The SNP are very keen to talk about Scottish independence. As a news story I’ll admit this ranks alongside the Pope being a Catholic and bears disposing of bodily waste in the woods. Of course they are you say, the party’s primary goal is to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom. Yet there is a second, equally powerful reason for the SNP’s current enthusiasm for discussing a second independence referendum. The alternative, seeing as the SNP have governed Scotland since 2007, is that debate might focus on the party’s record in power. And by God the SNP would rather it didn’t. They would prefer to discuss just about anything – say the breeding habits of Ospreys or the absorbability of different toilet paper brands – rather than their record. Because if that happens there’s a very real risk that they might actually be held to account.
The SNP’s performance in Government meanders between the poor and the atrocious. Right now their handling of the Scottish economy clearly belongs in the latter category. In the last quarter of 2016 the whole UK economy grew by 0.7%, a solid rate especially considering the uncertainty associated with Brexit. However during the same period the Scottish economy shrunk by 0.2%, meaning Scotland is just one more quarter of negative growth away from entering recession. The main variable between Scottish businesses and those in the rest of the UK, which have largely been facing the same challenges, has been the Scottish Government. If the Scottish Government were a candidate on The Apprentice it would have been fired after the first episode for investing all its money into telescopes for the blind.
Other figures paint a similar story. Recently the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) released stats which showed that, despite recently ending a two year decline, the confidence of Scottish small business remains significantly below the UK average. More worryingly still last year’s Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) report on the state of Scotland’s economy, compiled by the Scottish Government’s own statisticians, concluded that Scotland’s 2015/16 deficit was nearly £15bn, or 9.5% of GDP. This is well above both the overall UK figure of 4%, and the 3% figure which is theoretically required for a country to join the European Union.
In the spirit of generosity I’ll turn away from the economy, which presumably isn’t all that important, and focus on what the SNP thought was its home turf, education. In August 2015 Sturgeon vowed to close the performance gap in education between rich and poor areas, stating ‘Let me be clear – I want to be judged on this’. I’m prepared to bet she wishes she’d chosen her words more carefully. Figures released at the end of last year revealed that the attainment gap between wealthy and poor areas remains vast, with just 54% of pupils from poorer areas in their final year of primary school meeting the expected writing standard.
More generally the Scottish schooling system is in a poor shape. Last year it received its worse ever Pisa ranking, Pisa being the main set of figures which compare educational performance between countries. For the first time since Pisa ratings began in 2000 Scotland didn’t score above ‘average’ in a single subject area. Perhaps the SNP have decided that if Scottish educational attainment declines below a certain point it will be less clear to the Scottish people what they’ve done to the economy.
There is, fortuitously, one remaining area in which the Scottish Government continues to excel. And I’m afraid it’s not healthcare, considering that the Chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) in Scotland recently claimed that Scottish health services are ‘stretched pretty much to breaking point’. No instead its remaining speciality is interfering in people’s private lives. Take for example the Scottish Government’s ‘named person scheme’, which would see every child in Scotland assigned a ‘named person’, other than its parents, to monitor his or her progress. Or alternatively the baby box scheme, which will see each newly born baby receive a box containing forty items at a cost of £6 million a year. Exactly why Scottish parents can’t be trusted to buy essentials for their own babies is unclear, but presumably they can’t. Better then that the Government takes the money via taxes, and makes the decisions for them. I’m sure the ‘hooded bath towel’ which each box reportedly contains is very nice.
Lynton Crosby, the Australian election guru who ran the Conservatives 2015 campaign, set out how political parties could distract attention from an embarrassing issue by ‘throwing a dead cat on the table’. Essentially you do something deliberately provocative, the ‘dead cat’ in the analogy, in order to distract attention from whatever issue is damaging you. The SNP have taken this strategy to an extreme. They haven’t thrown a dead cat on the table, they’ve emptied out a whole bag full of them. And this being a Scottish political analogy perhaps they’ve chucked in a couple of dead pandas as well. They’re desperate to avoid discussing their record in Government, especially on the economy and education, so focus on independence instead. But if the constitutional question is the dead cat in my analogy the SNP should be careful. Most people get fed up of looking at a dead cat after a while, and the evidence is that a good proportion of the Scottish people feel the same way about the SNP’s constitutional crusade.