Comment: We will build Scotland back better
Any political review of the last twelve months has to begin on a note of thanks.
2020 will be remembered for COVID-19 and in those traumatic, bewildering early days in March and April, it fell to our leaders in every part of the UK, and to the tens of thousands of public sector workers, to keep the country going.
Nobody had a rule book at the time for what to do. And while mistakes were undoubtedly made, we should not lose sight of the remarkable efforts of so many in keeping the nation going.
So, first and foremost, I want to pay tribute, not just to the governments here and across the UK, but to the thousands of civil servants, NHS workers, local authority workers, teachers, armed forces personnel, police, key workers, and many, many others who put policy into action during those extraordinary early stages when COVID first struck, and who made it that little bit easier for the rest of us to protect our families and to get through that awful time.
Their work can give us great hope and optimism for the future. It showed that, across Scotland and the UK, we have far more that unites us than divides our country.
Of course, I know as leader of the opposition in Scotland that it’s not my job to lead the applause.
A healthy democracy can only function when opposition parties seek to hold the government to account. So while I want to acknowledge the efforts put in by many in government over the last few months, I also want to offer constructive criticism in the hope it can lead Scotland towards a better debate.
This isn’t – as Nicola Sturgeon sometimes puts it unfairly – to “talk down Scotland.” It’s to ensure that Scotland – like every other mature nation with its distinct political system – benefits from the robust scrutiny and the firm challenge of opposition parties which, in turn, leads to better decision-making in the end.
It’s vital therefore that, as we look back over the last year, we examine the Scottish Government’s mistakes. We learnt much about ourselves during the crisis. It would be an aberration not to seek to carry those lessons forward.
To take a few. We learnt that our health and social care system needs real reform. In March and April, hundreds of elderly people were shifted from hospital into care homes without any testing. That was the Scottish Government’s policy, as it sought to help free up space in wards. It led directly to hundreds of deaths, as the infection spread like wildfire. Somehow we convinced ourselves that protecting the NHS meant neglecting social care. It must never happen again.
We have all had a reminder of the most important things in our lives: the health of ourselves, our family, the need for community, and a steady, secure job.
We learnt that our education system lacks accountability. Twice, the government was forced into U-turns: first over the decision to permit “blended learning” after the summer – keeping children out of school for much of the new school year – and, secondly, over the staggering mishandling of exam results. Both, at heart, were caused by a ‘government-knows-best’ approach which locked out parents, teachers, and pupils from decision-making.
The lesson, surely, is to open up our education system so that such high-handed attitudes are left behind – and so that Scotland can regain its reputation as the best place in the world to educate your child. Losing that reputation has been the SNP government’s biggest failure in 13 years in government, and the COVID crisis has shown that it cannot stand.
And we learnt that our economic security is better off as part of a wider economic union. Any rational analysis of the last few months shows that our membership of a wider economic union supported Scottish jobs during this crisis.
Hundreds of thousands of jobs were under-written by the UK Government. This helped maintain confidence in the Scottish economy.
While tough times lie ahead, I hope that the spectre of a full scale depression might be averted. There was no alternative plan set out by SNP ministers on the economy in those first few crucial weeks of the crisis. That’s because – as we’ve seen in the not too distant past – there was, and is, no Plan B.
All these lessons must now be taken forward. And I hope they can lead us to a better place as a country.
Fundamentally, we have all had a reminder of the most important things in our lives: the health of ourselves, our family, the need for community, and a steady, secure job.
And we’ve been reminded of the need to focus on how best we take the country forward, so we can protect ourselves the next time a shock emerges.
Scotland deserves a vigorous, healthy debate over how we achieve this in the here and now, not more constitutional castles in the sky. Not a single, useful practical idea has emerged from that tired old debate on independence these last few years. Coronavirus has shown we cannot afford to be diverted away again for another decade.
Instead, let’s use the lessons of the last year as a springboard for change now. There’s another thing coronavirus demonstrated – whether you agree or disagree with the SNP government, it showed that a devolved government has the powers to make its own decisions and act differently if it so wishes.
So, since Scotland has the power to act, let’s channel that energy towards the things that matter: a better health and social care system; an education system we can be proud of; and an economy that provides dignity in work for all.
Let’s make sure we all benefit from the trauma of this last year – and truly build Scotland back better.