The SNP must be held to account for failing to honour commitments, particularly on Police Scotland and the Royal Alexandra Hospital, but it is not alone there says Brian Monteith
The coinage of politics is trust, and like currencies, if sentiment turns against the trustworthiness of a political figure then politicians of the same party will find there is a run on their credibility. It will then take a great deal of effort and a wealth of political reserves to prevent a catastrophic collapse that might take a decade to recover.
We need look no further than the fate of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. Having given a promise to prevent an increase in English university tuition fees he traded it away in the coalition negotiations with David Cameron – a concession, it was later established, he had always been prepared to make before the election even when he was asking students to vote Liberal Democrat. This breach of trust became an albatross around his party’s neck and at the following general election of 2015 his parliamentary group was decimated, falling from 57 seats to only eight. Clegg himself squeaked through, but finally lost in 2017.
The manner in which the Scottish Government can now be seen to be conducting its affairs risks a serious threat to the level of support still enjoyed by the SNP at the ballot box. After the Justice Secretary’s intervention in the possible return to work of the Police Scotland chief constable, and the closure of the children’s ward at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley – despite a personal assurance from the First Minister that it was not even a proposal – how can anyone trust the Scottish Government again?
In political terms the Justice Secretary, Michael Matheson, must surely be a dead man walking. Having told the Scottish Parliament on previous occasions he is unable to intervene in Police Scotland internal affairs, he held a meeting with the then Chairman of the Scottish Police Authority that resulted in the reversal of a previous unanimous decision by the SPA for the suspended chief constable, Phil Gormley, to return to work.
As if that was not questionable enough, the meeting was attended by civil servants but was conducted without minutes being taken, making a mockery of transparent and accountable government and rendering worthless the Freedom of Information process that seeks to protect the public from conniving government ministers.
Matheson’s actions come after repeatedly telling us that the merger of the Scottish section of the British Transport Police with Police Scotland was to our benefit – only for it to be established he had not prepared a business case. Without such due diligence, how on earth could he talk of benefits with any degree of honesty and sincerity? Wishful thinking does not cut the mustard, and while his superior, the First Minister, will no doubt seek to brazen out the storm of the Minister’s own making, he should now be odds-on favourite to depart when she finds it politically expedient to refresh her Cabinet.
Not that the First Minister has covered herself in glory on the issue of political trust. The threat to the children’s ward at the Royal Alexandra has been known for a number of years, so much so that Nicola Sturgeon was asked about it in election hustings in 2016, where she denied such a proposal was even on the table. Fast forward to last Friday and accusations of betrayal sum up the reactions of parents of sick children and many Renfrewshire voters.
The SNP MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, Mhairi Black, is rarely slow to make her views known, but has been unusually quiet with nothing posted by her on social media, where she is usually ubiquitous. She had previously told former Labour leader Kezia Dugdale the threat to the children’s ward was “utter nonsense”.
The decision to close the children’s ward can have nothing to do with alleged “Tory austerity” because additional funding for Scotland’s NHS was passed on by Westminster, only for some of it to be held back by the SNP’s own Finance Secretary Derek Mackay. This budget cut was a decision that no SNP MSP rebelled against and was backed by the Scottish Government’s Green Party allies in Holyrood. Irrespective of seeking to blame financial pressures, the administrative decision of closure is purely a Scottish one, and the Cabinet Secretary for Health, Shona Robison, who faces a new political crisis every week, could have prevented the ward closure.
Now what value can be put on SNP assurances about protecting other threatened Scottish NHS services? How long before West Lothian voters are also betrayed and services at St John’s Hospital in Livingston suffer a similar fate?
And if electors cannot trust the SNP with maintaining an arm’s length approach to policing and Police Scotland accountability – or with being sincere about the hard choices that have to be faced in sustaining NHS service levels – then how can it be trusted with other policies, such as maintaining confidentiality in its Named Persons scheme?
Once the public sees the SNP cannot be trusted, will it go the same way as the Liberal Democrats?
Without the trust of anything other than its adoring hard-core support how can the SNP expect to win future elections, be they for Holyrood or Westminster? Fortunately for the First Minister, it is not impossible to see the SNP still coming out ahead of all other parties for the simple reason that others too have their own issues over trust.
The Conservatives, being the party of UK government, will have every opportunity to lose what trust they may have built up, especially if Theresa May makes a botched job of the Brexit negotiations. Likewise, Jeremy Corbyn has already been found out on a variety of issues such as wiping out student debt, where Labour promises were found to be hollow.
Sixty-five per cent of Labour constituencies voted to leave the EU but last week in the Commons, 243 Labour members broke their trust with the electorate and voted against the EU Withdrawal Bill, having said in the party manifesto that they would support Brexit. Only four Labour MPs voted to honour their pledge.
When it comes to testing the trust of voters, the SNP will not be the only party with a bad record. The leader that can convince voters to ignore past breaches of faith and place their trust in their party will be the one best placed to win.
Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org