Euan McColm: Misguided voters let SNP win the blame game

Those who blame Whitehall for shortcomings in the NHS appear to be unaware that health care has been devolved. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty
Those who blame Whitehall for shortcomings in the NHS appear to be unaware that health care has been devolved. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty
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Prospects for the opposition are bleak while the government continues to escape criticism for its failures and gain credit for others’ success, writes Euan McColm

Some years ago, I was invited to a press conference organised by a group of actors. Like the fool I am, I agreed to attend. A small band of thesps were angry about the existence of a detention centre for illegal immigrants and wanted all of Scotland to follow their lead in demanding MSPs close it down.

The nationalists’ campaign to make Westminster the source of all ill can now be judged a great success

Being actors, they all had to do a turn, and so there was a series of impassioned but slightly hammy speeches to be endured before an invitation for questions from the assembled hacks (I think there were four of us).

I wanted to know something: why, since the existence of this detention centre was a matter for Westminster rather than Holyrood, were they demanding people contact their MSPs? Wouldn’t it make sense to direct the campaign towards people with responsibility and put the focus on MPs?

The actor sitting stage-left looked at me as if I were stupid before confirming that, in fact, he was.

“I don’t care who’s responsible,” he said, “I just want something done about it.”

This cocktail of piety, idiocy and petulance was heady indeed but I struggled on and asked what it was he thought might be done when Holyrood had no authority?

“I think I’ve answered your question,” he said.

I thought, well, you haven’t, but I was in no mood to get into a pointless to and fro with an actor in high dudgeon; actors are at their trickiest in that state. This fellow had spent considerable time and effort – and more than a few quid – being furious with MSPs and he was in no mood to change his mind. I’d tried to explain the reality and it had only made him angry. I said no more and returned to my office, where, naturally, I wrote a snarky little piece about daft actors.

I was struck back then by how readily those chaps ignored the facts of the matter. They had decided to be furious with what was then the Labour-Lib-Dem Scottish Executive at Holyrood and that was that.

It appears this defiance of reality has spread from the acting community (why can’t they live among themselves? I don’t mind them having actors’ opinions as long as they don’t ram them down my throat) and into the wider population.

The latest findings of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey show that voters are plenty keen to criticise the wrong politicians for perceived failings.

Take the NHS: in 2015, two-fifths of Scots said they thought the standard of the National Health Service had fallen while a little more than one in ten saw some improvements.

Of those critical of the NHS, 48 per cent blamed the UK government, compared with just 19 per cent who held the Scottish Government accountable. The NHS is, of course, fully devolved. The Scottish Government is entirely responsible for the running of the health service yet it wriggles almost completely off the hook when it comes to public anger over standards.

Then there’s the public attitude to the economy. In 2015, 26 per cent of Scots believed the economy had strengthened over the previous year. Of those, 54 percent gave credit for this to the Scottish Government while only 16 per cent felt the UK government had been responsible.

We know, because the Scottish Government’s figures on expenditure and revenue tell us, that Scotland would be an economic disaster zone if the SNP had won the referendum, yet Westminster gets no credit for the crucial role it currently plays in protecting spending in Scotland.

The SNP has performed a remarkable piece of sleight of hand. It has managed to avoid criticism for things it has done wrong and win praise for things it hasn’t done at all.

This state of affairs is bleak, indeed, for opposition parties, already bracing themselves for a drubbing in May’s Holyrood election. Labour or Tory candidates may have perfectly legitimate things to say about the state of the NHS in Scotland but most of those listening will be satisfied to blame Prime Minister David Cameron.

The SNP, it seems, is impervious to attack.

In her speech to last weekend’s SNP conference, Nicola Sturgeon knocked on the head the notion of a swift second independence referendum. All that bluff and bluster about the result of the EU vote creating a trigger for another attempt to break up the UK was forgotten and, in its place, was the calm insistence that a new case for independence had to be carefully built.

Sturgeon signalled that she’s in this for the long run and the question is whether, as she turns her focus away from the constitution and on to the domestic agenda, she can continue to avoid criticism when it’s due and win praise when it isn’t.

The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey suggests the First Minister has little to worry about, right now. Last year, 73 per cent of Scots said they trusted the SNP government to act in Scotland’s best long-term interests. Just 23 percent said the same of the UK government. A great many of those who voted No in the 2014 referendum believe in the SNP as a force for good.

The nationalists’ campaign to make Westminster the source of all ill can now be judged a great success. Scots believe Sturgeon’s government listens and that Holyrood gives “ordinary people” a greater say in the way Scotland’s run.

The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey certainly shows that Scots are engaged with politics but it also shows a fairly relaxed approach to detail.

Perhaps, just as those actors had decided to be angry with Holyrood, many Scots have simply decided to be angry with Westminster. There are, of course, many good reasons one could give for fury so directed.

But this unfocused rage is not going to do anything to improve the NHS. In fact, all it does is let the Scottish Government get away with its ongoing lack of action in the service.

That actor who got snippy with me was wrong not to care who was responsible for the detention centre if he wanted something done. It’s always important to understand where blame lies.