You might find it hard to believe, but this here burd has been hovering over devolution since its inception/reconvening in 1999. I really have seen them all come and go, heard it all before, and am often amazed at having any smidgeon of idealism left. I do – I have plenty, probably more than it deserves frankly. One day, I’m sure, I’ll be stuffed and mounted in a suitably obscure nook and cranny in Holyrood. This burd woz here.
The earliest days of the Scottish Parliament were like an adult version of How do they do that. Suddenly a sharp and invasive light was being shone on the workings of government and politicians were lining civil servants up to explain themselves and their arcane workings. Learning to be accountable – or at least to give sufficient semblance of it so that the parties and their sniffer dogs would go away – was something they learned fast. They had to.
There were a number of stushies and scandals in the early days. The biggest was something or other to do with exams and the SQA. I’d go and google it if I could be bovvered but it is a sign of how things were in those frantic early times that the headlines were dominated for weeks by an issue that caused the nascent Labour-Liberal Democrat administration no end of pain but which now, few can remember the detail of. Whatever, accountability for errors was demanded and truly received. Various mandarins’ heads appeared on plates, the quango was reformed and we all moved on.
It’s hard to believe – it’s the kind of tale that historians will recount incredulously, I feel – that we lost a First Minister due to nothing very much at all. Henry McLeish fell on his sword not because of double accounting of office sub-lets, rents and parliamentary allowances, but because he could not explain himself on the telly. I can recall his appearance on BBC Question Time with every toe-curling utterance; by the time Dimbleby had finished with him, I was literally in the foetal position. But to have an FM resign over this? Yep, welcome to the bright, new shiny dawn of Scottish politics where we expect whiter than white and the ability to string a sentence together.
Then we lost a Conservative leader over claiming the odd taxi erroneously for parliamentary responsibilities when he had in fact been on party business. That little episode was accompanied by the frantic rustling of expense claims all over the old PHQ (it’s now the Missoni Hotel) as staffers and MSPs combed through years’ worth of theirs. There was also an awful lot of emptying of piggy banks as rogue taxi journeys were suddenly repaid.
When McLetchie finally did the decent thing and took the fall so no-one else had to – good job really or we might not have had an MSP left – the collective sigh of relief was tangible. No one, least of all McLetchie who seems like a pretty honourable and straight up and down man to me, had ever claimed a taxi journey not quite for purely parliamentary business deliberately; but that wasn’t the point. Blood was scented, the political hack-pack got its dander up, and a resignation became inevitable. In Scotland, like the best, wee country in the world we had become, we like our scandals wee as well.
Over the years, everyone settled down into a rhythm and it all became rather anodyne. And something key changed the political dynamic, in that the SNP decided to focus on the pursuit of power instead of settling for harrying in opposition. The rest, as they say, is history.
Once in power, the SNP, having largely forged its political craft in opposition, knew exactly the kind of pitfalls and traps it had to avoid. Its ability to manage the agenda was made easier thanks largely to the redoubtable and remarkable talents of Kevin Pringle, for whom sleep and holidays are anathema. Labour, meanwhile, has struggled to work out which way up one opens the box marked opposition and changes in the ranks of political journalists and the loss of specialist correspondents, as well as introspective concern for their own industry’s fortunes, seemed to sap the media’s energy for political dust-ups.
All these – and many more – factors have conspired to provide the SNP with a charmed life.
How else to explain how the SNP escaped unscathed from having the most MSPs, including high-ranking government ministers, of any of the parties to use (and some might say, misuse) the parliamentary allowance scheme which allowed them to purchase flats in Edinburgh, pay the mortgages at the taxpayers’ expense and then sell them, pocketing the often huge capital gain in the process. Some deigned to offer to pay the capital gains tax – has anyone bothered to check if they did? We did nothing wrong was the cry at the time, but it didn’t seem very right either.
Currently, we have a brew of incompetence and intransigence of potentially enormous proportions in the failure of the education system and its serried ranks of vested interests to implement in any meaningful fashion the Curriculum for Excellence. A few weeks ago, the Education Secretary assured us the final and vital phase relating to a switch in exam qualifications would go ahead. Then he was forced to throw some money at it to help make this happen and now, he has had to offer schools the opportunity to delay if they need to. Today, the teachers’ unions are bleating for still more concessions.
This is the major flagship education reform of our time. It is huge and has been nine years in the making. Work started on implementation as soon as the SNP came into power, five years ago. And still we are not ready. To be fair to Mike Russell, he inherited this mess rather than made it and is doing his best to sort it out. But failure to get this right threatens the life chances of a generation of Scots – it is that serious. And yet, no one has suggested that heads need to roll. He is clearly deploying a policy of appeasement in order to get the job done but surely at some point, there needs to be accountability. The problem is that having learned how to be accountable, many have spent these middle years of devolution mastering the art of how to bury the evidence and get away with it.
Health might prove a turning point. This week, we’ve had not one but two stones skimmed across the political pond, and they are creating a bit of a bounce. In the Health Secretary’s back yard, Labour alleged that old people were being left to shiver without blankets in hospital. Nonsense cried the Government, but then Labour presented the First Minister with Exhibit A – the pensioners in person – this week in Holyrood. One example does not a scandal make, but if Labour can find more hospital patients experiencing the same indignities, they might be on to something.
If they want to land a blow on the Health Secretary, they have their work cut out. What’s the best way to diffuse a potential timebomb? Announce it yourself. Hence, Nicola Sturgeon, whose political streetsmarts were always way beyond her relatively tender years, laid bare the false accounting of waiting times going on at NHS Lothian and condemned it utterly. Labour is now asking for an audit in other health board areas. Deliberate massaging of key health policy is unforgiveable and if there has been wholesale fraud – in its truest sense – then an awful lot of senior health managers and chairpersons might want to start clearing their desks.
At last, Labour is showing small signs of getting its act together in being able to nose out potential scandals that might stick. To date, the Scottish Government has shown huge skill at delivering on manifesto headlines, even if the reality behind the scenes is much less clearcut. It has bossed the news agenda to a remarkable degree (despite what the SNP rank and file might think); its attitude to government enthused many government officers and that helped things along. This gloss, in particular, is wearing thin and implementation “issues” are starting to appear. Crucially too, the SNP has also enjoyed a very large dollop of luck.
So far, the wind has been set fair for this Scottish Government; it will be interesting to see how it copes with a change in direction and these, and other as yet unidentified, squalls on the horizon.