After Michael Matheson's resignation, SNP reshuffle exposes ministers' lack of experience – Brian Wilson

The SNP seems particularly blighted by an apparatchik class of politicians who have done little else in their lives before being entrusted with government responsibilities

There was only ever one question about Michael Matheson’s iPad bill that needed answering: “Were there any circumstances under which this could be a legitimate claim upon the public purse?” The answer being in the negative, Mr Matheson should have resigned or been sacked once the offence came to light.

Even in the best-case scenario, the bill resulted from personal carelessness rather than public duty. The taxpayer should not have been asked to pay for it. Full stop, as eventually acknowledged. All the other stuff about teenage sons watching football and even blatant untruths in answering questions were extraneous to that basic question and answer. “Were there any circumstances…?” The mystery is why this is still being discussed three months after the story broke.

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If he had resigned in November, speculation would, of course, have continued after he had gone. Why had an apparently rational individual put his career and reputation at risk for an affordable 11 grand? How on earth did the claim get further than the desk of whoever is meant to check these things? And so on.

It is unclear what Neil Gray will bring to his role as the new Health Secretary, following Michael Matheson's resignation (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)It is unclear what Neil Gray will bring to his role as the new Health Secretary, following Michael Matheson's resignation (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
It is unclear what Neil Gray will bring to his role as the new Health Secretary, following Michael Matheson's resignation (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Loyalty or complicity?

But these would have been post facto musings and Mr Matheson would by then have retreated with dignity impaired but not destroyed. His family would never have been brought into it. There would have been no parliamentary inquiry. Scotland would not have had a lame-duck Health Secretary for the past three months.

Instead, there was the worst of all these worlds and the spotlight, not unreasonably, turned on the First Minister, Humza Yousaf, for failing to act when that “one question” presented itself. This might generously be attributed to loyalty but a thin line separates that virtue from the charge of complicity.

If the strategy was to “wing it” together in the hope that once the news agenda moved on, the story would go away, then it was doomed, as anyone with an ounce of common sense could have foreseen. Involving the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body merely kicked the iPad down the road and prolonged the inevitable conclusion.

I have no idea whether Mr Matheson was relatively good, bad or indifferent at his ministerial job. There is, however, a very widespread perception that the NHS in Scotland is in crisis mode for which some degree of political responsibility must be borne.

On the day a new Health Secretary took over, the Institute for Fiscal Studies told us that the NHS in Scotland is spending more money, treating fewer patients and has not returned to pre-Covid levels of delivery. It would be daft to hold any politician personally responsible for all that but it still does not read like an encouraging report card to pass on.

Health service experience

You can’t help feeling that it would help to have a Health Secretary who knows something about health, or at least has had time for a crash course. Yet where in the current Scottish Government would one look for any Cabinet Secretary who has experience of anything other than politics?

The new Health Secretary, Neil Gray, did four years with BBC Scotland before becoming an SNP media apparatchik. That took him into being an MSP and then a minister. He may be a competent enough fellow but his qualifications for being handed political responsibility for Scotland’s NHS seem modest indeed. In that respect, his appointment follows a pattern.

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If Scotland’s NHS needs reform, who is going to lead it? No politician going into that position could or should have confidence in his or her own convictions without either a hinterland of NHS experience or two or three years of learning on the job. Yet we have a procession of Health Secretaries who “wing it” and then fly away. In the meantime, the governance and management structures which political leadership is required to reform are left to their own devices.

Ruritanian Cabinet titles

Mr Matheson’s hasty departure necessitated a reshuffling of the St Andrew’s House deckchairs, so who was to replace Mr Gray? Step forward, Màiri McAllan who becomes Cabinet Secretary for Well-being Economy, Net Zero and Energy, having previously been Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Biodiversity and Land Reform.

It is notable that none of these Ruritanian titles contain words so vulgar as “business” or “industry”. Instead, there is so much overlap between sprawling departments that it is almost impossible for the outsider to be certain who is responsible for anything. Would it not be a good idea for Scotland simply to have an industry minister, with some qualifications for the job?

Ms McAllan’s post-student career has, according to her LinkedIn profile, consisted of the following: two years as an information officer with the SNP; a year with Women’s Aid; a year and two months as a trainee solicitor; a year and three months as special adviser to Nicola Sturgeon; then straight into MSP and minister.

Since I have noted Ms McAllan’s past complaints about misogyny and ageism when her competence is challenged, I should enter advance pleas of not guilty on both counts. But I do wonder what are her relevant qualifications when the Scottish Government’s economic strategy, according to Audit Scotland this week, lacks “political leadership” and industrial opportunities, notably ScotWind, urgently require that same commodity?

The rise of the apparatchik class, who have done little else in their lives before being entrusted with the fate of others through political preference, is by no means limited to Scotland or the SNP but they do seem particularly blighted by it, from the top down. In what other walk of life would these CVs lead to comparable responsibilities?

A shoddy scandal over an iPad bill somehow seems a fitting metaphor for mediocrity. I am counting on Fergus Ewing’s admirable mission to expose “the gravest misdeeds at the heart of the Sturgeon administration” to raise the bar of patriotic malfeasance.



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