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by Douglas Ross
30 August 2022
The SNP must stop putting its constitutional obsession above everything else

Local councils have been starved of vital funding, according to Tory leader Douglas Ross | Credit: Alamy

The SNP must stop putting its constitutional obsession above everything else

This time last year I wrote about the immense challenges facing the country because of the Covid pandemic, and the need to tackle significant problems in the economy, healthcare, justice, education, and frontline community services that, while exacerbated by Covid, have been worsening for years.

Unfortunately, these are still far from being resolved. Scotland’s ability even to begin the process of recovery has been impeded by further unprecedented difficulties: an enormous spike in international energy prices; massive disruption of global supply chains; and a brutal war in Ukraine.

The resulting inflationary pressures and impact on the cost of living are global. They affect almost every country and are not confined to Scotland or the UK. But the precarious state of Scotland’s finances and decline in public services after 15 years of SNP mismanagement makes the task all the more challenging, and the need to address them all the more urgent.

That’s why the Scottish Conservatives remain committed to these priorities, and single-mindedly focused on delivering solutions. To be diverted by any other issue at a time when people face the toughest environment in decades, and need support more than ever, would be to demonstrate the most appalling irresponsibility.

As leader of the opposition to this SNP Government, I deplore its decision to place the needs and priorities of ordinary voters below its constitutional obsessions – though that is certainly consistent with its terrible record on the everyday business of government.

The Scottish Conservatives won’t be diverted by the SNP’s divisive, unwanted, and potentially illegal plans for a referendum. Instead, we will vigorously call out the damaging failures of their time in office on the issues that really matter. 

We have presented policies to reverse the longstanding declines in healthcare, education, policing and justice, and the systematic running-down of local councils. 

We will deal with the multi-billion-pound black hole that – despite the biggest-ever block grants from the UK Government – has been created in our public finances, endangering jobs, and services, and get Scotland back on track.

The SNP Government, so quick to blame Westminster for centralisation, has withheld funding for those essential amenities and services for its own skewed priorities, and ordinary Scots have seen the decline in performance across the country.

The Scottish Conservatives have a programme of measures that would provide accountable, responsive, and competent government that delivers on ordinary people’s priorities.

We will provide the necessary support to rebuild the economy, and the rigorous oversight to ensure that every penny of public money goes to its intended purpose. Whether it comes from the UK block grant or the Scottish taxpayer, we recognise that those funds must be properly stewarded, wisely spent, open to scrutiny, and deliver value to the public who foot the bill.

We would tackle the SNP’s abysmal failure to manage, fund and implement basic forward planning in the NHS, which has led to chronic staff shortages and targets being missed in almost every area, not to mention the longest waiting lists on record. 

As my colleague Dr Sandesh Gulhane MSP has pointed out, healthcare under the SNP’s watch has some of the worst results in the UK. That lets down hard-working and dedicated NHS staff and endangers patients.

Our Right to Recovery Bill, which has attracted expert and cross-party support, offers real assistance for those with addiction problems and their families, and would rid Scotland of its shameful, persistent record as by far the worst country in Europe for drug deaths.

We will restore the reputation of the Scottish education system, so that it is once again seen as one of the world’s best. The SNP has cut teacher numbers, messed up the exam system, and presided over a decline so marked that they chose to remove schools from international comparison tables. 

Their stated ambition to close the attainment gap has not been met, and worse, it has widened, while they have made huge real-terms cuts in university funding and placed Scottish pupils at a disadvantage when seeking admission to their own national universities. We will target resources at the frontline, recruit more teachers and implement a national tutoring programme to support left-behind students.  

Frontline emergency services have had their budgets slashed and police numbers have fallen to a 14-year low. Members of the force can see, as their chief constable puts it, “policing is not a priority for the SNP”, and they are for the first time taking the most severe action they can legally undertake – and no wonder.

The courts and the justice system are backed up to levels that will take years to clear, a situation that amounts to a further slap in the face for victims of crime, already let down by the SNP’s “soft touch” approach to criminals and failure to meet their promise to address early release. Our proposed Victims’ Law would redress that balance.

Local services have been systematically run down under this SNP Government, with its centralising and authoritarian instincts. Councils have found themselves starved of the funds to deliver the basic provision that taxpayers are entitled to expect – bin collections, fixing potholes, functional public transport, social care, libraries, sports, and leisure facilities. 

The SNP Government, so quick to blame Westminster for centralisation, has withheld funding for those essential amenities and services for its own skewed priorities, and ordinary Scots have seen the decline in performance across the country.

That’s why we propose a Barnett-style formula guaranteeing a set proportion of the money the Scottish Government raises, or gets from the UK Government, ends up with councils and provides for real needs and priorities, rather than the SNP’s vanity projects.

That’s real devolution. A real concentration on what most Scots want to improve their daily lives.

We’re not wasting time on axe-grinding or grievance-mongering. We’re listening to what the people of Scotland actually want. And we’re ready to deliver.

We’ve got a programme of action that will reverse the stagnation and decline of the past 15 years. During that time, almost every area over which the SNP has had oversight and control has moved backwards, and at an enormous cost to the Scottish taxpayer. 

An SNP Government that, thanks to the UK block grant, has more money per capita to spend than any other part of the Kingdom, is producing worse, and steadily worsening, results in most areas of public spending, and taxing the Scottish population at a higher rate too.

This country, proudly, securely, and prosperously integrated within one of the world’s most successful unions ever for more than three centuries – much longer than say, Italy, Germany, or the USA – has many proud achievements, so much going for it, and such greater heights it could yet reach, that I find it profoundly depressing to see it so ill-managed.

To see the everyday, essential priorities being ignored for a blinkered, nationalist, and economically illiterate agenda. To see ordinary people’s needs at a time of real difficulty being cast aside in favour of uncosted, unevidenced and – on the SNP’s record in office – utterly unlikely fantasies.

As leader of the opposition to this SNP Government, I deplore its decision to place the needs and priorities of ordinary voters below its constitutional obsessions – though that is certainly consistent with its terrible record on the everyday business of government.

What Scotland needs is a party with a real agenda for change. For recovery. For improvement. For basic competence. For transparency and accountability. For asserting and supporting the country’s real strengths. For a view of Scotland that doesn’t depend on always claiming we’re hard done by or blame every homegrown failure on someone else.

For a nation that takes responsibility for its own future, recognising that Scots have already overwhelmingly chosen to do that within the historic, fraternal, and centuries-old links of the United Kingdom. Where we can take pride in how much we give to and gain from that, rather than fostering resentment and division.

It’s a challenge for recovery for Scotland that the Scottish Conservatives are ready and determined to meet.

Douglas Ross is leader of the Scottish Conservatives. 

This article is taken from Holyrood's Annual Review: A look back on the parliamentary year

 

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