words let slip that Sturgeon deemed this a clever and effective line. In fact, the First Minister is as divorced from reality as the advisers who scribbled that talking point for her. It did not come across as a moment of frankness or a refreshing acceptance of responsibility by a politician. It sounded cursory, glib — even callous.

Since the SNP came to power, 8,869 Scots have lost their lives to drugs, not counting the 455 who died in 2007 (the SNP only took over the reins on May 17 that year) nor 2020, for which no figures are yet available.

For almost 9,000 people to die on your watch and for you to take 14 years to notice is not taking your eye off the ball. It is systemic failure on a mass scale. This complacency and misgovernment was paid for not with the careers of the politicians responsible — one solitary minister, Joe FitzPatrick, was chucked overboard to save Sturgeon — but with the lives of the most vulnerable among us.

Yet Sturgeon and her colleagues past and present are guilty of more than mere neglect. The government she leads and the government in which she was second-in-command cut drug and alcohol support funding in real terms from £114 million to £53 million, a reduction of 54 per cent. Over that same period, drug-related deaths in Scotland rose 178 per cent.

This was no oversight. It was a conscious choice to slash resources from one of our most grievous social problems at the expense of people’s lives.

That is not a blunder, a gaffe, a cock-up or any of the other euphemisms we use to describe governmental error. It is a moral abomination, an abdication of responsibility carried out by ministers who knew they would not be the ones to do the body recoveries, the death knocks, the comforting of bereft parents or the piecing back together of shattered families.

A similarly blase attitude has been on display over the transferring of elderly patients from hospital wards to care homes, many without testing and some after having tested positive, during the Covid-19 pandemic. Of the more than 10,000 deaths related to the virus, one-third have been residents of care homes. The closest to contrition we have heard was Jeane Freeman admitting ‘a mistake’ was made — on a podcast, one year after the fact.

Peter Smith, the Scotland correspondent for ITV News, interrogated Sturgeon about this in an interview last week in which the First Minister seemed alternately offended and bored by questions about her government’s conduct. Smith put to her a query he had heard from families suffering as a result of both drugs and care home deaths: ‘Why is no one accountable? Why is no one ever losing their job over mistakes that are made with the gravest of consequences?’

Sturgeon cited the election as the forum for accountability, a line she deployed to bet-hedging effect before her independent advisor cleared her in the Salmond inquiry. It was crass then and it is crass now. Accountability is about more than whether you can secure a certain number of crosses at the ballot box. It is about process, not popularity.

In a healthy democracy, government must be held to high standards every day, not just one day every five years. Whether on drugs, care home deaths, hospital waiting times, the attainment gap, and much else besides, this government is interested not in what is right or proper or good for the public, but in what it can get away with.

One of the striking features of this election is how honest the opposition leaders are being about their predicament. None is standing to be First Minister because none is foolish enough to believe they can beat a political system in which the SNP begins every campaign with the baked-in support of around 40 or 45 per cent of electors — the separatist bloc vote. When almost half the country will give at least one, if not both, ballots to the ruling party — no matter its record, no matter its failings, no matter its broken promises — accountability becomes all but impossible.

There is little the Holyrood opposition can do to disrupt this set up. It is Westminster which has allowed the dangerous fantasy to fester that independence lies over the next horizon, all because Downing Street would rather avoid the problem. The Prime Minister or one of his successors may come to pay the price for this cowardice.

Fully aware of their glum situation, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have spent the campaign thumping each other at least as mercilessly as they have the SNP. If they cannot defeat nationalism, they may as well vie for chief opposition to it.

But there is something they could forge common cause on, something that would make the remainder of the election very uncomfortable for the SNP. They should draw up an accountability pledge, one with clearly defined commitments and consequences, and have their own leaders sign it. Then challenge Nicola Sturgeon to do the same.

One possible template might be: 

  1. The Scottish Government will comply with parliamentary votes which direct ministers to appear before MSPs, release documents and cooperate with inquiries. Any minister who loses the confidence of parliament will be expected to resign.
  2. If the SNP’s treatment time guarantee isn’t met within the first 18 months of the next health secretary’s tenure, he or she will be asked to resign by the First Minister.
  3. If there is no significant narrowing of the attainment gap between wealthy and poor schoolchildren within the first 18 months of the next parliament, the education secretary will be asked to resign.
  4. If there is no significant reduction in drugs-related deaths by the midpoint of the next parliament, the minister for drugs policy will be asked to resign and an independent public inquiry established into the government’s handling of this scandal.
  5. The First Minister agrees that, should she fail to uphold any of the provisions of this pledge, she should no longer enjoy the confidence of parliament.

Of course, there is no incentive for Sturgeon to put her name to such a document — it concedes the failings her opponents highlight and shifts the fight to their territory. However, to refuse to put her name to a seemingly bland, uncontroversial statement — ministers will resign if they don’t do their jobs properly — would be an admission either that she considers her own promises unachievable or that she simply believes herself and her government to be above accountability.

The latter is closest to the truth. Sturgeon thinks she should be answerable to no one but herself. The opposition should force her to admit it.


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

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