Comment: With the SNP sounding increasingly tired and fractious, Labour should sense an opportunity
In the same week that she became Scotland’s longest-serving first minister, Nicola Sturgeon was absent from the Scottish Parliament as her deputy, John Swinney, faced further hard questioning about the multi-million-pound ferry fiasco that her government has presided over. Stuck at home recovering from Covid, which she said had “floored” her, it was a salutary reminder that none of us is ever fully in control of events.
The SNP has been in power now for 15 years and as Sturgeon reached her own milestone, assessments were inevitably being made about her legacy. And, despite effusive reports of her obvious political craftsmanship, likeability, and communication skills, on policy delivery – the real purpose of government – none of them was particularly complimentary.
She inherited what Professor James Mitchell describes in later pages of this magazine as “an SNP triple lock on electoral dominance”. With a reputation for competence in government; the Tories in power at Westminster; as the main party of opposition at Holyrood; and finally, a strong support base for independence, how could she fail?
However, with a current and growing list of costly transport failures – the ferries’ scandal, the chaos emerging around the newly nationalised railways and the costs relating to the ill-fated and non-sensical purchase of Prestwick airport – there are question marks about the SNP failings in education, justice, the economy, and in health.
Also, on whether Sturgeon has fulfilled a promise of making Scotland the best place for a child to grow up in, ameliorated the risible life consequences for children taken into the state’s care, reduced drug deaths, or lifted Scots out of poverty, or on investment decisions, or on improving life expectancy, the picture is one of decline, stagnation, and mistakes.
And let’s face it, for a party that wants Scotland to stand on its own two feet, you can’t even count on the SNP to organise a census. Thank goodness our breweries remain in private hands.
And on independence itself, not only has she failed to secure a date for a second referendum, while still asserting that it will happen next year, the support for ‘yes’ is consistently falling backward with a steady trickle from ‘yes’ to ‘no’.
To this bleak backdrop comes the stark economic reality that Scotland is facing a real-time threat to its public services. A spending review that reveals a £3.5bn hole in the SNP’s spending plans, exposing over-cooked estimates on Scotland’s tax take – new powers that this SNP government lobbied for – and welfare priorities that, while laudable in principle, will force cuts elsewhere of an eye-watering eight per cent across local government, justice, and higher education.
This doomsday – return to austerity – scenario, even raises the spectre of Scottish councils looking to explore raising capital through the likes of Private Finance Initiatives – a funding source once vociferously denounced by the SNP but now seen as possible under the heading of ‘reform’.
Overall, it is an unhealthy-looking balance sheet and makes a mockery of the First Minister’s plea to have full fiscal responsibility for Scotland’s finances; the cuts in spend only proving to highlight the folly of the £20m one-off expenditure earmarked for a referendum next year.
And sitting where it does, on the same finance page as the £13m cumulative cut to the Historic Environment budget, you can’t help but ponder on the SNP’s ease with which it is prepared to rob Scotland’s past to pay for a punt on its future.
And let’s face it, for a party that wants Scotland to stand on its own two feet, you can’t even count on the SNP to organise a census.
Add to this the damp-squib welcome that greeted the launch of Scotland’s National Strategy for Economic Transformation – NSET – a detail free, buzzword-filled document that reflected a lack of effort even to create an acronym that could trip easily off the tongue.
And with the so-called ‘transformational’ strategy shaped by a government, that, frankly, has already a reputation of being anti-business, or at least not very good at it – think the Scottish Investment Bank – that it could somehow spark the country’s inner business sense by setting up a quango to shape the entrepreneurs of the future, surely has failure baked in?
With each day comes another chink in Sturgeon’s armour of competence, unravelling decades’ worth of effort and wasting political currency. But as that moves beyond the realms of political point scoring and touches the daily lives of sick people in A&E, islanders waiting on ferries, or commuters missing trains, that is when voter disillusionment sets in.
Sturgeon’s is a government whose longevity has benefited hugely from the unpopular Tories being in power at Westminster, in opposition at Holyrood, and from a Labour party constantly at war with itself. Johnson’s future looks ever more precarious; Keir Starmer, the more honourable man.
And in Scotland, buoyed by local government election results that returned Labour to second place, you can sense that Anas Sarwar sniffs which way the wind blows.
The load seems less heavy, he is more at ease with himself, he has the formidable Jackie Baillie beside him, and the Labour group of MSPs, a smart intake more energised about forcing a change in government than a change in their leader, are walking that bit taller.
The SNP is sounding and looking tired and fractious. The hysteria, and sense of entitlement displayed over the council deals, revealed a lack of self-awareness from a party that has taken the Greens into government and depended on the Tories back in 2007 for an arrangement of confidence and supply.
You can’t help but ponder on the SNP’s ease with which it is prepared to rob Scotland’s past to pay for a punt on its future.
Sarwar has positivity – remember when that was the provenance of the SNP? He has portrayed himself well as being about the future, and not of the past. Simultaneously, it is the lessons of his own past that have given him a new vigour. Losing his Westminster seat in 2015 and then the leadership contest to Richard Leonard in 2017 have changed him.
He is a less arrogant man, a more attentive, focused, and collegiate politician who is more concerned about the ambition for his country than his own career. And sometimes, it is only a taste of failure that injects that humility, willingness to listen, and edge that’s required to win.
Sarwar has consistently said Labour can’t simply wait for the SNP or the Tories to deserve to lose; his party must deserve to win, and with him looking increasingly more credible as a future first minister, now polling as the most popular leader in Scotland, that is where the real threat to Nicola Sturgeon’s tenure lies.
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