Ian Swanson: Will voters forgive and forget after SNP apologies?

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ANYONE can make a mistake – and politicians are no exception. It’s annoying for them to realise they are in the wrong, but usually admitting the error and saying sorry puts an end to the matter.

It can be slightly more embarrassing if the mistake is made as part of a scathing attack on an opponent, but even then there’s probably little harm done.

However, if you are the leader of a party with one overriding objective and you are carefully trying to build maximum public trust in your government, then being forced to apologise for misleading parliament risks undermining your efforts.

So just how damaging is it for Alex Salmond and the independence cause that he – and Education Secretary Mike Russell – had to say sorry to MSPs for wrongly claiming college funding was increasing when, in fact, it is being cut?

The SNP was re-elected last year because people saw Mr Salmond and his colleagues as a competent government which could be relied on to stand up for Scotland.

The basis of the Nationalists’ strategy for winning the 2014 referendum is to show that the party can be trusted in power and persuade voters they could do even better with independence.

So if that trust and that competence are called into question, it is not just individuals’ reputations which are at stake, but their mission to deliver an independent Scotland.

“It’s damaging, of course it is,” says one SNP insider. “Independence is the big prize and everything has to be seen in that light. This hasn’t been handled well.”

Both Mr Salmond and Mr Russell have insisted their use of incorrect figures was an honest mistake, based on information that was supplied to them by officials and quoted in good faith.

Opposition politicians have pointed out that the correct figures had already been published by the Scottish Government and Mr Russell had admitted to the education committee last month that funding had fallen.

It didn’t help that after giving the wrong figures at First Minister’s Questions, Mr Salmond confidently dismissed a challenge from Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont by saying he had provided “as exact an answer as anyone has ever given to parliament”.

The details of college funding and the Scottish Government’s budget figures may not be the favourite topic of debate in the bars and bus queues of Scotland, but the fact that the First Minister had to apologise to parliament has not gone unnoticed.

One senior opposition politician says: “People may not know what all the issues are, but they do get the impression they’re ‘at it’. And when people think a government is ‘at it’ they are in trouble.”

The apologies from Messrs Salmond and Russell come soon after the controversy over the First Minister’s apparent claim in a TV interview that the Scottish Government had obtained legal advice over whether an independent Scotland would get automatic membership of the European Union, only for his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, to tell MSPs no such advice had been sought.

But the latest row also comes against a backdrop of remarkable levels of continuing popularity for a government which has been in power for more than five years. A poll last month found 54 per cent of Scots were happy with the performance of the SNP administration, while 39 per cent were dissatisfied. That gave the Scottish Government a net rating of +15, compared with the UK Government’s -40 score across the country.

Opposition MSPs believe the college funding apologies have given them a useful weapon against the SNP. One says: “We can say to people, ‘They once said they had legal advice Scotland would get automatic membership of the EU, then it turned out they hadn’t even asked for legal advice. They claimed college funding was going up, then had to admit it was being cut. How can we believe anything they say?’

“They have bounced back from other problems and they will bounce back from this, but they will never be as invincible again.”