Euan McColm: Nicola Sturgeon has taken her eye off the ball too often

FOR a politician so often praised for her communication skills, it was rather tone deaf. Asked during a leader’s debate on STV last week about Scotland’s dismal record on drug deaths, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said her government had taken its “eye off the ball”.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks to the media during a visit to the Thornliebank Dental Care centre in Glasgow during the election campaign.

At best, Sturgeon’s response was unduly flippant. At worst, it was downright cruel.

Scotland has the highest rate of drug deaths in Europe. In 2019, 1,264 lost their lives to their addictions and the rate is likely to have risen further during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Between 2015-19, Sturgeon’s government cut funding of drug and alcohol addiction services by £47million. Someone’s eye was on this particular ball and they felt these cuts were justified.

Meanwhile, the First Ministerial eye was very much on the ball when it came to ensuring the maintenance of giveaways to the wealthy.

Those “free” prescriptions for the middle classes, those council tax freezes, and those university tuition fees all come at a cost and it is perfectly clear that when it comes to the funding of shiny baubles to attract the support of middle Scotland, those paying the prices are those who can least afford to.

Since coming to power at Holyrood in 2007, the nationalists have talked a good game on creating a fairer, more progressive Scotland but the reality is that the focus of ministers has been on persuading more affluent Scots - those most likely to turn out on polling days - to stick with the SNP.

But while the better off have benefited from a range of policies which disproportionately favour them, the poorest have had to contend with cuts to a range of vital services. From social work to libraries to cleansing to addiction services, cuts have been the order of the day.

Sturgeon and her ministers are well practiced at dodging responsibility for any downside to their policy priorities.

If only Scotland had the financial levers of an independent country, they say, they would be able to put right what is wrong. If only Scotland were free of Westminster, the nation would flourish.

But it is not Westminster that decided to give free prescriptions to accountants in Morningside while cutting support services for families in Castlemilk. It is not Westminster that bears responsibility for Sturgeon’s failure to close the attainment gap between children from the wealthiest and the poorest backgrounds, it is nit Westminster that chose - last year - to send covid-infected patients from hospitals into nursing homes where the virus quickly spread with devastating effects.

The launch of the SNP’s 2021 election manifesto brought confirmation that the party remains hopelessly devoted to the retail politics. Sturgeon promises free dental care and a five-year income tax freeze, policies which - yet again - will be funded at the expense of unfashionable support for the poorest.

Sturgeon also promises pilot schemes for a four-day working week and universal income. Do not hold your breath for these schemes to lead to the adoption of either.

Along with these promises, Sturgeon continues to insist that it is her wish to hold a second independence referendum in the near future. This would take place as part of Scotland’s coronavirus recovery.

It’s pretty clear that her devoted supporters believe Sturgeon intends to deliver Indyref2 sometime during the next parliament.

That she has no power to do so – the authority to run a referendum resides with the UK Government – is neither here nor there. The true believers will believe what they wish to believe.

But if it really were the case that the First Minister had another referendum in her sights, surely her government would have made at least some progress towards drawing up a plan for how an independent Scotland might operate. Surely there would be answers on fundamental issues such as currency and borders.

Perhaps Sturgeon believes these issues won’t matter to voters if they are offered the chance of independence. Perhaps she knows that offer won’t be made any time soon.

And so Sturgeon plods on, leading a government that talks about progressive radicalism and acts with extreme caution. Her narrow focus remains on winning support for independence rather than building a Scotland fit to be independent.

I wonder how things will play out for Sturgeon in the next Scottish Parliament. Without doubt, she will lead the SNP to victory next month and return to her position as First Minister but with no authority to hold the referendum she promises her supporters, is there to be anything beyond more of the same tired blame game where every Scottish Government failure is to be read as an inevitable consequence of the Union?

Some close to Sturgeon suggest that, after 14 years in government and seven as First Minister, she may soon start considering a life beyond politics. If she is unable to deliver a second referendum, goes the logic, why shouldn’t she seek a new challenge while her stock remains high?

Whether there is more to this than mere idle speculation I cannot say but it certainly seems that Sturgeon will remain unable to move on the constitutional question until Prime Minister or whoever ultimately succeeds him decides that a second referendum no longer be delayed.

When, as she eventually will, Sturgeon does leave the stage, I wonder whether she will look back with pride om her achievements in Government.

Will she examine her cautious record and think that she spent her time well or will she think that, perhaps, she took her eye off the ball one too many times?