This is not just a matter of shame for Sturgeon’s government, it's a national emergency - Euan McColm

One of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s greatest political achievements is making a substantial number of Scots believe the SNP is a progressive party.

Under Sturgeon’s leadership, the nationalists have devoted their efforts to making life better for the affluent middle class but still the myth persists that, thanks to the SNP, Scotland is somehow a fairer and more compassionate country than England.

Particularly susceptible to this line of spin are London-based commentators who, when Sturgeon appears on UK-wide TV, are often to be found tweeting about how they’re moving to Scotland.

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But the Scotland of SNP spin bears little resemblance to reality.

A drug user prepares and injects heroine. Picture: ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images

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Scotland's drugs deaths: 'You keep talking, we keep dying'

Years of council tax freezes allied to expensive policies such as the extension of the free prescription scheme to include the wealthy and the abolition of university tuition fees have done nothing to make Scotland fairer. Rather, the haves have been given a bit more while the have-nots have been instructed to make do with less.

Forced to bear the impact of the policy to freeze council tax, local authorities have sliced away at vital support services which exist for the benefit of the most vulnerable in society. The cost of the policy is the increased misery of already desperate people.

Nothing smashes through the myth of Scotland as uniquely fair and compassionate than the horrifying rise in the number of drug deaths. Latest figures show there were 1,339 drug deaths last year, an increase of 75 from the 1,264 recorded the previous year.

Scotland maintains its position at the top of the European table of drug deaths. The Scottish rate is three and a half times that of England and Wales.

This is not just a matter of shame for Sturgeon’s government, it's a national emergency

Questioned in April about the year-on-year rise in drug deaths, Sturgeon said her government had taken its eye off the ball. This seems no less of an understatement today.

The truth is that this government turns a blind eye to the chaos caused by cuts to all sorts of vital social work services. Councils have been left to make difficult decisions on budgets while ministers scrub every last trace of responsibility off their hands.

Scottish Government spending on Drug and Alcohol Partnerships which commission treatment services dropped from £75.6m in 2014/15 to £70.8m in 2019/20.

Sturgeon may have said her government took its eye off the ball but ministers had their eyes on these figures. They knew they were cutting a lifeline during a growing crisis and they went ahead and did it without a thought about the inevitable effect.

The SNP enacted policies that benefitted the better off and the poorest suffered. Actions have consequences.

Sundry senior nationalist politicians issued statements following publication on Friday of the latest drug death figures.

Drugs minister Angela Constance offered condolences to those who had lost loved ones to drug abuse and reaffirmed her commitment “to do everything possible in our national mission to save and improve lives”.

Health secretary Humza Yousaf pledged there would be no attempt to shirk responsibility of deflect. Those who died and their families had been let down.

Sturgeon didn’t live up to Yousaf’s words. The number of deaths was unacceptable, each a human tragedy, and she would continue to argue for reform of drug laws not currently in the power of the Scottish Government.

No problem is so serious or complex that there can’t be a simplistic constitutional dimension to the solution.

SNP MP Tommy Sheppard was more explicit than Sturgeon when it came to spinning this disaster into an issue about the Union. He tweeted that major changes in UK law were required to really tackle the problem. If you’re looking for shamelessness, Sheppard’s your man.

A popular line of nationalist defence on this issue is to argue that ministers can’t properly tackle the problem of drug deaths while the UK Government continues to make drug consumption spaces illegal.

There may be an argument for making supervised drug-taking spaces available to those willing to use them but to paint such facilities as the cure-all is as simplistic as it is distasteful.

For the SNP, to govern is to campaign. At no point until Scotland is independent can that campaign stop. Sturgeon and her predecessor and mentor, Alex Salmond, have used the powers of government to enact policies which reinforce the idea of Scottish exceptionalism.

But all those things - the prescriptions for the rich, the tuition fees, the council tax freezes - come at a heavy cost to those with least.

There is no chance whatsoever of Sturgeon and her ministers making any progress towards cutting the number of drug deaths if they cling to the lie that drug consumption spaces are the easy answer.

The immediate challenge for the SNP is to restore funding to addiction support services. The Scottish Government promises £250million over the next five years to help bring down the drug death rate. This is a start.

The drug death crisis is, in part, a consequence of the SNP’s failure to consider - or refusal to care about - the impact its agenda of cutting frontline services would have. With ministers’ eyes fixed on the shiny prize of council tax freezes, they paid no heed to the future problems they were creating.

Nicola Sturgeon will continue to talk up her party’s progressive credentials but the rise in drug deaths gives weight to the charge that since coming to power she’s done more for the wealthy than she has for the poor.

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