Brian Monteith: Embarrassing lack of competence on show from SNP

Alex Salmond and Mike Russell. Picture: PA
Alex Salmond and Mike Russell. Picture: PA
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Alex Salmond’s errors and misleading lines have reached red-faced level, writes Brian Monteith

ARE we about to see the SNP reputation for competence collapse like a poor television drama that after a good start, sorely disappoints?

The SNP did well in the Holyrood election of 2011 not just because it was neither the Tory or Labour parties – but because it enjoyed an air of quiet competence.

Benefiting from the fact that, as a minority government, it could not embark on a radical or even moderately reformist programme, Alex Salmond and his team made a virtue of what they could not deliver by blaming lack of support from the opposition parties and the enveloping recession that caused budgets to tighten.

It meant they simply had to stand up for Scotland’s interests (that they would seek to define) and act out the roles with some style and panache without missing their lines. Apart from the hapless Fiona Hyslop, who needed to be replaced by Mike Russell, the show went according to plan.

Now, with an absolute majority and no revising chamber to provide a check against the self-indulgence and arrogance of the SNP ensemble, its leader is finding that the buck most decidedly stops with him as the list of his miscues and fluffed lines becomes embarrassingly longer.

The latest instalment had the First Minister having to apologise to parliament for providing incorrect figures on further education college funding. Other episodes have included the First Minister’s support for Fred Goodwin in the RBS bid to take over ABN-Amro that precipitated the Scottish bank’s collapse being revealed to public gaze – in contrast with his castigation of London politicians and bankers for causing the economic crisis. There was the instalment when Alex Salmond‘s correspondence lobbying in favour of Rupert Murdoch’s bid for control of BSkyB was revealed – in contrast to the growing public disgust at the behaviour of the media mogul’s executives.

Or the one showing his support to Donald Trump in locating a luxury links golf course in Scotland, while juggling support for an offshore windfarm that is now proving more than a water hazard to the development. Recently there was the show when the First Minister misled Andrew Neil on television about having legal advice about an independent Scotland being able to stay in the European Union – when he had no advice at all.

Then there was the time when Salmond went to court to prevent economic advice on the impact of his Local Income Tax being revealed – and Nicola Sturgeon having to apologise to parliament for writing a letter asking that a convicted fraudster’s sentence be moderated.

So to have to apologise in public yet again is to contribute to a growing sense that the SNP administration is reaching the point when competence disappears and credibility evaporates.

It may yet get worse, for Salmond’s apology actually fell short of being correct. Having misled parliament with incorrect figures once, the figures the First Minister used in his apology were not the whole truth either – as the Conservative finance spokesman Gavin Brown has helpfully brought to light.

But for all the political fall-out that draws the attention of the Holyrood bubble there is a far bigger issue at stake and it is simply this: why, at a time of growing youth unemployment, does the SNP government believe it is right to cut the budgets of further education colleges that could be training young people with the skills that will be needed when the Scottish economy returns to sustainable economic growth?

And it is not just a modest cut but a full-blooded decapitation, with budgets falling from £576 million to £526m next year. Salmond had earlier sought to suggest that college budgets would rise by £1m but then had to eat crow when he traipsed back and announced it was in fact a fall of £20m – but Brown’s figures, using government publications and independently researched by the parliament, show the cut is a staggering £50m in one year.

Salmond and Russell have been playing a game of smoke and mirrors, relying on the fact that academic years and financial years do not coincide and believing that the public would not notice the sharpness of Russell’s axe. But Gavin Brown has blown their cover.

It is claimed that further education has to change, and as an advocate of public service reform I will not disagree, but as Tory leader Ruth Davidson pointed out at First Minister’s Questions, the courses that are being cut are hardly ephemeral but the very stuff that our young Scots need to equip them for the future.

If you look at Mike Russell’s tertiary education responsibilities in the round, what we find is that the 
FE colleges and the young unemployed they train are being sacrificed in the name of maintaining free tuition fees for university undergraduates.

Add to this the fact that Russell has slashed bursaries for students (who by definition must be from the poorest section of society or they would not qualify) and we can see a pattern whereby the SNP government has abandoned any pretence of helping the most disadvantaged in Scottish society and as a consequence has abandoned any claim to have any moral superiority over the other parties.

The story is being put around that it is all Mike Russell’s fault, that Alex Salmond is livid with his Cabinet Secretary for making him look foolish, but is that really the case? Surely the First Minister should have a grasp of detail before he gets up at FMQs, surely we can expect him to ask the education secretary the right questions before he performs – especially when he’s sitting next to him?

It’s not as if he just strolls in without having gone over all the angles with his burgeoning team of advisers.

The answer must be that the First Minister is either incompetent in not knowing, devious in knowing but carrying on – or arrogant in not caring either way.

It cannot be that he simply trusted Mike Russell; this is politics, and only the education secretary trusts Mike Russell.