Ruth Davidson is the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. She is a Member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow.
It turns out the old adage about all politicians’ careers ending in failure doesn’t hold true: some just end up doing phone-ins on LBC radio.
Thus began Alex Salmond’s latest reincarnation last week. Promising to “shoot straight from the hip” and to give “honest, straight-talking answers” to callers, the SNP MP began his stint as a radio host as controversially billed.
Donald Trump’s hair was a “toupee”. He hoped to get an invite to Rupert Murdoch’s wedding. The Iranians were a “wonderful group of people”.
His new role is a good pick for LBC’s sharp eyed host, Iain Dale. Someone of Salmond’s communication skills and quick eye for confrontation is guaranteed to provoke and keep the phone lines busy. It also plays into what I suspect is the popular image of the SNP in England –as the UK’s rebel force, standing outside the political establishment, saying the things that other politicians can’t or won’t.
It’s an image the SNP likes to cultivate. But in Scotland, it is increasingly hard to maintain. The party has been in power north of the border for nearly nine years now. In Scotland, the SNP isn’t fighting the establishment. The SNP is the establishment. It has usurped the old Scottish Labour machine entirely – with Nicola Sturgeon seen hugging Len McCluskey at the weekend at the Unite conference in Glasgow. And within Scotland’s ruling public sector, everyone knows it – the SNP’s writ rules. So, three and a half months before the Scottish elections in May, my intention is to cut through the image and spin and ask what returns we in Scotland have had for all that power and authority.
The short answer is: not much. Take education – the main focus of our own campaign in the first few weeks of the year. The facts are these: skills in reading and maths in Scotland have stagnated over the last decade. A recent OECD report concluded that one in five schools are now deemed either “satisfactory” or worse. Furthermore, the gap between attainment among poor and wealthy children is as wide as ever – and widens as pupils progress through school. The Scottish Conservatives published a new paper at the start of this year with a series of ideas on how to improve this: including handing more power and autonomy to schools, a greater focus on literacy and numeracy, and a more transparent system which gives parents and policy makers greater information and input. We have made our choices clear.
In response, Nicola Sturgeon rightly acknowledged education as a priority, something which should be a given. But actual SNP action – beyond handing out more money – is hard to discern. The overall impression is of an establishment government which would like to act but backs away from doing so for fear of upsetting vested interests. We await to see more.
In health, the problems are also stacking up. Vacancies among nurses and doctors are rising fast. As is the case everywhere, an ageing population is bringing ever more pressure to bear. But the SNP Government’s approach is simply to apply a sticking plaster ahead of May’s election. Increases to NHS spending in England have not been matched in Scotland. And attempts at reform have been shunned. For example, we have suggested a review of waiting time targets which, nurses tell us, have started hampering clinical care. We now know of patients being “bumped” down the queue for treatment so that others who are closer to breaching government targets can be seen. Again, Ministers talk the talk – insisting clinical judgements must take priority. But there is no evidence of anyone really taking a grip.
The same short-sightedness is apparent elsewhere; of poorly made decisions with little or no evidence to back them up. The SNP banned GM crops, without taking any scientific advice. At a time when our oil industry is hurting like never before, the SNP imposed a moratorium on unconventional gas extraction which will only depress the Scottish economy still further. And the SNP has cut Further Education College budgets by £60 million (while protecting its headline-grabbing ‘free tuition’ policy), thereby reducing the number of students attending college by 152,000.
If there is a guiding philosophy amid all this short-termism it is simply that the SNP Government believes in using its power to grab even more of it, and centralising to an ever greater degree. Hence, the disastrous decision to create a single police force, an on-going attempt to interfere with the elections of university senates, and the regular use of overrides on local planning decisions.
It all begs the question: if this is the domestic record, why does the SNP continue to ride high in the polls? Partly, it is because the SNP has cleverly managed to project itself as in both opposition and government at the same time. Bad things are always somebody else’s fault. And partly it is because, whatever the SNP’s failings, people have at least known all this time that the SNP is not Scottish Labour.
Our challenge over the coming three and a half months isn’t just to spell out the failings here. It is also – unlike Labour – to demonstrate that there is a real and credible Scottish alternative to the SNP. We will show that there is another, better way of doing things – one that pushes power out to individuals and communities rather than hoarding it at Holyrood. Its an alternative which empowers teachers, clinicians and police officers to be decision makers, not subject to central diktat.
Don’t be fooled by the SNP’s shock-jock image. In Scotland, they are the establishment now. They must answer to their own record. And it is our job in the Scottish Conservatives to show a better way is possible.