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If it matters to Scotland it matters to us
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Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of hiding behind “Scottish exceptionalism” instead of admitting she made even worse mistakes than Boris Johnson in the early stages of the pandemic.
Laying out a timeline of key decisions made by the governments in Edinburgh and London, Anas Sarwar argued that the actions of SNP ministers were “often more fatal” than those in the UK.
The Scottish Labour leader said that while the First Minister “has always been better at spinning her failures than Boris Johnson”, much of the “damning testimony” from Dominic Cummings on the UK’s Covid response is as true for Holyrood as it is for Westminster.
Speaking at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, Mr Sarwar pointed towards a range of decisions made by SNP ministers around mass gatherings, herd immunity, care homes and Covid-19 testing that were in “lockstep” or slower than the UK Government.
While both governments sent untested and Covid positive hospital patients into care homes, the UK Government announced routine testing on April 15 – a decision not made by SNP ministers until six days later on April 21.
Other key decisions made in Scotland later than England include mandatory face masks on public transport, asymptomatic community testing and testing for incoming travellers at airports.
But Mr Sarwar has urged Nicola Sturgeon to establish a Scotland-specific inquiry into how her government responded.
The First Minister has come under repeated pressure to begin preparations for a judge-led Covid-19 inquiry that is Scotland specific, but SNP ministers say they will wait until a decision is made by the UK Government on the remit and scope of its equivalent inquiry.
“The Scottish people deserve more than just rhetoric, they deserve answers. They deserve more than being told that the government cares, they deserve answers because we can’t allow Scottish exceptionalism to stop us from learning critical lessons,” Mr Sarwar said, arguing that “we don’t need to wait for the UK Government” to do this.
“It’s always easier to focus on failures elsewhere but we must learn from mistakes here at home,” he added.
In response, Ms Sturgeon suggested the public could judge whether she has an “inability to face up to mistakes” but her focus was now on the vaccine rollout because Scotland could be “in the foothills of a third wave of this virus”.
“I think what they’re hearing from me is a candid admission that we would not – like many other governments across the world – have got everything right, and not just a willingness [but] a desire to face up to that and learn from that,” she added.
The Holyrood elections will be the “most important in Scotland’s history”, according to Nicola Sturgeon. She hopes to repeat the SNP’s 2011 performance and win an overall majority to claim a mandate for a second independence referendum. But the SNP is often coy about that mandate, preferring the more anodyne “choice about the future”, and it surrounds the commitment with caveats designed to reassure voters.
A referendum will only happen after the Covid crisis has passed and a citizens’ assembly has considered “the kind of country we want Scotland to be”. That leaves plenty of wriggle room, and is wide open to interpretation. It allows the SNP to appeal to supporters of independence without scaring away potential SNP voters who have reservations about it. It also gives the SNP some freedom to choose the time to push for a referendum.
The pandemic has also helped the SNP in other ways. Voters have rallied around the saltire, not the union jack, during the crisis. It has created numerous opportunities to highlight Sturgeon’s incumbency as first minister, her communication skills and ability to master a detailed brief, as well as encouraging comparisons with Boris Johnston. Failings in the handling of the pandemic, most obvious in discharging vulnerable elderly people into care homes at considerable cost to life, have had little impact on the SNP’s popularity. The pandemic also shifts the focus away from the Scottish government’s wider record during its time in office.
Oppositions, it is often asserted, don’t win elections but governments lose them. The SNP’s record ought to put it on the defensive. But the party presents itself as being in government and opposition at the same time. It governs in Edinburgh and uses this base to oppose London rule. Blame games are made easier in multi-level systems, and it never takes much to convince many Scots that the Tories in London are to blame for Scotland’s woes. The SNP will always win the battle to be the party most willing to stand up for Scotland against Westminster. Take independence and the pandemic out of the election, and the SNP would be struggling.
At the start of her premiership, Nicola Sturgeon promised to “close the [educational] attainment gap completely”, but the most recent independent evaluation by Audit Scotland concluded that progress had been “limited”, falling short of the government’s aims. Public Health Scotland, launched a year ago, warned that health inequalities had worsened over the previous decade. People living in Scotland’s most deprived areas could expect on average 48.2 years of good health, compared with 72.3 in the least deprived areas. Drug deaths have increased by 160% during the SNP’s time in office.
The Scottish government has siphoned off local government money to try to address such deficiencies, leaving local government to face increasing demands with fewer resources. Local public services have been cut across Scotland, including Sturgeon’s own back yard in Glasgow. The SNP approach to policymaking is reflected in its manifesto, which proposes to sprinkle goodies around, enough to create a headline or appease groups of voters, but not enough to have much impact on outcomes. Outcomes have limped lamely behind the SNP’s soaring rhetoric. The weaker the record, the greater the renewed promise.
But a party may still be returned to power with a poor record if there is no credible alternative. And the SNP has been blessed with very weak opposition. The Tories became Scotland’s second party in 2016 by presenting themselves as the true party of the union, casting Labour and Liberal Democrats as weak and untrustworthy on independence, making them the alternative party of government. Over the last five years, they have focused almost exclusively on opposition to an independence referendum, helping to narrow the political agenda and polarise debate.
So long as the union is centre stage, the SNP and Tories will benefit so long as Labour fails to articulate a clear alternative. Labour is damned for being insufficiently unionist by the Tories and too unionist by the SNP. The SNP never fails to point out that Labour worked with the Tories in Better Together during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, in much the same way as an earlier generation of Labour politicians constantly reminded voters that the SNP brought down the Labour government in 1979 and let Margaret Thatcher into Downing Street. Labour has been unable to situate itself in the debate with a distinct position on the constitution.
The pandemic has created an opportunity that Anas Sarwar, its new leader, has exploited skilfully by stressing the importance of “recovery”. Sarwar’s significantly improved poll ratings suggest he has been the star of the election, but rising leadership ratings have not been matched with rising levels of support for Labour. If Labour did push the Tories into third place, this would have significant implications for a prospective referendum. The SNP would much rather go into a referendum in which the Tories were the main opposition; a Labour revival would create problems for the SNP, especially if Labour were to offer an alternative to the current binary divide. This would open up debate with an option Labour could comfortably get behind, command broad public support by drawing votes from both independence and the status quo, and avoid the binary pit that would force the party into bed with the Tories again.
Devolution’s promise of “new politics” based on pluralism, compromise and consensus was always unlikely. The electoral system may have produced more Holyrood parties than Scotland returns to the Commons, but Holyrood is now more adversarial and polarised than ever. The narrow prism through which this election is viewed makes it very difficult to see that changing after this election.
Scotland would still be in the “vice-like grip” of coronavirus if it had followed SNP advice on vaccinations, a UK Government minister has claimed.
Scottish Secretary Alister Jack hailed the vaccination programme against the virus as being a success for the UK.
He insisted: “Had we followed the SNP’s advice on vaccines and waited for the flat-footed EU, we would still be in the vice-like grip of the pandemic instead of confidently looking forward to better days.
“There can be no more eloquent expression of the success of the Union than this brilliant UK-wide approach.”
The UK, Mr Jack said, has developed a “Covid-19 vaccination programme that is the envy of the world”.
He described this as being as a “truly astonishing achievement” and on a “scale that dwarfs anything since the war”.