Sun, 19 February 2023 at 6:00 am GMT
The British, perhaps a gullible people, have always managed to admire politicians who – while presiding over a complete mess – can give the impression that they are remarkable and merit unequivocal respect.
Think of Disraeli and Lloyd George, and also more recently Boris Johnson. Few, however, have carried off charlatanry better than Nicola Sturgeon, who will shortly cease to be First Minister of Scotland after the announcement last week of her intention to resign as leader of the Scottish National Party, after more than eight years in the post.
Always highly articulate and ready to exhibit her uncanny plausibility in televised addresses to her people – she appears permanently podium-ready – she was unquestionably energetic, and brilliant at turning on the common enemy (the English) to divert attention from her ever-lengthening catalogue of failures. Now, she has jumped before her supine party eventually realised it would have to push her.
The country over which she has presided since 2014 is cracking apart. Not only did she pursue a constitutional policy that has left the Scottish people deeply divided, but she also governed at a level of incompetence to which she feigns to be oblivious but to which her electorate, and indeed many of her party’s supporters, most certainly are not.
The last straw was her gender identity policy, which allowed a rapist to be put in a women’s prison because he claimed to identify as female, and included proposed further reforms that forced the promise of a veto from Westminster.
Many Scots, including supporters of separatism, had had enough, and she knew it. She is off; they, or at least some of the less deluded, may now find they have no choice but to face the reality of the near-failing state that she has created.
And there were further complications. In typical Teflon style, she swatted away a question at her resignation press conference about whether a police investigation into alleged financial irregularities in the SNP, in whose accounts £600,000 is not accounted for, had challenged her.
The money was raised by the party’s supporters in 2017 and was said to have been “ringfenced” for a second independence referendum campaign. Within two years less than £100,000 was left in the SNP’s bank account. For Ms Sturgeon the problem is painfully close. The man responsible for the party’s accounts – its chief executive – also happens to be her husband, Peter Murrell: an arrangement that like so many other aspects of the current management of Scotland and its governing party smacks of the banana republic.
However, even in some banana republics, such apparent speculation can result in serious trouble. Mr Murrell, who also gave the SNP an interest-free loan of £107,000 when it had what were termed “cash-flow problems”, has so far ignored mounting calls to follow his wife into the sunset. Conveniently, Ms Sturgeon claims she cannot remember when she learned that her husband had lent this substantial sum to their party.
The SNP has already admitted that of the £667,000 raised for the fund, only £57,000 was actually spent on campaigning.
In the summer of 2021 the police admitted they had received seven complaints about the use of the money. They began a formal investigation, codenamed Operation Branchform. It has proceeded painfully slowly, the lack of progress itself raising questions about how public services in Scotland are run.
Officers do not yet, for example, appear to have questioned any senior figures in the SNP who would, or ought to, know where the money went. Another banana republic-style concern is that Scotland’s prosecution service is run by its Lord Advocate, Dorothy Bain KC. Ms Bain is a political appointee and owes her position to Ms Sturgeon. The police only last month asked the Lord Advocate’s office for “advice and direction” about the investigation.
Emblematic though this matter is of the shortcomings of the party and its leadership, its impact is solely on the SNP and those reckless enough to give it money for a campaign that existed only in its imagination.
For the Scottish people generally, the impact of the way the SNP does business is far more widespread, grave and distressing, and to outsiders appears to be the inevitable consequence of the leadership of a woman whose public face and sense of command were sufficiently brisk and competent to intimidate her rivals – at Westminster as well as at Holyrood.
The reality in Scotland that she and her followers simply would not face is of sclerotic and collapsing public services, while she pursued an agenda largely irrelevant to the Scottish people and the urgent needs of their country.
Now, the party – and country – face a reckoning that has been put off for years.
The transgender divide
The prime example of this gulf between the SNP’s fantasies and the real world was Ms Sturgeon’s proposal over the rights of people who choose to identify as a gender different from the one they had at birth. The episode typified her almost mindless readiness to jump on any minority bandwagon, usually with cynical intent, if it helped her signal her supposed virtue and establish the loyalty of a new client-group in her coalition.
It appears that she and her friends also believed it brought the added bonus of provoking the hated Westminster parliament into overruling Holyrood, and acting like the colonial oppressor the SNP chooses to imagine it is.
The issue, they might have hoped, would provide a further stick with which she could beat England during an election campaign that she had already decided would be a de facto referendum on separatism. It quickly became obvious, however, that few Scots shared either her supposed interest in transgender questions or her view of them.
Many of her voters also worried about using the next British General Election as a referendum on independence. They feared it might well drive away those potential voters who took the more realistic view that, whatever the merits of other SNP policies, they were not ready for full independence: any more than they thought it was a good idea to let a sex offender born male loose in a women’s prison, or allow 16-year-olds the right to decide what gender they are as easily as they can choose the colour of their shirt.
This farrago played an obvious part in driving her from office. But even before it, she was aware of the speed with which she was running out of road, although her devotees refused to see it. Rumours about her possible departure this year were circulating before last Christmas, and had picked up in the last month or so. Every day, new issues were serving to undermine her that touched on vital questions of her, and her party’s, competence.
An indication of the state of Scottish society is that nearly 60,000 people in a country whose population is five and a half million have a drug addiction problem. That is a higher proportion of addicts than any other country in Europe. Recent figures showed that Scotland had an annual rate of 1,330 deaths from drug addiction. In Slovakia, which has an identical-sized population, the number of deaths (in 2017) was 19.
In Scotland, the government-run treatment services for addicts are dismal. Around 40pc of Scottish addicts are in treatment, compared with 60pc in England. The rate of around 25.2 deaths per 100,000 of the population is three and a half times England’s.
When being forced to admit this shocking failure, the SNP blames Margaret Thatcher and the legacy of her economic policies for closing down much (inefficient and obsolete) Scottish heavy industry. In other words, the failure of the British state (which the SNP purports to loathe) to use the money of predominantly English taxpayers to subsidise the inefficiency and restrictive practices that undermined so much Scottish industry is the cause of the country’s out-of-control drugs problem.
Mrs Thatcher left office more than 32 years ago; an SNP administration has run Scotland since 2007. There are, frankly, no excuses. If parts of Scotland are enduring poverty it is largely down to the failings of those who have ruled the country for the last 16 years, whose hostility to capitalism and incomprehension of business were proved by the many businesses that planned to relocate in England had the referendum in 2014 gone the other way.
The SNP’s stewardship of public services has been near catastrophic. If the NHS is said to be on its knees in England, it is prostrate in Scotland. The British Medical Association said last month that the country was 2,000 GPs short and about three in 20 vacancies for consultants were unfilled. There were also 6,400 vacancies in nursing and midwifery. A Royal College of Nursing spokesman said that six in 10 nurses were thinking of leaving their profession because they have had enough of their overloaded working conditions.
The medical and paramedical professions in Scotland have repeatedly savaged Humza Yousaf, the Scottish Health Minister, for having (in the words of a Scottish geriatrician) “no plan, no strategy”, and therefore inspiring “no trust” from the professions.
Waiting times in A&E have reached a record high, with 5,000 people in the last week of 2022 waiting over eight hours, and half of them for over 12 hours. The malfunctioning of Scotland’s National Care Service means hospital beds are filled with people who otherwise could be discharged. Over 600,000 people are awaiting “planned procedures” compared with just over 300,000 when Ms Sturgeon took office in 2014.
Education has also been a disaster under the SNP. Scotland’s schools were once among the finest in Europe; in the 18th and 19th centuries they sent young people to university from social classes that would not get inside an English university until the 1940s.
In June 2021, however, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said that the SNP administration had no long-term strategy or vision for schools, and had failed to keep abreast of best practice. It attacked the examinations system, curriculum development, the management of teachers and the availability of data for measuring schools’ performance. John Swinney, who has proved an entirely incapable education minister, was so embarrassed that he delayed publishing the report until after that year’s Holyrood elections.
For maths and sciences, in which high attainment is now considered essential for the prosperity and development of any society, Scotland ranks 25th and 24th respectively among OECD countries. In 2019-20, the proportion of pupils in Scottish schools passing three or more Highers was 43pc lower than in any other year since 2015, when another international report from the Programme for International Student Assessment condemned the standards of attainment in reading, maths and science.
To try to massage the figures, the SNP has relied on a feeble system of continuous assessment rather than rigorous examinations. This has ensured that the gap in attainment between those at the bottom of the ladder economically and those at the top has widened.
The other consequence of this failure to develop Scotland’s human resources through education is that the brains, skills and talent that might improve the Scottish economy are scarce: and for those whose talents are developed, Dr Johnson’s adage that the noblest prospect many of them ever see is the high road that takes them to England remains painfully true.
A report last month endorsed by Gordon Brown – hardly a howling right-winger of the sort the SNP identify as their keenest critics – attacked the 10-year national economic strategy created by Kate Forbes, the finance minister and a contender to succeed Ms Sturgeon.
The report said there was no clear strategy for innovation, that for the last decade productivity had been “muted” and that Scotland had failed to become a “hotbed of start-up activity”. The SNP blame Brexit for this, which hardly explains why other cities in Britain are performing far better; the SNP will not admit that it has no idea how to encourage and support entrepreneurs.
As for the fantasy of financing independence, the Institute for Fiscal Studies responded last autumn to an SNP post-independence economic plan by saying it “skirts around what achieving sustainability would likely require in the first decade of an independent Scotland: bigger tax rises or spending cuts than the UK Government will have to pursue…Scotland’s public finances are therefore expected to weaken relative to the rest of the UK…boosting productivity and growth is far from certain and would be easier said than done”.
The IFS were commenting shortly after the debacle of the Liz Truss administration and, drawing a lesson from it, warned the SNP: “Experience from recent weeks suggests the markets may not look favourably on fiscal plans built on the uncertain hope of a substantial future boost to growth”.
The entrepreneurs Scotland so desperately needs are driven away by high taxation, the deep economic uncertainty provided by the threat of separatism, and a shrinking skills base.
Independence bid is all but over
Ms Sturgeon was, at least, a good frontwoman for her policies of cynicism, exploitation and resentment, whereas none of those lining up to succeed her has anything like the same Oscar-contender skills. That does not mean nationalism is dead in Scotland. Anyone travelling around the country, especially in the central belt and more especially still around what used to be called “Red Clydeside”, will notice a deep tribalism built on detestation of English “rule”.
With its proportional representation system for Holyrood elections, the Scottish constitution seems to guarantee a place in the country’s governance for the SNP, unless its credibility collapses completely. That it has not done so already, with the litany of failures and disasters, and now the ongoing police investigation into its internal affairs, is remarkable, and a depressing sign to the party’s rivals of the obduracy of its supporters.
However, the nationalist movement may well become more of a minority sport. It is already split following the creation of the Alba party by Alex Salmond, who fell out with Ms Sturgeon over her handling of complaints of sexual misconduct against him. He was later acquitted of 13 offences in a criminal trial.
And although the fanatics will endure any hardship to be shot of the colonial oppressor, many others won’t. Scotland reached peak Sturgeon a couple of years ago, after her polished performance in the pandemic, when she enjoyed being more welfarist at every turn than the English government.
It will require a remarkable achievement by her successor to lift support for nationalism to the point where it would look likely that the Scottish people would back separatism in a referendum. The SNP has scrapped a special conference it was holding on the question. Talk of the next UK election being a referendum on separatism is ending.
When SNP sources say, as they have in recent days, that a second referendum is off the agenda for the next five years, what they really mean – all being equal – is 10, 15 or 20 years. Every further failure in health, education, infrastructure planning and social care lines up more voters against them: for in the extensively devolved system, only they are responsible.
It is one thing to tell an opinion pollster that you, as a Scottish voter, would like to be shot of England; quite another to vote in a referendum, were there to be one, to cut the umbilical cord to the Treasury in Whitehall, whose subventions to Scotland under the block grant are around £41bn per year.
For every £100 the government spends per person in England, it spends £126 in Scotland. As the IFS’s comments on the country’s economic future imply, the SNP has nothing but pie in the sky to suggest as the source of that money post-independence.
Ms Sturgeon’s departure has been interpreted by the Westminster political class as a bonus for the Labour party. What her party and Labour offer Scottish voters is two different brands of Leftism, Sir Keir Starmer’s somewhat more rooted in reality than the SNP’s.
However, memories are long in Scotland, and people have not forgotten the largely ineffectual local government there that the Labour party dominated in the 1980s and 1990s. The rule of Tony Blair – which drove many of them into the arms of the SNP in 2007 – was in the view of many hardliners little better than that of a Tory prime minister.
Labour insiders think if they are lucky they might capture 12 to 15 seats from an SNP weakened by an inexperienced leadership and with so poor a record in government. That may not be enough to give Labour an overall majority at Westminster. If the next SNP leader makes a reasonable fist of things – not least by suggesting a journey towards reality, and concentrating on issues the Scots really care about – then Labour may not even do so well as that.
What will concern the party is that rather too many Scottish voters seem undeterred by the SNP’s catastrophic rule and will not consider voting for anyone else. The number of the faithful to whom it occurs that not every failing in Scotland may be down to the late Mrs Thatcher or to Brexit remains alarmingly small. Too many think that all that is wrong is unquestionably someone else’s fault.
There is still much in Scotland to remind one of its past greatness – the enormous role Scots played in the creation of an empire of which it now feels obliged to be deeply embarrassed; its industrialists, inventors, and legions of skilled workers who participated in the successful British project of the 19th and early 20th century centuries. The post-war Labour governments, championing welfarism and restrictive practices, set about destroying the moral fibre of that society.
Nicola Sturgeon more or less finished the job, which will be her shameful legacy. It is entirely up to the Scottish people to decide whether they will face up to reality and build an alternative future more in the image of their great forefathers than of her.