SNP ministers should rededicate themselves to the zeal for engagement the party was known for 10 years ago
Kevin Pringle - Image credit: Holyrood
For a party which spent three-quarters of a century failing to win any national elections in Scotland, it’s extraordinary to think that we’re just about to mark a decade of SNP government.
And even more extraordinary that there is less of a viable alternative now than at any point over the past ten years.
Scottish Labour was at a low ebb after losing in 2007 and struggled to come to terms with the new reality.
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But given that Labour had just been in government at Holyrood, and continued to hoover up the Westminster seats in Scotland until 2015, there was at least the theoretical possibility that they could knock the SNP out.
Now that it’s only the third biggest group, Labour isn’t in the running for government at the next Holyrood election in 2021.
And the Tories, now installed as the main opposition party, are a very long way from winning an election in Scotland.
The last time they did so was in 1955, so even on the SNP’s trajectory, they have at least another decade to go before it might be a prospect.
But I think it will be a lot longer than that, if ever.
The Tories’ share of the vote last year – nearly 23 per cent on the list – was decent by recent standards, but lower than in the late 1980s, when they were doing badly in Scotland.
In any event, it’s very far from being the biggest party with Ruth Davidson as first minister.
Nothing is forever, but for now we are in the curious position of the SNP, historically the insurgent force in Scotland, being the established party of government and the more traditional governing parties stuck in opposition.
Scottish politics continues to revolve round the SNP, a bit like NASA’s recent discovery of seven potentially Earth-like planets that all orbit the same star.
Nonetheless, a tenth anniversary poses dangers for any government, albeit the SNP administration was refreshed by Nicola Sturgeon replacing Alex Salmond as first minister after the referendum in 2014.
Government is a gruelling business, every minister always has a groaning in-tray of issues which affect major aspects of all our lives – how our children are educated and protected, how sickness is treated and health promoted, how businesses are supported and society strengthened.
And, hardest of all, how the money is divided up.
There will never be consensus, always be winner and losers, and the purpose of democracy is to calibrate the competing claims in a way that reflects a broad public interest.
But after a decade in office, there is nowhere to hide if standards fall short and people feel let down.
Ministers rightly promote the good news, such as more staff in Scotland’s NHS than ever before and record levels of school leavers going on to work, study or training.
However, the political noise and volume in the media will always be loudest when the focus is on targets missed and figures going in the wrong direction.
When the SNP marked its first 100 days in office in 2007, I remember a feature in The Scotsman where they had asked people in all walks of life what they made of it so far.
Time and again, people said how refreshing it was that the new team of ministers was so accessible, so willing to listen to what they had to say, regularly staying behind after the formal speeches to chat.
It seemed to me to be no big deal, but was obviously in stark contrast to the former Labour/Lib Dem coalition.
I’m sure the good practices are still there, but it would be worth current ministers rededicating themselves to that same zeal for engagement.
The time invested goes a long way in maintaining goodwill, even on tough issues.
Only 16 of the current group of SNP MSPs were there in the first parliament in 1999, including eight serving ministers.
There are obviously many people in the public eye, but 18 years on and the most prominent SNP figures at Holyrood – Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and Mike Russell – are among these ‘99ers’.
As the SNP moves into its second decade in government – with another referendum all but inevitable and independence very winnable – it would be wise to plan for the future by promoting a new generation.