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Why is the SNP so bad at governing?

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Why is the SNP so bad at governing?

It's not the reason you think.

Stephen Daisley

Jul 30


Temperatures are balmy, barbecues sizzle in back gardens and family holidays are being enjoyed for the first time since the pandemic. 

It is a long, hot summer in Scotland and such uncommonly good weather makes it all the more difficult to slog through the working day. This certainly seems to be the case for the Scottish Government, which appears to be taking an all-hands-on-deckchairs approach as crisis after crisis mounts up. 


An outside observer surveying the Scotland of Summer 2022 could be forgiven for thinking it is a country without a government. The NHS is in an urgent situation. Waiting times at Accident & Emergency are spiralling out of control. Almost one-third of patients admitted for emergency care are not seen within the maximum four hours and thousands are waiting longer than eight hours. 


Patients of NHS Fife have to settle for just 54 per cent of them being seen on time. NHS Lanarkshire is under such severe pressure it has been re-escalated. Labour has accused health secretary Humza Yousaf of being ‘missing in action’ and ‘risking lives’. 


This week brought a major test of the Scottish Government’s response to the drugs deaths crisis. Nicola Sturgeon was shamed into action in 2020 when official statistics showed Scotland had the worst record for deaths related to drugs misuse in all of Europe. She sacked her drugs minister, announced extra funding to replace the money her government had cut, and unveiled a fresh strategy. 


However, figures released on Thursday confirm the new approach has scarcely better results than the old one. The annual death toll stands at 1,330, the second-highest number of fatalities ever recorded. A blizzard of announcements, initiatives and political rhetoric and yet drugs deaths fell by just nine in the space of a year.


Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney faced calls to give evidence in person to a Holyrood committee investigating the Ferguson Marine deal. The Scottish Liberal Democrats said the First Minister and her deputy should be quizzed on the contracts which saw the Scottish Government commission two ferries from the shipyard, neither of which has been delivered and the combined price tag for which has jumped from £97m to a quarter of a billion. 


Ministers are under fire over their treatment of displaced Ukrainians currently sheltering in Scotland from Russia’s war on their country. St Andrew’s House has ‘paused’ its super sponsor scheme while council bosses in North Lanarkshire plan to house Ukrainians in blocks of flats previously earmarked for demolition. Proposals to accommodate Ukrainians aboard a ferry docked in Leith have drawn humanitarian concerns. 


This week, the Scottish Government has also been slammed after figures showed a 74 per cent increase in complaints about the SNP’s welfare bureaucracy. Social Security Scotland received dissatisfied feedback about the best-start grant, the Scottish child payment and the child disability payment.  


There is a malaise at the heart of the Scottish Government, a drift in which the priorities that matter to ordinary Scots are left on the sidelines because they are not the priorities of the First Minister or her cabinet. It is as though an entire government switched on its out-of-office message and headed for the door. 


The SNP has been quick to play up the divisions of the Tory leadership race. While some of the blue-on-blue attacks have been far from edifying, it is worth noting a larger lesson from the contest. Even with Boris Johnson toppled by his own MPs in a palace coup, a Prime Minister packing up his boxes in Number 10, and his would-be successors exposing factional fault-lines in their party, the business of government nonetheless continues at Whitehall. 


The contrast between Westminster and Holyrood is instructive. The UK Government is a vast and unwieldy sprawl of competing interests, factions and agendas under intense scrutiny from Parliament, media and civil society. Whitehall can trundle on despite ministerial instability or in the absence of political leadership because ministers have only limited control over what goes on in their departments. Ministries are not fiefdoms but battlegrounds where ministerial wills are tested by the institutional power of the civil service. 


The dynamic is different in the Scottish Government, which is smaller and more tightly controlled. It is also several orders less scrutinised. The balance of power favours ministers over civil servants and the Scottish Government operates in certain important ways like an extension of the SNP. 


The priority for institutions and processes of government in Scotland is the advancement of the interests of the SNP, not the people of Scotland. Political leadership is everything in St Andrew’s House because St Andrew’s House is the headquarters of the SNP first and the headquarters of devolved government a distant second. 


When things go wrong or fail to be carried out it is more often the fault of the minister than of civil servant obstructionism. So when we observe a Scottish Government apparently asleep at the wheel, it is not because civil servants are lazy. It is because of poor political leadership. 


On its face, the leadership gap seems readily explainable. It is down to the SNP’s obsessive focus on independence to the exclusion of all other priorities. To be sure, there is a strong case to be made here. Nicola Sturgeon has spent recent months hawking her rebel referendum, using civil servants and taxpayers’ money to prepare and roll out political propaganda. The Lord Advocate has referred her government’s draft referendum bill to the Supreme Court to test whether it is ultra vires. As ever, the First Minister’s top priority is her only priority. 


Drawing a causal link between constitutional fixation and policy failings would be fiendishly difficult. It might also be irrelevant. For it is altogether too easy to lay the blame on distractions and priorities, to buy into Sturgeon’s self-serving faux-admission that ‘we took our eye off the ball’, in that case on drugs deaths. 


The implication is obvious: if only the Scottish Government had given the issue its full attention, the troubles would never have arisen. The problem, so this line goes, is not the Scottish Government’s ability to govern but its concentration span. As concessions of fault go, it is up there with the job interviewee who lists ‘too much of a team-player’ as his biggest weakness. 


It may be politically opportune for the Scottish Government to frame its failings as the product of distraction. It may be preferable for the rest of us to buy into that frame, for it is more reassuring than a troubling alternative: that the Scottish Government, quite simply, cannot govern.


A discomfiting thesis and one that requires more definition. We are talking specifically about the Scottish Government under the stewardship of the SNP, when the material achievement of policy objectives takes second place to a politics of identity, statement-making and good intentions. Results are measured not in concrete changes but in correct views articulated and mood music sounded. 


Government-by-vibes will never be a substitute for a thoroughly designed and rigorously implemented policy agenda. It may, however, supply helpful cover for a government which prefers vibes to outcomes because it can deliver the former but not the latter. Delivery is an acute challenge for this government, as its track record shows. 


On health, it has not in eight years of Sturgeon's leadership met its own 62-day waiting standard for referral to cancer treatment. On schooling, the educational attainment gap continues to yawn, years after the First Minister undertook to make it her number one priority. On local government, the SNP has robbed town halls of autonomy, substituted its judgement for that of councils and starved them of the resources required to deliver important services. 


These are not circumstances the Nationalists inherited upon coming to power. These are choices, their choices, and in choosing them ministers illustrated just how flawed their policy preferences tend to be and how wrongheaded are their strategies for implementing them. 

Take a classic example: the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. A populist, headline-grabbing bill, it was pushed through Holyrood by Alex Salmond in response to some ugly chants at Old Firm matches. Ministers high-handedly ignored the admonitions of their opponents, who warned of the legislation’s many flaws, and pressed ahead regardless. 


In the event, the Act proved to be an unworkable mess. It stigmatised fans. Soured their relations with the police. Injected fresh bitterness and ill-feeling into the already febrile sectarianism debate. Indeed, the law’s only achievement of any note was encouraging an unlikely common purpose between supporters of rival teams and made them determined to have the Act repealed. 


In the end, the Offensive Behaviour Act proved a costly waste of time. Wasteful legislation intended to ‘send a message’ rather than make competent law has become a hallmark of Sturgeon’s reign. Examples include the Hate Crime Act, the smacking ban, and attempting to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The next will be Sturgeon’s proposed reform of gender recognition law. 


The First Minister has alighted upon the trans rights movement and decided it is the vanguard of progress. So now the law will be changed to remove doctors from the gender recognition process in favour of self-identification. Once again, the warnings coming in are serious and substantive. Once again, ministers will ignore them. Once again, the SNP will put a bad law on the books and leave everyone else to deal with it. 


Arrogance and gesture politics are both at work but the underlying theme is ineptitude. No matter what it turns its hand to, no matter the issue, no matter the policy proposed, the SNP government almost invariably gets it wrong. Not merely wrong, but wrong in a way that does more harm than good and often more harm than the original problem. In their early days in government, this was forgivable. After all, the SNP had never held executive office at that level before. Fifteen years on, that excuse is much more difficult to sustain. 


What explains it, then? Why is the SNP-run Scottish Government so bad at governing? There may be other factors but one in particular merits consideration: they are incompetent. The term is not used as an insult, but rather to get at a more fundamental point. 


The SNP is not like other political parties. Its purpose is not to govern within the confines of the current political system but to tear down that system and replace it with another. The nature of electoral politics requires the SNP to be competitive and it has become so competitive that it keeps winning elections. This requires the party to do something it never previously had to do: govern. 


But it can’t govern. It can’t govern Scotland within the UK for the same reason Nigel Farage could never have been Prime Minister of the UK within the EU: it doesn’t believe in it. Governing a Scotland within the UK means conceding the political settlement on which it rests. The SNP can only accept that settlement transactionally, holding onto devolved government until it can trade it in for a new, fully-functioning model. 


This is not to say the SNP misgoverns deliberately or does so with its political bind at the forefront of its mind. It simply tries to do what it believes in (achieve independence) and what it knows it must do (govern in the interim) and the two impulses keep undermining one another. The SNP is a terrifically successful electoral party but as a governing party it is weakened by its failure to fuse its purpose to the demands of power. 


The fact the SNP does not want to govern Scotland inside the Union for long is the very reason the party should be striving to govern well. Instead of seeing devolved government as a pitstop on the road to independence, the Nationalists should regard it as a racing car that, with enough maintenance and the right manoeuvres, could bring the finish line into sight much sooner. Show how well Scotland is governed under nationalism and you make the case for it to be governed under independence. 


This ought to have been the SNP’s strategy after its defeat in the 2014 referendum. It should have banked the 45 per cent it secured in that poll then committed to making good government its priority for the next decade or so. Impose a self-denying ordinance on separation — no demands for another referendum, no campaigning on it, no talking about it — to demonstrate to Scotland that the party (and the government) accepted their verdict and would now seek to win their trust by giving them a taste of a better future. 


The SNP could not do this because doing so might have stemmed the post-referendum influx of new members and quietened the drumbeat of momentum going into the 2015 general election. 


A governing-first SNP could have set to work tackling the attainment gap, hospital waiting times, transport infrastructure, drugs, poverty and more, but the party chose instead to pander to its recent recruits — and head off any factional disquiet — by transforming itself and the Scottish Government into a permanent campaign for independence. (Whether the new members wanted this is another matter; they were probably more patient than they were given credit for.) That decision was fateful for it is, at least in part, the reason the party struggles to govern today: you can’t be a revolutionary and a reformer. 


To square this particular circle, the SNP would have to become not just the party of independence but the party of making devolution work until Scots can be persuaded to support independence. That is a lot to ask but it would by no means be impossible. It would allow the party to pursue its medium-to-long-term goal of sovereignty while attending to the public’s business in the short term. If things continue as they are, the Scottish Government’s long, hot, lazy summer won’t be its last.


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Westminster isn't exactly great but Holyrood and the SNP take it to new depths.


Only a complete moron would vote for them.  It really is that simple.


Any Bear that votes SNP should be made to wear a wee ribbon at Ibrox and soundly beaten at every home match.  

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12 minutes ago, Gonzo79 said:

Westminster isn't exactly great but Holyrood and the SNP take it to new depths.


Only a complete moron would vote for them.  It really is that simple.


Any Bear that votes SNP should be made to wear a wee ribbon at Ibrox and soundly beaten at every home match.  

People who vote SNP are as disengaged from their own wellbeing as the SNP is from governing the country. Independence is a derangement that  transcends all, including logic.

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1 hour ago, Gonzo79 said:

Westminster isn't exactly great but Holyrood and the SNP take it to new depths.


Only a complete moron would vote for them.  It really is that simple.


Any Bear that votes SNP should be made to wear a wee ribbon at Ibrox and soundly beaten at every home match.  

To this day I cannot believe there are any, but i'm told there are a few, unbelievable!

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12 hours ago, Bill said:

 Independence is a derangement that  transcends all, including logic.

Says Mr. Wave the Flag Brexit, Patriot of a Union.




Edited by buster.
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1st Toady, 'Friend of Nicola': FM, this report suggests that we -the Scottish Government- are in the wrong.


Sturgeon:  That's not what I want to hear! That's not what I paid for! I thought the brief was clear! 

Mmm....Are the critical observations and recommendations 'valid'?


2nd Toady, 'Friend of Nicola': It seems that they are on the money.


Sturgeon: Right. Who can I pin this on? Westminster? The Toarries? The Yoons? He whose name may not be mentioned in My Presence?


1st Toady, 'Friend of Nicola': Unfortunately, it seems that we can only blame ourselves.


Stugeon: That just means that I am in the right. Situation normal:  redact what you can, and ignore the rest. Continue as if it doesn't exist.  


2nd Toady, 'Friend of Nicola': Noted, FM, but not, of course, minuted.  Double down on the matter?


Sturgeon: Naturellement. That's French, by the way. I learned it from.....a book....yes, from a book.


1st Toady, 'Friend of Nicola: Incroyable, FM, such mastery of the tongue!


Sturgeon: Now be off. I have to read and approve the Independence Colouring books I commissioned  for the new Higher History, or whatever it is called. 


The Toadies exit, stage left, quickly, as if pursued by a bear.


(Sturgeon, sotto voce: God, I love these people....)

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1 hour ago, buster. said:

Same problem as at Westminster.


No meaningful opposition.


Johnson, Sturgeon, Eddie the Eagle, it wouldn't matter.

The media are infinitely more critical of the government in Westminster than they are of Sturgeon's Administration in Edinburgh. 


Starmer, however you look at him, is a disappointing Leader of the Opposition (as was Mr Pastry).

Starmer was Director of Public Prosecution, which, one would think, means that he has something about him. From his performance, as Leader, to date, one can wonder only that any miscreant was brought to court at all. 

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