Brian Wilson: Don’t count on straight answers

Labour's Kezia Dugdale will have to keep the pressure on the SNP at Holyrood over 'real' political issues. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Labour's Kezia Dugdale will have to keep the pressure on the SNP at Holyrood over 'real' political issues. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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The SNP talks up constitutional crisis while drawing a veil over its own practical record in government, writes Brian Wilson

Well, that didn’t take long. Barely a week of selfies in the hated corridors of Westminster and “a senior SNP source” is threatening a unilateral referendum declaration to get them out of the place. Very constructive.

Boredom, we must assume, has already set in for the “senior SNP source” as the prospect beckons of five impotent years in opposition to a Tory government. Through the fog of grandiose promises about locking Tories out of Downing Street, ending austerity and holding feet to fires, a more mundane reality will emerge.

Austerity will proceed at exactly the pace George Osborne decides it will proceed. Decisions about translating the Smith recommendations into law will be taken by ministers on the basis of advice from sources of their choosing – which are unlikely to include those pre-programmed to denounce whatever emerges.

All the drivel about hung parliaments is now history. The first-past-the-post system has delivered a majority government as it usually does. Once elected, the constraints are almost entirely self-imposed.

Opposition parties are obliged to grandstand but they can deliver little except a long, hard slog towards a different outcome.

Having experienced both sides of the fence, I can vouch for a reality which transcends party allegiances – the worst day in government is a lot better than the best day in opposition for the simple reason that in the latter you decide nothing, in the former it is possible to effect change and make things happen.

There was an early reminder of how little influence an opposition party wields.

On Monday, Alex Salmond – not to be confused with “a senior SNP source” – demanded abolition of the Scotland Office and sneered at its prospective occupant.

A few hours later, continuation of the Scotland Office was confirmed and the new Secretary of State appointed.

And quite right too. Anyone interested in constructive outcomes on the myriad issues with a UK dimension should want to strengthen the role of the Scotland Office rather than destroy it. The latter demand is purely party political and would sacrifice Scottish jobs and interests to the pretence that Scotland only needs one voice.

The more immediate point was to confirm that Salmond was back where he was in the pre-Holyrood era – making noisy demands which invariably came to nothing. The difference now is that there are far fewer things at Westminster to make demands and claim betrayal about, because most of them have been devolved to Holyrood.

And that takes us back to the real battleground in Scottish politics over the next year. It is now up to the other parties to turn the focus on the record of the Scottish Government which is not the ground of Nationalist choosing. Powers, process and disputation are the territories on which they thrive. Health, education and redistribution are much trickier.

There was an encouraging indicator of how the debate might move at this week’s First Minister’s Questions when Kezia Dugdale did an effective job of highlighting the Nationalists’ truly dismal record in education – and specifically how kids from poorer backgrounds are failed by a system which has become more elitist in inputs and outcomes.

One statistic which she quoted should give pause for thought about the realities of this society while the bread and circuses of constitutional politics hold the ring. It was that only “one quarter of S2 pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have the numeracy skills that they should have”. With statistics on literacy and numeracy getting worse, what chance do these children have?

There was a trite Nicola Sturgeon response that she would allow nobody “to traduce the achievements of young people and their teachers across the country”. Self-evidently, that is not an answer but a glib debating point, and not a very good one. It treats with contempt the seriousness of the question posed by these dire statistics of educational failure.

But then Ms Sturgeon made a better debating point. The Scottish people had given their answer last week, she said. If they thought they were being failed by her party, they would have responded with a different answer. That is impossible to argue with – but can certainly be learned from. Quite simply, the SNP have got to where they are today by not talking about their record at Holyrood.

Since the last Scottish elections, there has been little priority given to the practical outcomes they should be answerable for. They have succeeded in marginalising the social and economic agenda against which governments are normally judged. Instead we have the mantra of victimhood in which everything is someone else’s fault and all roads lead back to the constitution.

Without doubt, this is the script they will seek to maintain over the coming year, in the expectation that it will see them comfortably through next year’s Holyrood elections. We can expect a contrived row per week about some alleged affront, deception or betrayal. It has proved a pretty successful formula so far, so why change it?

This time, however, the bar has been set higher. The Nationalists promised a lot to secure their sweeping victory across Scotland at the general election and are now in a position to deliver none of it. The Stronger Voice for Scotland will soon be revealed as a bit of a fraud when it changes absolutely nothing the Tories intend to do. Unilateral referendum declarations and that kind of stunt are scarcely an adequate substitute.

Eventually, interest just might revive in what is actually happening in Scotland – in schools, in further education colleges, in hospitals, in communities. Quite apart from the politics of that agenda, there is an urgent practical need for far greater scrutiny of what Holyrood is actually delivering and why, on so many fronts, it is falling short of what should reasonably be expected of it.

The more we talk about the constitution and the politics of process, the less will be heard of the issues that actually affect people’s lives and prospects. It would be a good starting point if the next time Nicola Sturgeon presents herself for a sound-bite, she was asked instead about the 75 per cent of Scottish kids from poor backgrounds who lack the basic ability to count. Any chance of that?