Why is Nicola Sturgeon so poor with numbers? Brian Monteith

Why is it the First Minister is so poor with numbers? I’ve often wondered this as previous occupants of her hot seat were rarely flustered by questions that might involve basic arithmetic, the recall of amounts, handling equations or the meaning of differing statistics.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon delivering an update statement is streamed on a smartphone during a virtual session of the Scottish Parliament

Indeed, one might think being the chief accountable person for the Scottish Government’s finances – ahead of the Finance Secretary, whom she can of course dismiss – a grasp of basic finance, economics and maths would be de rigueur? Apparently not.

Jack McConnell, for instance, was a maths teacher in his former life and famously would correct his political opponents’ use of statistical terms when they could not tell the difference between averages, means and medians.

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I’m not saying a First Minister must have an accountancy qualification or maths degree – or have worked in private sector financial services, maybe the collection of taxes or some other public finance role. The post must be open to all. But if not having the experience of such roles one might expect an ability to communicate using everyday examples – like Margaret Thatcher used to use the weekly shopping basket to discuss inflation and balancing the budget.

Well, if she has such an ability Nicola Sturgeon does not seem to use it, for of late she appears to have lost the ability to work with numbers.

This would be bad enough in the good times, when the numbers are helpful, but now in the bad, indeed very bad times when the numbers are frightening her weakness is openly exposed.

One set of numbers especially close to home is the news that Bute House, the First minister’s official residence at Charlotte Square, is to have a new heating system installed so it can be a physical example of the Scottish Government’s commitment to Net Zero climate policy.

What this actually means is the existing heating system, running on gas, will need to have that replaced and new systems put in its place. Bute House will become a showpiece for what Net Zero means. Ordinary people will be quick to recognise they don’t stay in a beautiful Georgian town house designed by Robert Adam with countless bedrooms, dining rooms, drawing rooms, reception rooms, and all the ancillary rooms and grand stairs such a beautiful edifice requires.

Nevertheless, a house large or small, palatial or modest, requires heating and hot water, so ordinary people can relate to their own needs and what the Net Zero policy could mean for them. It would be helpful politically if Net Zero could be shown to maybe save householders money – or at least not cost them more – as well as saving the planet, so using the First Minister’s official residence must have sounded like a brilliant wheeze. One can just hear one of the First Minister’s 49 (and counting) advisors advocating it with relish.

Unfortunately, the numbers don’t look too good, and even someone numerically challenged might be expected to spot this. The cost of ripping out and replacing the current system is estimated at £807,038 – a sum more than all but a select few of Scottish voters would spend on buying their houses in their lifetime, never mind just the heating system.

This follows the upgrading of the current Bute House heating system less than four years ago in 2018 at £202,119. That tidy sum has now been written-off by the latest decision.

All of this is because new SNP-Green coalition legislation will be introduced requiring homeowners to install “zero or very near-zero emissions heating systems”, in areas off-the-gas grid from 2025, on-the-gas grid from 2030 and all buildings converted to “zero emissions” by 2045. The total cost is currently priced at £33 billion, but Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP-Green coalition has only announced £1.8 billion of support, turning out at less than £1,800 per household.

Scaling the Bute House refit down to ordinary housing is expected to cost homeowners tens of thousands – so Bute House confirms, unhelpfully for Sturgeon, that householders can expect great expense for such climate change policies.

Unfortunately, voters concerned about these numbers might find it difficult to avoid them – something that Nicola Sturgeon is clearly banking on, for there is no opposition party in Holyrood that is against the Net Zero policy. Yes, that’s right, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems all support it to varying degrees and are more concerned about arguing for greater taxpayer subsidies to homeowners to make the change – rather than calling it out as utter madness.

Holyrood’s Scottish Tories, usually keen to be seen as Boris-baters, actually agree with the Prime Minister on his Net Zero approach – so who does a voter turn to? Could the issue be the making of a new party – like Reform UK – to give people a voice? Surely someone has to.

Then there were the numbers surrounding Omicron cases in Scottish hospitals – which the First Minister had trouble revealing – yet she made decisions that closed down New Year hospitality based on numbers. Or was she just acting on a hunch?

Now the numbers are out they don’t support the decision she made. Businesses will go bust.

A new numbers game, finding out why Nicola Sturgeon’s Government turned down a bid for Prestwick Airport by a Swedish company willing to invest as much as £70 million into the taxpayer-owned loss-maker is the next puzzle.

When it comes to numbers the First Minister seems in need of an abacus. In the meantime hard-pressed taxpayers must be wishing her political number was up.

Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org and a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments.

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