Euan McColm: That SNP reputation for competence is now in tatters

When the SNP won its first Holyrood election in 2007, it wasn’t swept to power on a wave of nationalist fervour. There were no bold promises about independence or claims that the Union had had its day.

Alex Salmond then SNP leader and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon stands with SNP's 47 newly elected MSP's after taking their oath in a swearing in ceremony at the Scottish Parliament May 9, 2007. Picture: Getty

In fact, in the foreign country of 13 years ago, the SNP was keen to play down the idea of breaking up the UK. Then leader Alex Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon assured small c conservative voters that a vote for their party was not necessarily a vote for independence.

Instead, their message was all about competence. If voters would give the Nationalists the opportunity to govern at Holyrood, said Salmond and Sturgeon, they would see that the SNP could be trusted to deliver in every area of policy.

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If you repeat a claim frequently enough, some people are going to start believing you and, so, the Nat mantra about competence cut though, not only with voters but with large sections of the media. That narrative has remained solid, even when reality has contradicted it.

The truth is that the SNP’s time in power has been characterised by caution rather than competence. Wherever possible, the Nats have shied away from taking difficult decisions, preferring instead to focus on a lower risk strategy of doing not very much at all.

Sure, there were those early, headline-grabbing policies - the abolition of prescription charges, for example - but of real reform there has been precious little. It’s easier to appear competent when you don’t take risks.

That SNP reputation for competence is now in tatters.

The scandal over this year’s exam results - explored in depth in today’s Scotland on Sunday by my colleague, Dani Garavelli - has shredded the reputation of deputy first minister, John Swinney. When Sturgeon appointed him to the post of education secretary, Swinney was regarded as the owner of the safest pair of hands in the Scottish Government. Now, he is the man who oversaw a system which penalised thousands of Scottish teenagers.

But this crisis is not the first piece of evidence to undermine the Nationalists’ story of competence. In a country where the constitutional question hadn’t created a new era of tribalism, it would have been the camel back-breaking straw.

Take, for example, the Scottish Government’s proposed new hate crime legislation, designed - say ministers - to guard against the stirring up of hatred. It is a mess that reveals a disturbing lack of intellectual rigour at the top of government.

The Scottish Police Federation - which represents 98 per cent of serving officers - has warned that the legislation would mean cops having to police speech. This, the organisation says, would damage relations with the public.

This warning is a compelling one. A bad law that would criminalise free speech, turning sincerely held opinions into matters for the courts, is the stuff of police states.

And it’s not just frontline officers who believe the Hate Crime Bill is desperately flawed, The Law Society of Scotland has said that freedom of expression could be threatened by a lack of clarity in the legislation.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf insists the government has been “absolutely explicit” that freedom of expression is not under attack but this reassurance is meaningless when the legislation as planned would mean police having to investigate instances where someone takes offence at the things others think or feel.

Calum Steele, general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, makes the not unreasonable point that there are already laws in place to address hate crimes. Those guilty of inciting racism, for example, can expect a knock on the door from plod without the need for a new law.

There are echoes, here, of the much unlamented Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, introduced by the SNP in 2012, ostensibly to crack down on sectarianism among supporters.

This shoddy legislation created a situation where someone might be found guilty of offensive behaviour even when there was nobody around to take offence. Police officers were asked to consider whether something said by an individual might have offended someone else had they heard it.

Unsurprisingly, serving officers believed they had more pressing matters to deal with than the policing of the songs football fans might sing.

The offensive behaviour law was a hastily cobbled together piece of legislation pitched to appeal to Scottish Catholics, many of whom had seen Labour as the best vehicle for tackling the discrimination they’d faced for decades.

It turned out that not all Catholics viewed their experience through the prism of unpleasant Old Firm rancour. Furthermore, Celtic supporters saw the act not as something which might end sectarianism but as something that would curtail their own free speech.

Supporters of both Rangers and Celtic united against the act and, following pressure from opposition politicians and the legal establishment, it was abolished in 2018.

Other Scottish Government departments compete in the incompetence challenge cup. Crises such as deaths from hospital acquired infections at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow and delays in opening the new sick kids facility in Edinburgh over hugely costly flaws in its construction point to serious failings in the Nationalists’ stewardship of the National Health Service. And even those prepared to make excuses for the SNP on these matters must surely struggle to excuse the fact that, as coronavirus spread, many elderly people were discharged - untested - from hospitals and sent to care homes where the virus claimed dozens of lives.

An especially grubby Nationalist tactic is to characterise legitimate criticism of government as an attack on frontline workers. Opposition politicians, goes the spin, don’t care about the issues they raise, they care only about undermining the NHS or attacking “hard-working” (they are always “hard-working”) teachers. Sometimes, the Nats’ opponents are guilty of that most egregious offence - “talking Scotland down”.

The most tribal of voters may find they are able to continue swallowing this stuff but others - among them, supporters of independence - might not.

The exams crisis will not easily be outrun by Nicola Sturgeon. Those who dig deeper will find it is just the tip of an iceberg of SNP incompetence.

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