Brian Monteith: Record drug deaths another example of SNP blind loyalty rule

If there were to be an Olympic Gold medal for public policy failure our SNP government would surely win it. I could provide a litany of it excelling in failure – in education, health, policing, transport, the economy – and more, but only have space for a column when an essay would be required.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

I shall limit myself this week to considering the confirmation of the SNP government again breaking its own record for the number of drug-related deaths in Scotland every year for seven years in a row. It is the worst record in Europe and three and a half times worse than the rest of the UK operating under the same laws as the SNP.

To give some context, nearly double the number of lives were taken from our communities by drug addiction (1,339 in 2020) than by Covid-19 without pre-existing conditions (681 between 1 March 2020 and 31 March 2021) – and yet Covid has led to the First Minister being beamed into our living-rooms regularly, announcing her lockdowns and the suspension of normal life. No such priority has been given to drug deaths except around the weeks annually when the bad statistics appear.

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We have to ask what has led Scotland to this scandalous and shameful state and what can be done to prevent it?

Just as no political party has a monopoly on wisdom or compassion, neither can any party guarantee competence. Sadly, modern politics is full of people who have achieved little in their former lives and know nothing of real-life experiences yet believe they know better than all of us and just can’t wait to get their hands on the levers of power – and most importantly, keep their hands there.

Experiencing failure and learning from it so it is not repeated is what secures good judgement and delivers success. This requires being open to criticism, even ridicule, from family, friends, customers and competitors.

Pointing to Westminster or other political parties as responsible for Scotland’s most shameful statistic is nothing other than an attempt by SNP to duck responsibility. The SNP has been in power for 14 years – of which Nicola Sturgeon has served as Health Secretary for four years and First Minister for seven. While drug enforcement laws are reserved to the UK Parliament, interpretation and application of them and treatment of drug dependency are all devolved. England, Wales and Northern Ireland operate under the same UK laws but deliver far, far better outcomes. Were the SNP Government to aspire to merely best practice it should be asking, why?

Yet we find that on three occasions it has turned down the ADDER programme to reduce drug deaths run by the UK Government that is saving lives and making a big impact – why?

If the SNP were a business the shareholders would be calling for the sacking of the CEO and demanding a new approach based on what its competitors are doing right. Unfortunately, the SNP is no ordinary organisation, for alone amongst the parties of Scotland it has a rule which ensures elected members cannot “publicly criticise a group decision, policy or another member of the group” on the positions taken.

Had Boris Johnson presided over such an appalling loss of life there would be Tory backbenchers queuing up to point out the mistakes, the failures of policy and the need for change. Be it education standards, the building of ferries and management of vital transport services you do not hear a cheap or see a Tweet from SNP MPs, MSPs or Councillors on the incredulous performance of ministers responsible. In London, the ability to openly criticise through speeches and articles, the leadership of parties is seen as a duty if the best policies are to be obtained. In Scotland’s SNP you actually have to leave the party to hold public office and be a constructive critic at the same time.

When you have a party that is above criticism, when its board are all on the same power-fuelled gravy train and the party is led and administered by a husband-and-wife team you have a disaster waiting to happen. As party management goes it is Stalinism on stilts.

Imagine if there had been a few rebels on the SNP benches that felt differently about the SNP government’s policy towards the cutting of drug rehabilitation funding. Only a handful could have been enough on Sturgeon’s slim SNP-Green working majority to pass a Conservative budget proposal earlier this year to direct an additional £15.4m to drug rehab beds. In sensing such a politically embarrassing defeat the SNP Government would have moved mountains to meet its rebels demands by announcing an improved spending offer of its own. This is how governments work and why outspoken rebels within parties are to be cherished rather than demonised.

Dissidents are a vital and necessary part of democracy – but internal dissent is the Green Kryptonite the current SNP leadership most fears.

Any political party that seeks to hold elected positions of office should not be able to silence internal critics. Just as we are able to give legal protection to whistleblowers from public service and corporate managements, so we should be able to ensure our elected politicians cannot be denied the basic human right of freedom of speech by party apparatchiks.

Now is the time for an SNP awkward squad to save the party from the conceit and hubris of its leaders and their cadre – and in turn save Scotland from the SNP’s indifference to public service failure.

Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org and served in the Scottish and European Parliaments for the Conservative and Brexit Parties respectively.

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