Ruth Davidson: Ten years on and little has changed
The Scottish Government has more powers than ever but there is little sign of it using them, says the Scottish Conservative leader
Ruth Davidson - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood
When the Scottish Parliament returns in September, it will be the eleventh time the SNP has set its sights on a new parliamentary session, in sole charge of how that year plays out.
And compared to 2007, the Scottish Government has significantly more powers at hand than it ever did before.
In theory, this should mean more positive change, more flexibility on a range of key topics, and an opportunity for a tailored approach specifically suited to Scotland’s needs.
Unfortunately, we see little evidence yet that ministers are focused on using these new powers or on existing powers they’ve always had – from health and education, to transport and the economy.
Of course, it’s easy for the Scottish Conservatives – or any other opposition political party – to say the SNP has failed and must do better. But even by the Nationalists’ own standards, they have failed.
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In 2007 Alex Salmond arrived in Bute House as first minister on the back of a series of pledges.
Among them was a promise to reform council tax, something that was repeated in the 2011 manifesto. He said he wanted to “scrap the unfair council tax and replace it with a system based on ability to pay”.
Fast-forward a decade and little has changed. In fact, the SNP has only succeeded in whacking up payments in certain parts of the country, like the Lothians and Aberdeenshire, where people in modest family houses are now being regarded as millionaires.
In primaries one to three, the SNP said, we’d see smaller classes sizes, reducing them to 18 or less, meaning children would have more time with their teacher and, as such, have more room to develop.
But by 2016, the average class size was 23.4, with little over one in 10 classes hitting the SNP’s original target.
On mental health, there was a pledge to reduce the number of anti-depressants prescribed by GPs.
Now it’s more common than ever for doctors to prescribe tablets, while those brave enough to wait for counselling face delays of up to a year.
It would be unfair to lay an increase in cases of depression at the door of the SNP, but as the government in charge of mental health, it has to do more than allowing prescription drugs to be the only solution.
If there were more counsellors and better access to alternative therapies, we would soon see these numbers going down.
This isn’t a new thing, but it’s an area the Scottish Government has failed on year-on-year since 2007, and something has to be done about it.
It wasn’t just the 2007 manifesto that proved to be a let-down.
Perhaps we could forgive a Scottish National Party which had never been in power at Holyrood for coming up with fanciful ideas that it couldn’t come good on, not realising the sheer responsibility and scale of government.
So what are its excuses for the pledges set out in 2011, after which it couldn’t even blame being in a minority for holding it back?
“After a period of drift since devolution,” its manifesto platform stated, “the first assessment under an SNP government shows that the tide has turned, with Scottish pupils performing above the international average in reading and science, at the international average in maths and at the same level as in England and Northern Ireland and better than Wales.
“We are determined to see an increased performance in the next PISA survey.”
In subsequent assessments, Scotland’s performance was so bad it led to front-page newspaper headlines of a “generation failed” by the SNP.
Since then Scotland has gone down the league tables, to the extent where the Scottish Government doesn’t even want to take part in these global standards anymore.
Between 2012 and 2015, performance in maths, reading and science all reduced significantly, a direct violation of the SNP’s election manifesto.
No one’s saying running the NHS, amid tight resources and increasing demand, is easy.
But even with that knowledge the SNP said it would maintain waiting times standards, ensuring people would have to wait less time and that other areas of care would improve in the process.
That was another broken promise.
Waiting times in accident and emergency continue to be appalling. Not only are far too many being forced to wait beyond the four-hour limit in casualty, but many others are waiting for more than 12 hours for care.
With the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow – a welcome move in itself – patients would have understandably seen this as an opportunity to sort A&E delays once and for all.
Instead, it is consistently one of the worst-performing in the country, and its failings are even having an effect on other nearby units who are struggling too.
Perhaps most laughably of all, voters were told in 2011 that an SNP government, if elected, would “reduce the bureaucracy facing farm businesses”, and wanted to create an IT platform which would make it quicker and easier for farmers to access their European financial support.
Yet in the last two years, the SNP could hardly have made more of a mess of processing these payments.
In many rural communities, the SNP’s sole legacy will be nothing more than starving the countryside of hundreds of millions of pounds as its failed IT system – trumpeted in the 2011 manifesto – ground payments to a halt, forcing farming businesses and other countryside firms who depend on the industry to the brink of bankruptcy.
You only need to look at how voters in areas like Aberdeenshire, Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders turned their back on the SNP in both the 2016 and 2017 elections to see how broken promises in manifestos can be punished by the electorate.
When the Scottish Conservatives doubled our number of MSPs last year, we did so on two central counts: to ensure there was no second referendum on independence, and to serve as a strong opposition to the SNP in parliament, having watched as Labour failed in that role miserably for years on end.
Much to her party diehards’ disappointment, Nicola Sturgeon has – for now – backed down on her otherwise relentless bid to break up Britain.
That vindicates our battle to stand up for Scotland’s two million No voters, particularly after Labour and the Lib Dems scarpered from the constitutional scene shortly after the 2014 vote.
And just a year in, we’re proving a strong opposition in other areas too.
Over the last year or so the SNP has taken 10 of our policies and introduced them as their own, including increasing the proportion of health funding for primary care, introducing flexible childcare, reviewing NHS targets and giving money straight to schools to tackle Scotland’s shameful education attainment gap.
We’ve also forced the nationalists into rethinks on the hated named person policy, which is mercifully on ice, and their plans to abolish Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
So will it be eleventh time lucky for the SNP? Will the party be able to reflect next summer on a year of achievement and improvement for devolved matters? Not if early indications are anything to go by.
Last month Scottish Government sources told newspapers of their intention for a “radical relaunch”, an acknowledgement that they needed to do more with the powers at their disposal.
Having neglected the day job for so long – especially as it spent years pursuing separation when it should have been focusing on schools and hospitals – this was hopefully a sign that the Scottish Government was ready to change.
But the devil really was in the detail, and within 24 hours, its relaunch had been called out for not having anything in it that hadn’t already been announced.
It is said the SNP is now going to shake up local government, tackle climate change with new policies and encourage women back into work after maternity leave.
While noble enough, this had all been promised before. It’s evidence of a stale government, rattled by its own dismal failures, and one that is completely out of ideas.
The people of Scotland are ready for a change, and I’ve put Nicola Sturgeon on notice as first minister for the 2021 Holyrood elections.
And in the parliamentary terms running up to that vote, the Scottish Conservatives will go beyond simply being a strong and effective opposition.
We will be a government in waiting, one that uses Holyrood’s substantial power to make Scotland a more successful and fairer place.
This SNP government has had its day, and another 12 months of failure, just like all the previous ones, will simply move the Nationalists closer to the exit door.
Scotland deserves so much better, and the Scottish Conservatives will be the ones to prove that over the next parliamentary term.
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