How the SNP is using independence to distract voters from mounting problems – Murdo Fraser MSP

Unionists have been joined by some Nationalists in criticising Nicola Sturgeon but for different reasons (Picture: Robert Perry/pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Unionists have been joined by some Nationalists in criticising Nicola Sturgeon but for different reasons (Picture: Robert Perry/pool/AFP via Getty Images)
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The Labour-Liberal coalition and the early SNP governments can point to some achievements, but after 13 years in power the Nationalists are out of ideas, writes Murdo Fraser MSP.

It seems like a long time ago now, but there was a day when the Scottish Parliament spent its time discussing matters other than another independence referendum, and what flag should be flown outside the main entrance.

In the early days of Holyrood, there was a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition Government, under the stewardship respectively of Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish, and Jack McConnell. Despite all its faults, this was a Government which at least tried to improve Scotland’s lot within the United Kingdom.

Viewed through the lens of history, the eight years of coalition Government is generally seen as dull and unadventurous, but this underestimates some of the significant policy initiatives – free care for the elderly and the ban on smoking in public places, prominent amongst them.

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And yet, in 2007, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were swept from power by Alex Salmond’s SNP, with a new administration promising more energy and imagination. It was a Government which hit the ground running with populist initiatives such as scrapping the tolls on the Forth and Tay Bridges.

Man for man and woman for woman, the new SNP Cabinet were seen as higher quality than the individuals they replaced, and First Minister Alex Salmond had a personality that would give Scotland’s Government publicity on an international scale.

Tired and out of ideas

The SNP’s strategy in the early years of their administration was clear. Without a majority in Parliament to support an independence referendum, it needed to demonstrate competence in government. If the SNP could demonstrate that, with the limited powers at their disposal at the time, they could run Scotland more effectively than those who had gone before, that would strengthen the argument for additional responsibilities to be transferred to Holyrood, perhaps even full independence.

It was an approach that appeared to be working when, in 2011, the SNP won a landslide victory with an overall majority of seats at Holyrood for the first time ever.

How different the picture looks today. After 13 years in government, this is a party now looking tired and out of ideas, with a crumbling domestic record on the issues that really matter to the public.

On education, the most recent Pisa figures have recorded our worst ever results in science and maths, teacher numbers are lower today than they were when the SNP took power, and we learned last week that the Government is set to miss its own targets to improve attainment amongst pupils in deprived areas. Despite being elected in 2007 on a promise to wipe out student debt, Scotland’s students have an accumulated debt that has doubled over the past decade.

Drug-death crisis

When it comes to the NHS, we have now no fewer than six geographical health boards in special measures, due to performance and management issues. The 12-week treatment guarantee has never been met under the SNP Government, and barely three in four patients are seen within an 18-week referral to treatment period.

We heard last week that as many as 80 children could have contracted infections at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow, and the new Sick Kids Hospital in Edinburgh is years late and costing the tax payer £1.4m a month.

Scotland is now the worst place in the EU for drug deaths after the sharpest-ever rise in fatalities, following a reduction in rehabilitation beds by 80 per cent since the SNP came to office. The number of young people waiting for a referral for mental health treatment is increasing, with more children waiting longer than a year.

There are problems with the police, so severe that the Chief Constable Iain Livingston has spoken out against underfunding by the Scottish Government, with 750 officers’ jobs at risk. The police estate is in the worst condition it has ever been, with the roof literally falling in at the Justice Secretary’s local station in Broughty Ferry.

Ferries fiasco

On the economy, the situation is little better, the latest figures tell us that over the past year the economy in Scotland grew at less than half the UK rate. The estimated overall size of the Scottish economy, its GDP, has just been revised downwards from £180 billion to £175bn, driving our notional deficit up from seven per cent to 7.2 per cent.

The employment gap between Scotland and the rest of the UK is now at its highest for two decades, at two per cent, representing at least 30,000 adults of working age who are economically inactive, who could be contributing to Scotland’s economy, driving forward growth, and generating taxed revenue.

We have seen the ferries fiasco, where we are looking at a £100-million overspend for the delivery of two CalMac ferries by the Ferguson Yard in Inverclyde, a contract running at least two years late with a whole host of unanswered questions as to why the yard was given the contract in the first place, and why Scottish ministers sat on their hands when they should have been intervening at a far earlier stage, instead of watching taxpayers’ money being wasted and island communities badly let down.

Woeful 13-year record

It is no wonder that the SNP does not want to hold parliamentary debates on the issues under their stewardship, and would rather spend their time discussing the constitution. It is in this context that Nicola Sturgeon’s latest initiatives on independence need to be seen.

A new constitutional convention, or asking the Electoral Commission to test a potential referendum question, will do nothing to improve health, education, or local services in Scotland.

It won’t improve Scottish GDP, create a single new job, or increase tax revenues. What they will do, however, is attempt to distract the public away from a woeful record of 13 years in office.

The backlash to the First Minister’s speech on Friday was significant because it came not just from pro-Union politicians and voters, tired of a Government posturing on constitutional questions and neglecting the day job.

It came equally from many Nationalist supporters who have been led up the garden path on the issue of another independence referendum, and feel badly let down by a First Minister who is now conceding that nothing is going to happen on that front for at least another year.

By the time we get to the Holyrood elections in 2021, this SNP Government will have been in office for 14 years, and will not be able to escape being judged on its domestic record, no matter how much it wants to talk about independence in that campaign. Any sense that the quality of Scottish ministers could be seen as an electoral asset is now long gone – 2007 seems like a long time ago.

Murdo Fraser is a Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife