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The political parties in Scotland should be grateful for the voters’ short memories.
It was Scottish Labour who shouted the loudest and longest about the transformative impact Home Rule would have on the nation. Local services like education, health, transport and the environment would be unrecognisable after a few years of local, rather than Westminster, decision-making, they said.
Yet, as its critics always predicted, the reality of devolution has proved disappointing. And despite being latecomers to devo-enthusiasm, it’s the SNP, who have since replaced Labour as Scotland’s dominant political force, who find themselves in the firing line for the many and varied failures of devolved policy.
Perhaps it’s because the unlikely promises made on devolution’s behalf were made so long ago. Perhaps it’s because those promises were made by a different party.
Whatever the reason, Scottish voters remain supportive of both the institution of the Scottish Parliament, despite its failure to deliver the transformative change that was promised, and the SNP itself, despite their having been the policy-makers in Scotland for the last 15 years.
Given the SNP’s record in government, it can only be a matter of time before political gravity kicks in and voters choose to start holding the nationalists to account for what they’re actually delivering (or not delivering), rather than allowing themselves to be distracted by the constitutional debate at which the SNP are so expert.
Today, in many ways, Scotland is becoming a failed state. Economic performance is woeful. Drug and alcohol problems have surged, there is a failure to engage seriously with the challenges the country is facing, and the drive for independence has fractured society in an endless culture war.
In 2020-21, the Scottish Government had a punishing deficit of more than 22 per cent, compared to around 15 per cent for the UK as a whole.
The average Scottish worker’s earnings stood at £675 per week, according to House of Commons research published last December, compared to the English figure of £705.
In 2019-20, the last year before Covid changes had an impact on grades, the proportion of school pupils passing three or more higher level exams was 43 per cent, lower than any year from 2015 onwards.
Scotland lagged behind the rest of the UK in nine of 13 productivity indicators tracked by the Confederation of British Industry and KPMG in an index produced last December, which found high levels of workplace sickness absence, slower average broadband speeds than the rest of the country, and a decline in business investment as a share of GDP.
And in 2020, there were 1,339 drug-related deaths - the highest level since records began - followed by another 1,295 the following year.
Law of unintended consequences
The charge sheet of failure is a long one, as you would expect from a party that has been in government since 2007. Economically, growth in Scotland has generally lagged behind that in the rest of the UK over the last 14 years, and the blame or credit for failures and successes in the job market are frequently disputed by UK and Holyrood ministers.
But when it comes to those areas that are indisputably devolved, there can be little doubt that Scottish ministers have an awful lot more to explain than to celebrate. That much-heralded transformation of Scotland may well materialise one day, but we’re as far from it today as we were when Donald Dewar was hitting the campaign trail in favour of a Yes vote in the 1997 devolution referendum.
One of the proudest claims of the SNP government lies in the area of higher education: Scottish students still receive free university tuition while English, as well as foreign, students have to pay full fees. In fact this is a policy the SNP inherited from the previous Labour-Lib Dem Scottish Executive.
But the law of unintended consequences has played its part in making this policy extremely troublesome for ministers – and even more so for Scottish students.
The obligation on universities to provide free tuition for Scottish undergraduates has meant that such “funded” places have become severely rationed, while fee-paying students from abroad (and their cash) are welcomed with open arms.
In practice this has curtailed the opportunities of school leavers from poorer, working class backgrounds, who now find it more difficult to find a university place than students from a similar socio-economic background in any other part of the UK.
In Scotland’s schools, the challenges are even greater. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, voluntarily offered a seemingly courageous challenge in August 2015, in advance of the following year’s elections to the Scottish Parliament.
So determined was she to close the drastic attainment gap between schools in poorer and wealthier areas, she announced: “Let me be clear – I want to be judged on this. If you are not, as First Minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people, then what are you prepared to? It really matters.”
She was right: it does really matter. Individuals’ life chances are often decided at school by exam results and the quality of the education they receive.
But the inspiring rhetoric didn’t keep pace with results. After seven years of under-achievement, the Scottish Government quietly announced that the targets they had set for the narrowing of the attainment gap were being scrapped.
The SNP introduced the Curriculum for Excellence in Scottish schools in 2010, but nearly a decade later, the Times Educational Supplement reported that according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), a “decade of upheaval” had succeeded only in getting students back to where they started in reading.
No longer can Scots claim to have the best education in the world, the Curriculum for Excellence having substituted metrics on student “wellbeing” for academic excellence.
Social policy virtue signalling
In other social policy areas, SNP ministers seem to be strangely vulnerable to the influence of external pressure groups - perhaps a consequence of SNP MSPs having no real political conviction other than their commitment to independence. No one ever joined the SNP to campaign for higher school standards.
And so, seemingly from nowhere, there emerged the policy of the “named person”, not notably a policy that had previously been advanced by the independence movement and which immediately raised the hackles of parents groups fearing state encroachment on their own responsibilities to raise their children.
This policy would mean the Scottish Government identifying a responsible person for every child in Scotland under the age of 18, who would be responsible for that child’s wellbeing and safety. The policy was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court, which decided that some of the powers in the proposed legislation fell outside the powers of the Scottish Parliament and contravened the right to privacy and to family life.
Still, SNP ministers’ appetite for social policy virtue signalling was not sated. An essential element of the nationalist offer to voters is the concept of Scottish exceptionalism, the belief that Scots are innately more generous, more charitable than their English neighbours; in short, that they are better.
An example of this was the Baby Box, a £9 million initiative to supply new parents with some bare essentials following the birth of their child.
The laudable aim of the scheme (aside from publicity) was to provide a safe makeshift sleeping basket for newborn babies and so reduce the risk of cot death. But within a year of the scheme’s launch, the cot death charity, the Lullaby Trust, stated that there was no evidence that the scheme improved infant mortality.
Further, reusable nappies included in the box at the insistence of the Scottish Government proved to be the least popular and least effective item, with 90 per cent of new parents choosing not to use them. Still, SNP ministers insisted on renewing the scheme for another eight years, even before a £170,000 study into the Baby Box’s effectiveness – commissioned by the Scottish Government itself – had reported its findings.
But the most contentious of the SNP’s attempts at social engineering has been Sturgeon’s personal insistence that trans people should be allowed to self-identify as their gender of choice, eliminating the need for medical professionals’ assessment and the requirement to live in their preferred gender for two years before obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate (GDR).
Women’s rights groups have expressed fears that such a move erodes biological women’s sex-based rights, a claim airily dismissed by the first minister and her lieutenants. With an overall majority at Holyrood, thanks to the SNP’s agreement with the Scottish Greens, the reform is guaranteed to be implemented, even though there is a chance that Scottish GDRs will not be recognised elsewhere in the UK.
Yet still the electorate doesn’t feel disposed to punish the SNP for their failings.
The most egregious example of this willingness to forgive is Dundee, the university town with Europe’s highest level of drug deaths. In December 2020, public health minister Joe Fitzpatrick resigned his post after the death toll was revealed to have risen to another record high.
Fitzpatrick, who represents the city in Holyrood, then secured a majority that increased by 4,000 votes at the next Scottish Parliament election.
SNP industrial policy has, if anything, been even less successful than social policy.
It started out with a high-profile announcement that the Scottish Government would nationalise Ferguson’s dock yard in Port Glasgow rather than see it go bust. Two much-needed ferries would be built at the new people-owned company in order to serve the island communities of the west of Scotland.
But years after they were due to have been completed, neither of the ships has been delivered. Meanwhile the proposed cost of the vessels has risen more than 100 per cent, from an initial £97 million to more than £250 million. Now an almighty row has broken out in the Scottish Government as ministers squabble about who actually gave the go-ahead to the contract in the first place.
This has shades of the SNP’s first intrepid steps into the area of nationalisation, when they took ownership of Prestwick Airport in 2013, during the Scottish independence referendum campaign. After buying the failing airport for £1, ministers then paid the airport directors bonuses of £200,000, and have used £43 million of taxpayers’ money to keep the airport as a going concern.
A third botched nationalisation happened just a few weeks ago, when the Scotrail railway franchise was brought under public ownership - a development long demanded by the left, who believed that a simple change of ownership would be enough to improve services. Such expectations were dealt a severe blow a month later when an emergency timetable was imposed on all services and thousands of commuters found their homeward journeys peremptorily cancelled.
The SNP’s hostility to all things British is well documented, and with the prospect of a UK-wide census in 2021, Nicola Sturgeon’s party saw its opportunity to distance Scotland from a national exercise. Citing the Covid pandemic as an excuse, SNP ministers decided that the Scottish census would take place a year later than scheduled, decoupling it from the UK survey for the first time in history.
The result was the lowest ever return rate, even after a number of extensions to the original deadline. Just 88 per cent of Scots bothered to fill in their forms and return them – six per cent lower than the Scottish Government’s own target and nine per cent lower than the result achieved in England and Wales. Even the First Minister warned that the data collected could prove “worthless” if the response rate was too low. And - statistical experts agree - 88 per cent is indeed too low.
As with any large political party, especially those which experience an unexpected and vast increase in their public representation over a relatively short period of time, scandals have beset the SNP – something which its leaders were unused to during their many years in the political wilderness.
First there was the public spectacle of Sturgeon being pitted against her predecessor as First Minister, Alex Salmond, when the latter was charged with a series of serious sex offences.
After a trial in early 2020 Salmond was acquitted on all charges, but his resentment at the lack of support he received from his former protégé clearly burned within him, and a full-blown parliamentary inquiry at Holyrood sought to get to the truth of various allegations made against each of the politicians by the other. The committee of MSPs appointed to lead the inquiry even concluded that Sturgeon herself was guilty of misleading the Scottish parliament.
Just a few weeks before Salmond’s appearance in court, Derek Mackay, Sturgeon’s finance minister, and for a long time her heir apparent should she choose to stand aside as SNP leader, was forced to resign his post after it was revealed he had sent a series of inappropriate texts to a 16-year-old boy.
But the party’s most recent travails have emanated from the 48-strong group of SNP MPs at Westminster, led by Ian Blackford. The Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP was exposed for his double standards following a meeting of his MPs where he expressed solidarity and support for Patrick Grady, the former group whip, who had been found guilty of sexual harassment of a party staffer.
Blackford had previously tweeted that he and the SNP had a “zero tolerance” approach to such behaviour, but when Grady was recommended by House authorities to be suspended for two days, Blackford urged all his colleagues to support him, only repenting of this action after an audio recording of the meeting was leaked to the media.
Even then, the party seemed more concerned with tracking down and prosecuting the leaker than with offering support to Grady’s victim.
Even Sturgeon described this behaviour as “unacceptable”, though in her next sentence she endorsed Blackford’s continued leadership of the group at Westminster.
'Now is not the time'
Little of this causes the average SNP member to lose much sleep. They are less interested in the mechanics of governing and in individual politicians’ behaviour than in the party’s great mission: Scottish independence.
The job of SNP leader is to campaign for that end. Sturgeon and her predecessor have been unusual in the history of nationalist leaders because they have also had the added responsibilities of governing.
It was always the hope of more sensible figures in the movement that if the party proved capable of running a devolved administration smoothly and competently, they would attract the trust of former sceptics to take Scotland out of the Union altogether.
As the last few years have shown, an unambiguous display of incompetence in government has not dissuaded a significant number of Scots from supporting the SNP at every level of election. And yet the party has still, frustratingly, never persuaded a settled and large majority of Scots to support independence.
It remains the hope of activists, however, that the feat accomplished by Salmond during the last referendum – increasing support for independence from 30 per cent at the start of the campaign to 45 per cent by the end of it – could be replicated in the heat and excitement of a second referendum campaign, taking support for a separate Scotland from its current level of about 45 per cent to 50 per cent and beyond.
Which brings us to the First Minister’s statement to Holyrood last week.
Since 2016, she has claimed that Brexit has transformed the independence debate and provided the necessary “material change of circumstance” which she insists would justify a rerun referendum.
The decision of the UK electorate to leave the European Union, even as a majority of Scots voted Remain, gave Sturgeon the excuse she wanted to fire up her activist base and start demanding another referendum.
But if Brexit “changed everything”, it was hard to explain why the polls seemed to suggest that Scots themselves had not changed their minds, that a majority had decided they would rather live in a UK outside the EU than in a Scotland that was back inside the trading bloc.
Nevertheless, claiming a mandate from the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, at which her party fell short of an overall majority, the first minister started agitating for another Section 30 Order that would allow her government to start organising the second “once in a generation” referendum in three years.
But Theresa May, who had replaced David Cameron in Number 10, said no. This was an extraordinary development; the nationalists were by now used to UK governments doing whatever they demanded, whether it was independence referendums or more devolved powers. The eras of Gordon Brown and Cameron had truly spoiled the nationalists. But now they came up against an implacable brick wall.
When Boris Johnson replaced May in 2019, the answer was the same: “Now is not the time.”
Uncertainty and division
This was a dilemma for Sturgeon. Faced with a series of domestic policy failures and scandals, she needed the distraction of another referendum. More importantly, she needed to make progress on this one iconic policy. Otherwise, what was the point of the SNP being in office at all? At the 2021 Holyrood elections, her party again fell short of an overall majority, leading to an agreement with the independence-supporting Scottish Greens.
Last week, the first minister capitulated to her own members. Despite having insisted for years that she would not endorse a “wildcat” or illegal referendum, she announced that she had set aside October 19, 2023, as the polling day for the next vote.
And, mindful of the limits of the Scottish Parliament to set policy in a matter reserved to Westminster, she announced that her plan would be referred to the Supreme Court.
If the court decided that the proposal for a referendum was ultra vires and beyond the legal scope of Holyrood, she would revert to Plan B: making the next UK general election a “de facto” referendum, which the SNP would use as a mandate to begin independence negotiations with the UK Government.
This is all miles away from the statesmanlike, moderate language Sturgeon has tended to employ in recent years. She desperately wanted an official referendum endorsed by the UK because that would be the only route to international recognition of Scottish independence, including a future pathway to EU membership.
But such considerations are unimportant to too many of the First Minister’s activists, who would happily settle for a unilateral declaration of independence if that were the only way of breaking free from the UK.
In fact for many of them, that would be their preferred option.
But it’s now difficult to see a way ahead for Sturgeon. Although it is impossible to second guess the Supreme Court, judges are widely expected to veto her plans - especially since recent precedent has established that the Scottish Parliament cannot pass legislation that obliges, or even puts pressure on, the UK Government to act in a certain way.
But even if, somehow, the court approves a form of watered down plebiscite, the vast majority of pro-UK Scots will boycott it, rendering the result meaningless and relieving Westminster of any obligation even to acknowledge it has taken place.
And as for Plan B, does any party have the right to redefine what a general election is for? Who is to say why individual voters place an X in this or that box? This is a “strategy” that is barely worthy of the description.
Sturgeon’s chief complaint is that the UK Government is taking her at her word and refusing to endorse another referendum within the timescale normally accepted as a “generation”. But instead of acknowledging her powerlessness to do anything about the constitutional framework that restricts her actions, she has instead chosen to do what leaders should never do: she has decided to tell her supporters what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear.
The consequences for Scotland are another year to eighteen months of uncertainty and division. The consequences for the First Minister’s party, in the longer term at least, could be truly devastating.