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Douglas Ross: The SNP's track record in government has been abysmal and so far it's business as usual under Humza Yousaf

Douglas Ross: The SNP's track record in government has been abysmal and so far it's business as usual under Humza Yousaf

Usually, when I look over the past parliamentary year, it feels like a year and a half.
Not this time. So much has happened at Holyrood since going into recess last summer that the political landscape has been utterly transformed, and it feels at least three times that long.

Normally, I’d want to take a cold, hard look at the legislation and other work that’s been undertaken by the parliament and its committees, and the Scottish Conservatives’ contributions, or objections, to it, rather than the theatre of party politics.

But it’s impossible to deal with the last 12 months without taking account of the huge ructions and controversy that have affected the SNP government.

Or without acknowledging that those, in turn, have in large part been prompted by, and had an enormous impact on, the legislation brought before MSPs.

Before all that, however, we had to cope with a more far-reaching national change than most of us had ever experienced, when the normal beginning of the parliamentary session was overshadowed and, for some time effectively suspended, by the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Scotland played a central role in the initial ceremonies, and many of us found it a profoundly moving testament to the Royal family’s obvious love for and service and commitment to our country, and its central place in the United Kingdom.

When we returned to normal business, the Supreme Court’s verdict on Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for an illegal referendum – which was to have been held this October – should have, at the very least, put the campaign for independence on the backburner.

But even with the subsequent fallout, change of leadership and lack of direction that has left the SNP floundering, they still have no appetite for doing anything other than talking about independence. They haven’t been serious about other legislation, and when presented with legitimate objections, have reverted to confected grievances. 

That became evident with the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill. It was a sensitive subject, abysmally mishandled. 

Almost everyone wants to prevent discrimination and to enhance the rights of the trans community, but this legislation was drafted in a way that endangered the rights of women and girls, gays, lesbians (and trans people themselves).

The Scottish Conservatives were the only party that offered a free vote on the issue. And we proposed amendments that would have prevented abuses of the legislation and offered safeguards.

But the SNP-Green government continued to dismiss those and to ignore warnings, subsequently confirmed, of a clash with equalities law. 

It’s since been repeatedly stated that this was the most scrutinised bill in Holyrood’s history (which, in fact, it wasn’t). But even on that claim, it can hardly be called scrutiny when valid objections raised by public submissions, expert opinion, parliament’s committees, in amendments and by the SNP’s biggest ever revolt to date were simply brushed aside and the legislation pushed through at the eleventh hour before the Christmas recess.

The dangers of ignoring those voices were clearly shown mere weeks later when, notably in the Isla Bryson case but in several others since, exactly the kinds of concerns that had been raised in debate turned out to have not just a solid basis, but concrete and extremely worrying effects.
Yet, following their usual playbook, the SNP-Green government chose to ignore public opinion, objective evidence and clear law, and instead decided to waste public money by threatening legal action and blaming Westminster.

That gave us the grotesque spectacle of a first minister who, during FMQs, could not, or would not, answer my question of whether a convicted double rapist was a man or a woman. I was clear that a rapist could only be a man, but Nicola Sturgeon could not give a straight answer, or indeed any answer at all. Yet she intended to seek judicial review of action to prevent her flawed legislation from making such abuses easier.

It turned out that she wasn’t, in the end, around to make that decision (though her successor has pushed ahead with the same programme).

Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation, the internal war that immediately broke out in her party, and her subsequent arrest followed soon after. The former first minister, who at the time of writing has not been charged with any offence, has since denied that the police investigation into the SNP’s finances played any part at all in her decision to quit. 

Well, if she says so. But not many people (including myself) find this convincing. Even Humza Yousaf, who originally backed that claim, now says he’s less sure. 

The thing that was literally incredible wasn’t that though, but her claim that she was standing down while still convinced that independence was just round the corner.

She knew perfectly well that the SNP had not moved any closer to achieving its central objective under her leadership. But rather than stay to address Scotland’s most urgent problems, or the details of responsible everyday government – most of which have worsened under the SNP’s watch – she retired from the fray.

Unfortunately, Humza Yousaf, who scraped through the contest to become the next SNP leader and thus the new first minister, sold himself as, and has since behaved as, the “continuity candidate”.

So, while we could have had action in parliament on the crisis in the NHS, an attempt to reverse the decline in education which has seen the attainment gap actually widening, a commitment to policing and the justice system, or steps to repair the damage done to local services by years of centralisation and underfunding, it was business as usual.

There could have been a shift of attention to dealing with the ferries fiasco, the abysmal drugs death figures or fulfilling the nationalists’ broken promises on dualling the A9 and A96.
Instead, we saw the programme presented before parliament following an unaltered pattern: the Bail and Release from Custody Bill that confirmed the soft-touch approach to justice and prioritised criminals above victims, with amendments again ignored.

The Rent Control Bill which, as has now been confirmed, led to all the disastrous consequences in housing shortages that the government was warned about.

We’ve had a bewildering string of emergency budget statements, corrections and revisions that have left us the highest-taxed part of the UK, yet imposed savage cuts in public services and alienated businesses, which still aren’t getting the rates relief offered in other parts of the country.

There was the fairly quiet acceptance that the sketchy £1.3bn National Care Scheme, opposed by almost all stakeholders, would have to be dropped. But it’s been postponed, rather than disowned.

And there was what – were it not for the abysmal track record of this government on other fronts – would surely qualify as one of the most inept and embarrassing failures ever presented before this (or any other) parliament, in the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS).

Here was an object lesson in how a simple proposal, which most parties supported in principle, was so badly botched that, despite detailed but essentially constructive warnings from business and opposition parties, it fell to pieces thanks to the ineptitude of the minister responsible. 

That has cost Scottish firms millions of pounds and (at least) many hundreds of jobs. But not the job of Lorna Slater, the Green co-leader who presided over this fiasco and, despite the complaints even of SNP MSPs, remains in office in coalition with the Nats.

We did still, absurdly, have the total waste of parliamentary time on a debate on independence and the scandalous waste of public money on tissue-thin “research papers” on how it would (in the SNP’s fantasy world) happen.

I would like to believe that the forthcoming parliamentary term will address the real priorities of hard-working Scots, but the SNP-Green government’s persistence in doubling down on their failures doesn’t give me much reason to hope. 

The record of the other parties, who have consistently lined up to back some of the past year’s most misguided and obviously flawed legislation, leaves the Scottish Conservatives as the only credible opposition.

We are committed not just to the Union, but the concerns of rural Scotland, businesses, the north-east and the oil and gas industry, householders, islanders and ordinary taxpayers fed up with a government that has failed on every front.

There are other, better, choices that can be made. And the Scottish Conservatives have been presenting them and will continue to do so in the coming parliamentary term, whatever happens next in Scottish politics. 

This article appears in Holyrood's Annual Review 2022/23

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