Tartan Teflon no more?

The next Holyrood election is in May and on current form, the SNP will take almost all (if not all) the directly elected seats, leaving the Scottish Parliament with only a token (list-based) opposition. But why is this? There are many issues that “normally” might affect their poll rating.

“What if Alex Salmond is wrong? What if the oil price does fall? The difference in tax revenues between the year when oil prices were at their highest and the year that they were at their lowest was almost £12 billion. This is more than the entire Scottish NHS budget. Independence is forever, oil is not. Given the unpredictability of the price, is it really worth staking our mortgages, pensions and our economic future on such a risky gamble?” Alistair Darling ( Daily Telegraph March 2013).

The leader of the Better Together campaign toured Scotland for two years arguing that the SNP’s oil price forecast was “fantasy economics”. He was mocked as a “doomsayer”, caricatured as Private Frazer from Dad’s Army, one cartoon headlined “Darling warns blah blah something”.

Darling was right. The forecast for total offshore receipts next year is about £100m, while the independence White Paper forecast more than £7bn. But Labour has experienced no ‘I told you so’ electoral bounce from being right. In fact, quite the reverse. A recent small poll showed Scottish Labour on an unheard of 13% trailing the Scottish Conservatives on 18%.

Tories up their game

Ruth Davidson MSP, the party’s Scottish leader, is convinced she can win second place at #SE2016 and some friendly commentators agree. Others, more neutral, entertain the idea too. Some Scots may endorse the UK government’s overall policies but it may also be true that Scots who do not will feel pushed by the ‘one-party-state’ issue in the election to vote for them as the best opposition. As it is, the SNP has a tight grip on the institution, controlling the committee system and votes in the Chamber. Decisions at times appear to have been made before debates take place. With the SNP holding almost all the seats its hegemony can only increase and its democratic mandate to push for another referendum will be stronger too. The Labour Party is positioning itself broadly to the left of the SNP but given that many on the SNP’s left are strongly committed to independence that may prove difficult ground.

Another issue might be expected to be the controversial debate over the UK joining coalition airstrikes over Syria. The SNP group of group were united and all but two of Scotland’s MPs opposed the government. After the vote Angus Robertson, SNP leader in the Commons,  tweeted that 72% percent of Scottish voters were opposed to the strikes. He was criticised for using a self-selecting online survey. YouGov found opinion was much more divided, with only 48% opposed.

SNP MSP Sandra White apologised last month for retweeting an antisemitic cartoon from a Neo Nazi that she follows online. She has retweeted his postings on several occasions. The Scottish Council of Jewish Communities also voiced concern that 62 of Holyrood’s motions on foreign affairs in this Parliament, many put down by White, have been about Israel, compared to 13 about Syria.

SNP MPs Natalie McGarry and Michelle Thomson resigned the party whip at Westminster while investigations are carried out into their financial conduct. In McGarry’s case about £30,000 missing from the finances of a pro-independence group, and in Thomson’s about a series of controversial property deals. (There is no evidence either is guilty of any crime).

In addition, the SNP has been accused of planning to undermine the autonomy of Scotland’s universities. President of the Royal Society Dame Jocelyn Bell, the outgoing principal of St Andrews Louise Richardson, Prof Timothy O’Shea the principal of Edinburgh University and Fellow of the Royal Society Prof Jim Naismith have all criticised the plans. Naismith used his address to hundreds of graduates last month to call the proposed “extensive ill-defined powers” the SNP plans to give itself over the universities “a source of shame” for Scotland.

In parallel, the post of Chief Scientific Adviser has remained unfilled for a year. A moratorium on fracking is widely criticised as being based not on any scientific concern but on electoral calculation related to next May’s elections. A ban on GM foods has been similarly described as  lacking any scientific justification and carrying possible economic risks which have not been properly explored or acknowledged.

A freeze too far

The SNP Government has also been accused of undermining Scotland’s councils. Finance Minister John Swinney announced a council tax freeze for a ninth successive year this week. Councils around Scotland are looking at increasingly controversial budget cuts. Including SNP-led councils: “We’re legally obliged to fund schools and health services so we have to cut the stuff that isn’t ring-fenced, like breakfast clubs and day care for the elderly – it’s not nice, it’s not sustainable.” one SNP councillor said privately.

Police Scotland, the organisation that the SNP administration created and to which it has remained close, has been accused of undermining the freedom of the press by grabbing phone records when it was confronted with a report into the botched investigation of the murder of Emma Caldwell by the Sunday Mail.

The Scottish police force has been accused more generally of a lack of transparency and failing to respect the rights of citizens, in particular in the death of Sheku Bayoh, a black man who died while being restrained by nine officers.  The deaths of John Yuill  and  Lamara Bell led to a critical report into the restructuring of emergency call handling centres, following the creation of Police Scotland and the large savings expected by the Scottish Government from that process.

An attempt to push through the end of corroboration without properly thinking through the necessary replacement safeguards had to be withdrawn at the eleventh hour.

The unemployment rate is higher in Scotland than in England. On education, highly respected experts such as Professor of Education Policy at Edinburgh University Lindsay Paterson have criticised the SNP’s decision to withdraw from international comparison tests where Scottish children have been sliding down the tables. A recent OECD examination of the education system praised some aspects, but recorded that peformance in maths was declining, and found some evidence for a recent drop in literacy.  Opportunities for re-entering education through further education later in life have been severely cut.

Scotland’s most significant new NHS project, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow, has witnessed unusually high waiting times in A&E, required emergency management intervention and seen at least two deaths make the headlines.  Last month, inspectors issued a damning report on care for the elderly on its Langlands Ward.  The contract for NHS 24 call handling has been dogged with problems.

Statutory climate change targets have been repeatedly missed – four years in a row despite claims at the recent COP21 summit in Paris that Scotland is exercising “global leadership” on this issue. Critics are turning up the volume.

SRIT causes no frit

The SNP administration gaining access to increased tax-raising powers may have been expected to raise concerns in some quarters. Last week, many Scots got a letter from HM Revenue and Customs alerting them that they will be subject to income tax by the Scottish Government. Also, there are concerns over Scottish government borrowing that could be as high as £50bn.

The Forth Bridge celebrated its 50th birthday last year with fireworks. There were political fireworks this year as it now appears that essential repair work was postponed. It might seem likely that the Scottish government would bear some of the blame for its closure.

Given long enough, most governments end up with a list something like this.  The SNP’s exceptional skill has been in persuading so many voters that responsibility for bad news always lies elsewhere and in using other issues to distract from domestic delivery. By positioning itself as “Scotland’s party” it appears to have successfully placed itself above conventional politics in the eyes of many voters. Yes, the opposition has been weak: but it is hard to oppose any group whose support has become so closely bound up with personal and national identity.

Meanwhile, the much-criticised Scottish-based media struggles to resource any sustained investigative reporting into Scottish domestic policy and delivery, giving far more space to political soap opera, despite efforts of newcomers such as The Ferret with its investigation into fracking.

Is that why the list above appears relatively unimportant to almost one in two voters in Scotland?  As long as that continues, the electorate here will be signalling that, rather than the effects of day-to-day government decision-making and behaviour, what matters to them most is how far politicians appeal to their sense of identity and can lay claim to the higher principles many Scots ascribe to themselves, provided ( of course) they don’t raise taxes. SNP hegemony may be secure for some time yet but (HT Noah Feldman) regimes “inevitably fall, and when they do, history judges them for the legacies they leave behind.”

With a little bit of help from Lucy Hunter Blackburn, David Gow, and Fay Young. Picture: Rob Bruce @rbr747

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