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by Mandy Rhodes
29 April 2021
Finding a fix

Sturgeon at Holyrood in January before delivering a statement announcing an extra £350 million over the next five years to tackle drug deaths

Finding a fix

With a week to go before the election she is sure to win, Nicola Sturgeon appears unnecessarily tetchy. She looks annoyed, her lips twitch and her eyes roll when anyone, usually a journalist, has the temerity to ask her to defend her record in government. 

And while everyone knows what a good communicator she is, her supposed candour, acceptance of blame, honest disclosure that there is work still to be done, and her humility she now cynically uses as a shield against the criticism that inevitably comes.

In her defence – for there is little to be gained by trying to justify why educational standards have stalled, or why old folk were transferred from hospital to care homes carrying COVID like a plague – she says, simply, that the people will be the judge and the ballot box the final arbiter. 

But Sturgeon must know that she is being judged less on her ability to enact positive change and more on the failure of others to present a credible opposition.

This is a country truly dominated by SNP hegemony. Sturgeon doesn’t need to try. So why bother?

Poll after poll reveal that people trust her more than any other politician. In the latest Lord Ashcroft poll carried exclusively in Holyrood, over 2,000 Scots say she far outperforms any other political leader including the Prime Minister.

Focus groups cite her empathy as something that singles her out. She is commonly described as ‘competent’, ‘passionate’ and ‘someone who stands up for Scotland’.

One respondent says of her: “She’s the only politician who seems capable of saying sorry, which is really refreshing.” 

And it is true that Sturgeon has made an art form out of being normal. And normal people have flaws, make mistakes, apologise, are forgiven and then carry on, because at least they tried.

Which makes her remark about taking her “eye off the ball” when it comes to Scotland’s appalling record on drug deaths all the more extraordinary.

For a politician who has built her whole persona on being human, this was an amazingly inhumane response to a national tragedy that has destroyed so many lives. 

Addicts now litter the streets of our towns and cities, the wallpaper to our daily lives, a messy clue to the stark deprivations that have allowed for such a wasted resource.

Their deaths in greater numbers, a political inconvenience, maybe, but a reminder of serial policy failure and one that perhaps Sturgeon, like others before her, would simply prefer not to be challenged on. 

Roy Robertson, a GP in Edinburgh’s Muirhouse, has been working on the frontline with chaotic drug users for over 30 years.

He was a pioneer whose seminal work first made the link between AIDS and shared needles, and who recognises Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting as a frighteningly accurate portrayal of his caseload in the early 1980s.

And while over the years politicians of all stripes have been overwhelmed by the enormity of the drug problems Scotland faces and how to tackle them, he has battled on regardless, treating the complex symptoms of poverty and the more esoteric issues that result from an absence of hope, while practically patching up the broken lives that bear testimony to the dereliction of policy and practical resolutions that politicians like Sturgeon have shown in their failure to marry rhetoric with real action when it comes to addressing illegal drug use.

And ironically, as the First Minister so carelessly admitted during an election television debate that she had taken her “eye off the ball” in terms of Scotland’s record number of drug deaths, Robertson was, literally, tidying up the consequences, shredding hundreds of case notes of his drug-using patients, many now dead, in a routine closure of attempts to research, explain and disseminate findings to a political establishment tone deaf to the other pandemics of drugs, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.

Like some macabre exercise in sifting through family memorabilia, Robertson was diligently erasing the past, one that should shame us all and that has seeped so catastrophically into our present, creating a blight so massive that we now top the European league for drug deaths and have three and a half times more dying here than down south despite the same legislative framework.

The SNP has been in power for 14 years. And during that time has cut community-based drug services, slashed budgets, reduced the number of beds for rehabilitation and more recently, stood by while a drugs activist and former user Peter Krykant risked imprisonment by taking desperate, preventative measures into his own hands by setting up a so-called safe consumption room in the back of a van in Glasgow’s city centre so users could inject cleanly, safely and without fear of overdose in a squalid environment.

A singularly brave move which the SNP government says it supports, but says it can’t do until Westminster gives it the powers. 

Sturgeon is sincere when she says her government hasn’t done enough, that’s self-evident in the numbers of deaths, but this hasn’t been a momentary lapse of her attention, it’s been a conscious political decision to put drug users further down a policy priority pecking order, and no amount of hand-wringing or frank admission can excuse the negligence that has cost so many lives.

Roy Robertson’s whole medical career is rooted in the obscenity of Scotland’s and the UK’s approach to illegal drug misuse.

He has worked against all odds, often on the fringes of legality, and in the face of unhelpful politicians looking for easy and totemic wins in the complex and multi-faceted issue of drug misuse.

Destroying the archive of notes he has collated since the early 1980s may remove the physical record of Scotland’s descent into the horror of addiction, but it does not erase the ongoing problem. 

Sturgeon is the most popular political leader across the UK, she wields enormous political capital, yet since she came to power, more than 5,000 Scots have lost their lives to illegal drug use.

One of the most common nationalist refrains is that Scotland’s people are its greatest asset. Allowing them to die unnecessarily isn’t just taking your eye off the ball, it’s not even seeing the ball.

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Read the most recent article written by Mandy Rhodes - Getting rid of Fergus Ewing seems like electoral folly for the SNP.



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