Ever the underdog, Scotland may have been surprised to learn that it recently topped a league table: after 14 years of SNP rule we have the highest drug death rate in Europe.
And it gets worse – ours is the highest by far. With 295 deaths per million in Scotland, we have over 3 times the number of drug deaths than the next country on the list – Sweden, with just 81. The UK has 76.
But this article is not only about drug deaths. It is about the failure in social policy this tragic reality represents, and the opportunity to improve Scotland which the SNP traded off for the only cause they have advocated in 100 years: separation.
As I enter my mid-thirties, I have lived my entire adult life under SNP rule. At the age of 18, it made sense to me that a complacent and managerial Scottish Labour Party of 2007 lost to an invigorating and positive movement of fresh faces and fresh ideas. The front page of the SNP’s 2007 manifesto promised us, “A nation that is healthier, with vital health services kept local; communities that are safer with a more visible police presence…and families that are wealthier.”
One would struggle – even in all the pages of history – to find a political party which after so long in power fell quite so short of its own bar.
And what was the headline policy that ushered in this new era of change? – Their promise to cut class sizes to just 18 pupils. And yet here we are in 2021, with 1,700 fewer (full time equivalent) teachers than we started with, steadily declining academic standards in international league tables, and average class sizes of over 23.
The signs were clear to many Scots early on. As a student activist a decade ago, I was forced to campaign against the SNP’s devastating cuts to college education across our nation – which disproportionately impacted upon the lives of our poorest young men and women. And then I led students across Scotland to campaign nationally, resisting the SNP’s reintroduction of tuition fees. Scottish degrees remain amongst the most expensive in Europe for ‘rest of UK’ students.
And what was the SNP’s ‘big idea’ for getting to grips with Scotland’s appalling levels of crime? The dysfunctional Police Scotland. The amalgamation of Scotland’s historic forces placed all policing power into the pocket of the SNP. And so what was the insurance policy to guarantee against the politicisation of our police? The Scottish Police Authority: an organisation so toothless and ineffective it was described as “fundamentally flawed” by its own former Chair; ignored by the Chief Constable who had to out-source its work; and labelled ineffective to the Justice Committee by HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland.
Police Scotland’s first Chief was sacked, and its second forced to resign amid serious allegations. But its challenges went well beyond its management at the top. The SNP’s commitment to ‘1000 extra police officers’ was counteracted by compulsory redundancies of civilian staff, which pushed our most experienced officers into office functions. Response teams were merged and then cut. As a response officer in Edinburgh, I was regularly one of only 4 officers covering the whole of East Edinburgh on shift. Calls unanswered; appalling levels of enquiry into crime; brave officers and vulnerable communities let down.
Where was the radical shake-up of education and meaningful investments in social services? Where was the rewriting of criminal justice to deal with addiction, antisocial behaviour and repeat offenders? Where was the war on poverty? Perhaps the greatest irony of our government has been that in its pursuit of independence, our communities have been left so much less empowered. The fact that child poverty in Scotland has risen to an astonishing 1 in 4 (and forecast to grow even further) illustrates the magnitude of their failure.
Each life is precious, and weaves uniquely into the remarkable fabric we call our society. Like many of Scotland’s social challenges, the reasons behind drug deaths are complex. But they are rooted in a story of failing education standards, a broken criminal justice system, underperforming healthcare, and neglected social services. And when was the last time any of us had a meaningful policy debate about these core functions of government?
When we consider the direct results of these policy failures, we bring into sharp focus that the ‘enemy’ of our nation is not Westminster, the BBC, or the ‘establishment parties’. It is nationalism – the same divisive fallacy that promises us everything and yet offers us nothing.
Scotland’s drug death figures may have been a wakeup call to the SNP that they needed a new Minister for Public Health. But to our nation, they ought to serve as a wakeup call that we need a new type of politics: one which seeks progress and unity; rather than protest and division.
We cannot quantify the opportunities we have lost to nationalism. We will never know what could have been made of the lives and communities that have slipped through the fingers of our nationalist government over the last 14 years.
We have lost one generation. Let us ensure that we do not lose the next.