TODAY’S column begins with me going to the pub and drinking Guinness, but bear with me because the pub I visited, and where it is, and the people I was with, all of it does matter. And there’s truth to be found in pubs. Even late on Friday night. Especially late on Friday night. And it raises a big question: what are reasonable people to do about the state of Scotland’s government?

Just so you know, I was at the pub for a good reason: it was open, or at least the pub garden was, and it was raucous and controversial like I remember it. A group of Rangers fans were in doing the groundwork for their march on Saturday and were clearly in no mood to be told they shouldn’t be gathering in groups. The landlady of the pub also told me how hard the crisis had been on her and about a face-to-face confrontation she’d had with the First Minister. And in the middle of it all – the chat, the arguing, the noise – was me, looking at my pint of Guinness like it was a miracle.

I have rarely been so angry about a news item. Two days after Nicola Sturgeon boasted of her historic election victory, promising a second referendum – “it’s the will of the country”, she said – a report revealed the harrowing truth about Scotland under a nationalist government.

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research – a respected independent research body – said that there are now 51,100 Scots living in extreme poverty. Destitute. Nearly five times the number there were in March 2020.

Destitute evokes of images of Victorian levels of poverty, with families surviving on nothing but foraged scraps of food. It is reminiscent of the Great Depression of the 1930s, where desolate men wandered Britain in search of work, any work, to feed their children.

It says homeless, hungry, dirty for lack of water and soap. It reeks of despair. And 51,100 of our fellow Scots are living in such poverty, defined as a single person with an income of less than £70 a week or a couple with less than £100. Your neighbour could be destitute, the mum at the school gate you say hello to every morning, your son or daughter.

My anger went off the scale on Thursday, when another body, the Legatum Institute, found that Scotland has the poorest performing education sector in the UK. And on the same day, this newspaper revealed that the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) consistently downgraded the results of the poorest candidates compared to the richest pupils.

Poverty in Scotland doesn’t just affect your daily life, it damages your future too…

But why am I so frustrated? Poverty is not a new phenomenon. Nor is the postcode lottery of education. I still recall, with a shudder, my weekly supermarket trips in the 1980s, where I prayed I would have enough money in my tattered purse to buy the cheap sausages, mince and tatties that were my family’s staple diet. And Scots long told ourselves that our schools were the best and most egalitarian in the world, when the reality was often so very different.

I am angry because since 1999 Scotland has had one of the most powerful devolved legislatures in the world. Our Scottish Parliament and its 129 MSPs (whose basic salary is £64,470 a year) are responsible for every aspect of our daily lives, from health and transport to housing and education.

The Scottish government has power over income tax and some social security and, thanks to the generous Barnett Formula, Scotland receives 30 per cent more UK government funding for public services than England.

Scotland is rich nation. Our parliament is powerful. Yet one in four of our children live in poverty. One million people live in relative poverty after housing costs. And 51,100 of our fellow Scots are destitute.

It would be churlish, partisan even, to lay the blame for this astonishing failure of governance at the door of Holyrood alone. A decade of right-wing austerity, Brexit and now the pandemic has made tackling poverty even more challenging than when it was Blair’s, then Brown’s, defining mission. But the plain truth is that the SNP government, which has now been in power for 14 years, cares more about the constitution than it does about child poverty.

It masks its indifference with eye-catching yet ultimately empty gestures like baby boxes, a gift that costs £9 million a year. Free prescriptions, that most middle class of benefits, cost around £60 million. Or to put it another way, they both add up to £1,350 a year for every person destitute in Scotland today.

But Scots are trapped by their political masters in an endless debate about process. Securing a second referendum, which will rip Scotland apart, is Nicola Sturgeon’s main aim. Constitution, constitution, constitution the Parliament’s mantra.

Progress is not defined by how well our most powerless communities are doing, but by how much power politicians can grab for themselves.

But don’t heed me, I am partisan. I believe we achieve far more by the strength of our common endeavour than we do alone. I think our parliament, that I campaigned for, should be focused on making lives better now, not arguing for more division.

Listen instead to Professor James Mitchell of Edinburgh University. He is one of the most respected academics of his generation. He is an expert on Scotland’s constitution and public policy. He is measured in his analysis, rigorous in his research. Even-handed in his commentary.

Earlier this week he said that the Scottish Parliament – and by extension the Scottish government – had failed to improve lives.

“They are not really addressing poverty with the kind of focus that the language, the rhetoric, would suggest,” he told ITV’s Representing Border.

“I don’t think you can get away with the argument, all the time, that it’s somebody else’s fault – you have it in your gift to do a lot, let’s see if you can get on with it.”

There are 51,100 Scots desperate for Sturgeon and the Scottish Parliament to get on with it. And millions more fed up that their country is being split asunder by politicians encouraging them to take sides in a not-so civil war.

No party has an overall majority in the sixth session of the Scottish parliament. People voted for independence, for the environment, for the union. My 16-year-old grandson voted tactically; my 82-year-old mother voted with her heart. But above all else, people voted for their parliament to make Scotland a better place.

Our MSPs have the resources they need and the power they crave. The next five years will tell us if they have the best interests of the Scottish people at heart, or if they only care about themselves.

It might be a different world to how most Scottish people see things or what they face every day, but believe me it is challenging – and it’s just about to get even more difficult.

As I anticipated in this column last week, Labour leader Anas Sarwar, being a Glasgow Southsider, has decided he will indeed stand against Sturgeon in her constituency of that name.

It is a strong statement of intent and I applaud him.

It matters not if he wins – although I would not be so foolish as to rule the possibility out – the election has not even started in earnest and he already deserves medals pinned to his chest because his decision means the SNP will have to redeploy its resources to protect the leader, so there is no unfortunate – and highly embarrassing – slip-up.

It means also that Sturgeon herself will have to spend more time in a constituency that she is so often criticised for neglecting, meaning she will not be free to roam Scotland encouraging others.

The requirement to defend her own patch is not the only worry. The SNP has been in power for nearly 14 years and a consensus is now fast developing that, like so many parties who remain in power for more than a decade, it is showing signs of hubris, arrogance and decay, which inevitably leads to mistakes.

The Hate Crime Bill, passed last week, will, I believe, prove to be a serious misjudgement that will eat into voter support. Already the polls are now trending away from the SNP and Sturgeon’s personal rating is falling.

Even when things go wrong or matters take a turn for the worse, the SNP refuses to accept the reality of how bad something is. Scotland might be suffering and in real pain, but blaming Westminster comes first.

We have the worst drug deaths in Europe, but Westminster will be blamed. Official Scottish Government reports tell us life expectancy is actually declining in 40 per cent of Scotland’s local authorities, but Westminster will be blamed.

Impartial statistics tell us Scottish homeless people are three times more likely to die than those in the rest of the UK, but Westminster will be blamed. Every measure of poverty in Scotland – such as child poverty – is worse in Scotland than England.

Yet no matter that in drugs, life expectancy, homelessness and poverty the economic and welfare policies are broadly the same on either side of the border. The difference is that on top of the basics, our devolved powers allow the Scottish Government to do things differently – but clearly worse.

Westminster is not responsible for the SNP’s poor management of drug rehabilitation, public health initiatives, business support and housing policy – only Nicola Sturgeon is.

Scotland offers more benefits and subsidy – like free personal care introduced by Labour and the Liberal Democrats – and the money that goes to Scottish local authorities is determined in Holyrood – yet Scots face greater healthcare risks than others in the UK and average life expectancy is not lengthening like it is in England.

But it is in the economy that Scots have to especially worry – this is where the incompetence of the SNP really takes off and it is here the greatest threat to Nicola Sturgeon could arise.

We all know about failure of the BiFab yard and Prestwick Airport and Ferguson Marine and the windowless Ferries that have yet to sail.

The costs of those gambles by the SNP Government runs to more than £200 million – a large sum in anyone’s language. Now there is a new bigger scandal lurking – the underwriting of the Lochaber smelter, which could amount to a staggering £600 million charge to the Scottish taxpayer

The financial issues are complicated and much has yet to unfold, but what we do know is that in 2016 Nicola Sturgeon’s Government loaned the Indian steel tycoon Sanjeev Gupta £7 million to buy the Clydebank and Dalzell steel plants. That loan has never been repaid, with the Scottish taxpayer still being on the hook.

Another of the Gupta Group’s purchases in 2016 was the aluminium smelter in Lochaber along with its adjacent power plant. To enable this deal to occur, the SNP Government provided a 25-year guarantee of 80 per cent of the value of a power supply contract between the smelter and the power plant worth around £575m.

Given the aluminium smelter employs around 100 people, that is a guarantee worth over £5m per job. In 2019 Margaret Hodge MP, former Labour head of the UK’s Public Accounts Committee, suggested the large financial risk that taxpayers were forced to take to safeguard such a small number of jobs was “bonkers”.

Critically the SNP failed to extract any guarantees from Mr Gupta that he would actually build the factory. Instead Gupta used the Scottish Government guarantee to sell hundreds of millions of pounds of bonds, via the now bankrupt finance firm Greensill, to Swiss fund manager GAM.

Were Gupta’s firm to default and the Scottish Government guarantee be called in, the losses would come out of the UK Government-funded Scottish capital budget – used primarily to build hospitals and schools in Scotland.

Events are moving fast and the financials could implode within days – just as the election campaigns kick off. The First Minister may think matters cannot get worse. Mr Gupta might be about to disprove that theory.

Mob. It’s hardly been the defining word of the Covid Lockdown, in which half a dozen people was an illegal assembly, but in happier times it’s part of everyday language; the shops were mobbed today, the platform was so mobbed I thought someone would fall in front of a train. We all use it.

Holyrood is a “middle class Parliament” that does not “walk the walk” on progressive politics, according to a professor at Edinburgh University.

James Mitchell called for resources to be used for the benefit of poorer areas and claimed the Parliament had not “really” addressed poverty.

Devolution has seen successive governments use their powers to make different policy decisions than those taken at Westminster.

However, critics have argued that big ticket items like free personal care and free prescriptions have benefited middle income earners the most.

Around one in four children north of the border live in poverty and the educational attainment gap is still sizable.

Mitchell, a seasoned observer on Scottish politics, spoke about the decisions made by the Parliament in an interview with ITV’s Representing Border.

He said: “The Scottish Parliament has got the powers to do an awful lot.

“Now, you could argue that they could do other things with new powers, but frankly they’ve got ample powers to be getting on with the job, and they are not really using them.

“They are not really addressing poverty with the kind of focus that the language, the rhetoric, would suggest.

“I don’t think you can get away with the argument, all the time, that it’s somebody else’s fault – you have it in your gift to do a lot, let’s see if you can get on with it.”

He continued: “The middle classes are doing quite well in Scotland. And this has been a middle class Parliament for a middle class population and electorate from the start.

“If we are going to tackle poverty, going to tackle that education gap, we are going to have to start moving resources about and putting it into poorer areas and into those who are served less well.

“On education, for example, shifting the resource into the schools, into the areas and into the communities and families that need it most. Frankly, we talk the talk on progressive politics, we don’t walk the walk.”

With Friday’s constituency results turning the map canary yellow, it was never in doubt that the SNP had secured a comfortable victory and a historic fourth term at Holyrood. And while it remained on a knife-edge into the late afternoon whether Nicola Sturgeon’s nationalists could reach the 65 seats required for an outright Holyrood majority, senior party figures were eager to manage expectation, concentrating on the party’s sweep of constituencies and increased vote share. It was an extraordinary result by any standards after 14 years in power. Indeed, due to the proportional nature of the Holyrood voting system, a majority has been achieved only once since the Scottish parliament was established, in 2011 by the SNP under the leadership of former first minister Alex Salmond.

Much analysis during the campaign was given over to how pro-independence voters might respond to Salmond’s argument that hundreds of thousands of ballots cast for the SNP’s list candidates in 2016 were “the ultimate wasted vote” as they led to only a handful of MSPs being elected. A vote for Alba, the party he launched only six weeks ago, would help secure a “pro-independence super-majority” at Holyrood, Salmond said, and make it far harder for Boris Johnson to refuse a second referendum.

Last week, SNP candidates reported that, while voters were asking more questions about the two-part voting system this campaign, their growing awareness was not benefiting Alba, but the Scottish Greens instead. But as Salmond’s tactical pro-independence plan tanked, with Alba not expected to return any MSPs, there was significant evidence of pro-union voters acting strategically.

Anti-independence campaigners spent tens of thousands of pounds in the run-up to Thursday’s vote calling for tactical voting to prevent an SNP majority, while the Scottish Conservatives rammed home their core message of stopping a second referendum, especially by voting Conservative on the regional list.

Pro-unionist tactical voting had a significant effect in some key marginal constituencies, with Scottish Labour’s deputy leader Jackie Baillie increasing what had been the smallest majority in Scotland, thanks to Liberal Democrat supporters, but failed to secure significant Tory gains on the list, fuelling some internal criticism that Ross focused on stopping a referendum at the expense of a more positive case for the union emphasising the UK’s pandemic achievements like furlough and vaccine rollout.

Turnout also soared as a consequence, exceeding 70% in some constituencies, well above the national average of 55% in 2016, upturning fears that Covid might keep voters at home. SNP insiders had raised their own concerns that complacency about their party’s success – or conversely a “scunner factor”, as unionist attacks on their 14-year record in government cut through – might discourage their base on the day. However, this appears to have been balanced by the impact of Sturgeon’s increased popularity as a result of her pandemic leadership which boosted SNP support.

Travelling around the country, the esteem and trust “Nicola” is held in has been evident, with many saying they would support the SNP to continue her steady leadership despite ambivalence about another referendum.

Sturgeon’s own language around the timing of a second referendum – “when the crisis has passed” – is usefully vague, but her interpretation of what constitutes a mandate for one has always been clear. As it states in the SNP manifesto: “If the SNP is returned to government and there is a simple majority in the Scottish Parliament for [the referendum] bill.” By the latest projections, these conditions have clearly been met with a pro-independence majority of MSPs from the SNP and Scottish Greens. But as this became clear, Scottish Tories immediately set out their counter: that the number of individual votes cast for pro-union parties was greater than those for pro-independence parties.

Boris Johnson’s own formulation on Saturday – “a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and reckless” – likewise allows room for manoeuvre for the man said to be adamant in private that he will not be the prime minister who permits a referendum but is also conscious of not sounding entirely anti-democratic.

With the votes still being counted, Sturgeon herself told Johnson that he would have to go to court to stop her new government introducing legislation for another referendum. Such a fight – with the second-least-popular politician in Scotland – is one she will no doubt relish and use to consolidate support for independence.

Meanwhile, the least popular politician in Scotland, according to recent polling, Alex Salmond, who had styled himself as the man to keep the SNP honest about independence at Holyrood, may have done his former party a favour in drawing away those hardliners who would have agitated for immediate referendum negotiations.

During a fairly intemperate YouTube broadcast on Saturday afternoon, in which he hit out at “weirdos and cranks” in the media and accused Sturgeon of “losing her nerve” over a referendum, Salmond warned that Alba would be “much more vigorous post-election [and] free to criticise the lack of urgency and immediacy on independence”.

How many will be listening is another matter.

Neale Hanvey has spoken of the “toxic, aggressive and hostile” SNP group at Westminster – and how it damaged his health.

The Kirkcaldy MP, who quit to join Alex Salmond’s Alba Party and stood unsuccessfully on the regional list in last week’s Scottish election, said he was heartbroken to leave the party, but he “detested” what it had become.

Mr Hanvey said: “You are not allowed to have a critical mind. There is no place for debate. It is policy by diktat. It is a really uncomfortable place.”

Mr Hanvey added: “It was frustrating to see how many of the SNP cohort were far too comfy with Westminster life – that really galled me.

“What motivates me is seeing too many people in poverty – not a fancy flat in London.”

Mr Hanvey was the second SNP MP to defect to Alex Salmond’s new party, in late March, following in the footsteps of Kenny McAskill.

He said the decision to leave was “unfortunately, not that difficult.” and added: “I could not continue in a Westminster parliamentary group that was so aggressive and hostile I did not think it was good for my physical and mental health.

“It was really getting incredibly difficult to even go to work even virtually. You have to watch everything you say. If you are not loyal – and by that, they mean obedient – then you are targeted.”

Mr Hanvey’s trajectory to Westminster was far from smooth.

He was adopted as the candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2019, and then dumped just weeks before the December election after it emerged he had used anti-Semitic language on a social media post three years earlier.,

With his name already on the ballot paper, he stood as an independent, and won.

After a period of suspension he was brought back into the SNP fold, and, in February, was made the party’s vaccine spokesman – only to be sacked within days.

By then, he said, the atmosphere was impacting on his health.

“After being sacked, I was being targeted through the media again quite purposely by the SNP – that was their choice,” he said.

“I developed a pain in my head, woke up and lost part of the visual field of my eight eye. I had damaged an optic nerve through stress.”

Mr Hanvey said matters deteriorated after the First Minister was cleared of breaching the ministerial code over her involvement in the Alex Salmond saga.

“The hostility within the group amplified to screech level,” he said.

“That was my first meeting back and I thought I can’t deal with this. It was depressing.”

Mr Hanvey said he would “absolutely not” trigger a by-election after joining Alba.

“People will judge me at the next election, but if they are expecting me to remain in the SNP, they are asking me to stay in a toxic environment that was actively damaging my health”

And Mr Hanvey believes Alba still has a key role to play in Scottish politics.

“We have active members coming across, and the energy and enthusiasm from them has been really inspirational.

“I do not think Nicola Sturgeon will secure an independence referendum, and, if she does, she has not done the groundwork to win.”

The SNP declined to comment when contacted by The Scotsman

A poll conducted on the eve of the Holyrood election has found that 50 per cent of voters want the next Scottish Government to focus on the NHS and social care, with the economy and jobs being the next priority – and a second independence referendum coming eighth on the list.

The poll by Survation, for the Scotland in Union campaign organisation, found that just one in eight people believe independence is one of the most important issues for the new SNP government.

It also found that only 37 per cent of Scots believe there should be a referendum before the end of 2023, which has been suggested by Nicola Sturgeon as the right time for a second vote on the constitution.

The survey, of over 1000 adults, also asked how people would vote in a referendum – using the option of leaving or remaining in the UK rather than the usual question of whether Scotland should be independent or not with a yes or no choice – and found 58 per cent would choose to “remain part of the United Kingdom”.

Asked to select up to three of the most important issues the new Scottish Government should prioritise, 50 per cent chose the NHS and social care, 46 per cent economy and jobs, 45 per cent Covid-19 recovery, 30 per cent education – and only 12 per cent opted for independence.

On the possibility of another referendum, 51 per cent agreed it would make “Scottish society more divided” – and only 34 per cent disagreed.

Scotland in Union said it would promote the findings on billboards and on social media “as a reminder to the SNP that it must listen to the people of Scotland and focus on people’s priorities – and not treat every vote it received as support for a referendum.”

Pamela Nash, chief executive of the organisation, said: “The new SNP government must listen to the people of Scotland, who are clear that independence is not a priority. The very last thing we need right now is more division in our society.

© Scotland Matters