How SNP’s 13 years in Government has led to a shocking sense of entitlement – Richard Leonard

The Scottish Government needs to make sure that transparent standards are set and adhered to for everything from public procurement to safeguarding, writes Richard Leonard.

It’s not good enough for Nicola Sturgeon to say things are worse in ‘Labour-run Wales’ (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)
It’s not good enough for Nicola Sturgeon to say things are worse in ‘Labour-run Wales’ (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)

Edinburgh’s beleaguered new Sick Kids hospital is in the headlines again – and needless to say, it doesn’t make good reading for Jeane Freeman. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has been accused of lying by Brian Houston, the former chair of NHS Lothian. In an extraordinary and outspoken interview, he said it was not the case that Freeman had overruled the health board in delaying the new hospital’s opening. “Nobody was arguing with the decision having been taken,” Houston said, “but to come out and say she was over-ruling NHS Lothian was a lie.”

Not for the first time, it is only thanks to senior officials speaking out that we have learned of a flagrant abuse of power at the heart of Government. The ongoing saga of the troubled Ferguson Marine ferries contract has been peppered at every stage with accounts contradicting the Government’s official version of events. The £97 million that the two ferries were supposed to cost has now spiralled to over £230 million. But ministers are still resisting calls for a public inquiry, including calls from Ferguson’s boss Jim McColl, who has accused former Finance Secretary Derek Mackay of “defamatory” comments.

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As if that’s not enough cause for concern, a director of the state-owned firm responsible for procuring CalMac infrastructure accepted hospitality from a company which has been awarded £26 million of contracts from the firm in recent years – and during a live tendering process for a further £20 million of work to boot. Needless to say, it was not addressed until probing BBC journalists began to ask questions.

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The Sick Kids debacle is linked to one of the Scottish Government’s most questionable practices of all – its close ties with corporate lobbyists. IHSL, the private consortium set up to design, build and run the facility, has employed Charlotte Street Partners – the firm run by former MSP and Sustainable Growth Commission chair Andrew Wilson – to do its spinning. CSP boasts on its website of having the “know-how” to help private clients “whether it’s a bid for a new franchise or contract” and former SNP press chief Kevin Pringle is another partner in the firm.

The flagship Scottish National Investment Bank, meanwhile, is also raising questions over SNP ministers’ behaviour. The SNP’s own Bill Kidd, convener of Holyrood’s Standards Committee, has formally voiced concerns over the appointment of Willie Watt as the bank’s chairman. After Watt’s appointment in an “unregulated” interview process, Kidd asked Mackay’s successor “to confirm that Mr Watt was a fit and proper person for the position”. Mr Watt was appointed despite being the chief executive of an equity firm that was fined £8.6million in the UK and America over a conflict of interests scandal.

Having been in power for almost 13 years, the SNP has developed a sense of entitlement that has led it to justifying the unjustifiable, and bending the truth in the belief the voting public will never get to learn what is really happening.

And the pattern appears to be established from the top. Each time I raise the SNP’s record of public service failures at First Minister’s Questions, she responds with an entirely predictable but entirely specious defence. Whether it’s shifting the blame to Westminster or saying things are worse in “Labour-run Wales”, the First Minister takes offence at anyone who dares do their job of holding her to account.

‘I’d call him a predator’

It could be argued that this is just the state of politics. But there is a darker side to this too – exemplified by the recent resignation of Derek Mackay after it was revealed he had sent hundreds of text messages to a teenager. If it is true that, as Mackay joked at the 2017 conference, Nicola Sturgeon had banned him from the pub after conference events, it again points to a pattern of intolerable behaviour being tolerated for as long as it is outside the public eye.

Power played a central role in Mackay’s interactions, whether he was conscious of this or not. The mother of the 16-year-old targeted by the former Finance Secretary said: “Someone like Derek Mackay has a serious job and should be setting an example — not using his job and power for selfish reasons.” And Shaun Cameron, an SNP party activist, said he felt “pressurised” by Mackay “because I didn’t want to lose my position. It’s 100 per cent that there was a power dynamic… He was abusing his position of power. I’d call him a predator.”

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An SNP source has briefed the media that Mackay’s future at Holyrood, which he is currently absent from, is “literally nobody else’s decision but his now”. While it might be true that the party cannot force him to resign his seat, it is a striking abdication of responsibility to suggest that the continuation in office of a person elected as a party representative now has nothing whatsoever to do with that party. It’s time to again consider how a recall process for MSPs could work – and not allow it to be rejected outright as it was in 2018.

Action from public only a matter of time

Looking ahead, there is also a need for all parties seeking government to consider how, in office, we remain open and accountable. It is simply not enough to respond to abuses of power – personal or political – when they come under scrutiny from the press.

We must ensure that from public procurement to safeguarding, transparent standards are set and adhered to, so that people can have confidence that politicians are governing in the common interest, and not simply in their own.

With power, not least 13 years in Government, comes great responsibility, and alongside that must come accountability.

In a democracy, sovereignty lies with the people and they merely lend power to those they elect to represent them.

When that power is misused or abused, it is only a matter of time before there is a surge in reaction, resistance and action from below. That day is coming.

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Richard Leonard is leader of Scottish Labour and MSP for Central Scotland

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