The SNP needs to confront its incompetence - Dani Garavelli

The People’s Pantry, which sells subsidised food to members, was an inspired choice of venue for an SNP election campaign event.

In Govanhill - the most contested part of Nicola Sturgeon’s constituency - this shop provides a less stigmatised alternative to food banks. The First Minister hoped to draw attention to Boris Johnson's lack of action over the drop in our standard of living. You could quibble about the relevance of this to the forthcoming council vote. But hey, that’s politics. And the fear of being pushed to the financial brink is currently uppermost in voters’ minds.

In the end, though, the opportunity to expose the Tories' inadequate response - and for others to ask if the SNP is doing any better - was scuppered by a skirmish over the failure to invite print journalists. The SNP argued over semantics, pointing out the event was not - as some had suggested - the manifesto launch, rather the launch of the campaign (as if this made a substantive difference). The reporters felt snubbed, then turned up anyway. All of which ensured the next day’s narrative was not “Sturgeon says the Conservatives are failing the worst-off”, but “the SNP shuns scrutiny”.

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From an outside perspective, I realise this could be viewed as fuss about nothing; or worse, as a display of journalistic hubris. The self-importance of reporters puffing themselves up as newspaper sales plummet. Why should Sturgeon subject herself to their relentless negativity? And so on from those who think the SNP ought to have a free pass. But firstly, it is the role of reporters (print or otherwise) to interrogate the party of government, especially after 15 years in power. When Johnson picks and chooses who should attend his press conferences he is derided. The same should be true of Scotland’s politicians. And, secondly, the SNP must know it has gained a reputation for obfuscation which it is only consolidating with such pettiness.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at The People's Pantry food cooperative as part of the Scottish National Party (SNP) manifesto launch on April 8. Picture: Andy Buchanan - Pool/Getty Images

This reputation is not unearned; nor is SNP slipperiness a figment of journalists’ imaginations. The war of attrition against print reporters has been subtle but corrosive. There have been snide comments aimed at reporters from right-wing publications who have as much right to challenge the SNP’s policies as left-wing publications have to challenge Johnson’s. Some print journalists were prevented from asking questions at the launch of the National Strategy for Economic Transformation. Ditto at the National Economic Forum.

On their own, these exclusions might be dismissed as incidental. But they build on a perception of entitlement that is a not uncommon product of long, uninterrupted spells of power, particularly when there is no real threat on the horizon.

The first warning signs could be seen in the SNP's attitude towards Freedom of Information requests: the length of time taken to reply and the number of redactions when the response finally came. In 2018, the Information Commission took the Scottish government to task for operating a “twin-track” system, with extra barriers put in place if an applicant was a journalist or opposition politician. Or if the request was seen as potentially embarrassing. More recently, an intervention by the then Economy Secretary Fiona Hyslop contributed to a delay in the publication of the number of Covid deaths in care homes.

The Scottish Government’s behaviour during the parliamentary inquiry into the handling of the initial sexual harassment allegations against Alex Salmond did nothing to counter suspicions of opacity. It was not the only offender; most of those involved had to be pushed to produce documents sought by the committee. But the government’s heel-dragging over an investigation into a process it accepted it had botched left a sour taste in the mouth.

And look at what's happening with the CalMac ferries. The Scottish Government awarded a £97m contract to Ferguson Marine Shipyard despite being warned it posed a risk to taxpayers. Now the ferries are five years late and could cost more than £250m. This scale of scandal would once have led to resignations. But instead we have seen a round of Pass the Blame-Parcel, with those in charge of the music making sure it stopped initially at Derek Mackay, the one politician who, by dint of his "disgrace", was already out of the game. Less conveniently, the owner of Ferguson’s, Jim McColl, says he believes current Justice Secretary Keith Brown signed off the deal. A fortnight on, Sturgeon has expressed "regret" to those island communities affected. But there has been nothing approaching accountability.

The reason the SNP continues to walk elections despite its failures (education, local government reform, drugs deaths) is the conviction many people have that - unlike the Tories - the party at least means well, particularly on immigration and children. It also benefits from being able to shrug and say: “If only we had independence, we could do more." This is sometimes true and sometimes a deflection. It is never an excuse for doing nothing at all.

The SNP - and Sturgeon in particular - have perfected a very particular sleight of hand; they pass off an apology and the expression of a desire to do better as a taking of responsibility when it is nothing of the sort. You can see why people fall for it. If you cast your eyes south, the Scottish Government shines like a beacon of moral rectitude.

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Acknowledging failure is better than not acknowledging failure; just as having good intentions is better than being motivated only by your own ego. But after 15 years, good intentions are not enough. It’s long past the time to confront incompetence. To stop being defensive. And to allow those tasked with scrutinising their performance to get on with their jobs.

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