28 July 2015

Salmond and Sturgeon need a diversion from their terrible record running Scotland


Alex Salmond has declared that another referendum on Scottish independence is inevitable. I’ll tell you what’s really inevitable. Alex Salmond will carry on giving endless interviews about independence, for as long as BBC producers in London have to have conversations like the one below.

Producer 1: “Can we interview Salmond again. We had him on last week.”

Producer 2: “What did he say?”

Producer 1: “I don’t know. I can’t remember exactly. I do remember him chortling and laughing at his own jokes, his shoulders moving up and down at the cleverness of his own remarks.”

Producer 2: “Sure. But the substance? Was it something about the inevitability of another Scottish referendum?”

Producer 1: “Yes! That was it.”

Producer 2: “He’s said that before, a lot. No, we can’t have him on again.”

Producer 1: “Look, it’s late July. Even Tim Farron is on holiday. It’s Salmond or Keith Vaz.”

And so Alex Salmond gets yet another chance to expound his theories. In his latest intervention on the BBC he has said that a second referendum is inevitable and the timing is down to Nicola Sturgeon, which seems to be a change from the previous Nat formula according to which the timing is in the hands of the Scottish people. Perhaps, in all the excitement, the two – the Scottish people and Nicola Sturgeon – have become fused in Salmond’s fevered imagination, so that she has become the embodiment of the Scottish people, the single, true diviner of their will.

Sturgeon may or may not have been happy to have her ongoing trip to China disrupted, by dealing with the second referendum question when she is supposed to be there to talk about trade between Scotland and China. Either way, the trip to China and the referendum row both do provide a necessary diversion for the Nationalists from the truth that the SNP has made a pretty terrible job of running Scotland where it has been in power for eight years. In a spell shorter than that, Clement Attlee, the notorious “Red Tory” and all-round Englishman (boo, hiss) had introduced the welfare state and the NHS. By year eight of her spell in power, Margaret Thatcher had overseen victory in the Falklands, begun to turn the UK economy around (where does the SNP think all those jobs in retail and financial services came from if not from the 1980s reforms?) and was on the way to helping win the Cold War.

What has the SNP done in eight years? Er…

To listen to the party you would think that the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood has no powers. But look at several of the most important areas in which it has complete control and the SNP record is a litany of failure and selfish middle-class sanctimony dressed up in pious, progressive pontificating. Even when enormous amounts of power are devolved, as they have been in several slices since 1997, the Nationalist complaint is always that it is not enough. Of course, whining about powers is much easier than reforming the education system to help the poorest and power economic growth.

John McDermott of the Financial Times highlighted research showing how the SNP has let down the poorest pupils. His superb essay for Prospect – the SNP has failed Scotland – is devastating.

“On several measures education is in a worse state than when the SNP took office in 2007. The most recent national numeracy and literacy statistics show declining shares of pupils assessed as performing “well” or “very well”. The issue is particularly acute for the least affluent Scots: nearly one-third (32 per cent) of second year high school pupils from the most deprived areas are not reading “well” or “very well” and the gap between them and their richer peers is widening, according to the 2014 Scottish Survey of Literacy. In PISA, the influential international education tests, “Scotland’s performance was significantly worse in 2012 than it had been in 2000,” noted Keir Bloomer, an education expert and one of the authors of the country’s curriculum. The previous government shares responsibility for these results, but it was the SNP who withdrew Scotland from two other important cross-country tests: the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS). Bloomer added: “It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Scotland has chosen to make itself less accountable by ceasing to take part in the surveys in which it tended to do less well.”

In May, the Daily Record’s Torcuil Crichton reported on the way in which the poorest have been betrayed, highlighting two schools with terrible attainment records getting worse:

“In 2007 Lochend Community High School in Glasgow’s Easterhouse saw nine per cent of pupils achieve five Standard grades or more at credit level. In 2013, that figure had dropped to five per cent. Castlebrae High School in Greendykes, Edinburgh, saw even worse results. In 2007, six per cent achieved the level but in 2013 there were none.”

To her credit, Sturgeon has made closing the attainment gap between children from poor and wealthy areas a priority. But her answer, hilariously, is to pass another law ordering councils to fix it, as though it is that simple. As the experience of reforming education ministers such as Kenneth Baker, Andrew Adonis and Michael Gove demonstrates, it takes decades of hard work and a fearless willingness to innovate while confronting vested interests.

Even in parts of the Scottish education Establishment, which has been badly wrong for decades and has sneered at the reforms under New Labour and the Tories that have produced a transformation in attainment and standards in many schools south of the border, the penny may finally be dropping  that change is needed.

Meanwhile, on universities, the SNP boasts about providing free tuition fees, a middle class subsidy that has been paid for by savaging Scotland’s college sector. Now it is even considering scrapping, or neutering, the ancient post of Rector in Scotland’s Universities. The party has attacked the autonomy of Scottish universities time and again.

On health too, despite spending more money than in England, the record is unimpressive, with the SNP’s own treatment time guarantees being missed. A highly centralised approach has been adopted, with ministers taking a zero tolerance approach to deploying the private sector, which in England has been used to improve diversity of supply and, controversially, to increase competitive pressure. This meets little resistance in middle class Scotland where it is fashionable to talk in terms of any profit in healthcare being immoral. Why not apply that approach to food and drink, housing, department stores, travel and the production of cars? Oh, yes. That would be communism, which has been such a great success everywhere it has been tried. So why is there any reason to think it will work in the provision of healthcare?

Here is John McDermott on the SNP again in Prospect:

“In 2014, the Health Foundation think tank and the Nuffield Trust compared the performance of the NHS in the four nations of the UK. They found that all countries’ “amenable mortality” (deaths that could have been prevented through better care) halved between 1990 and 2010, but the rate remained 20 per cent higher in Scotland than in England. The report also found that the northeast of England—which has demographics akin to those north of the border—had improved faster than Scotland. In 1990, mortality rates were similar. But by 2012/13, after high spending growth in Scotland but even greater increases in the north east, mortality rates in Scotland were up to 19 per cent higher.

I haven’t even mentioned the mess the Nationalists have made of Scotland’s policing. The single pan-Scotland force that was the brainchild of the party’s leadership is in severe difficulties.

Rather than concentrate on these core responsibilities in which the SNP has the powers and freedom of movement, although not the ideological firepower or technocratic expertise, the party prefers flag-waving and talk of a referendum less than a year since it lost the last one.

Why? For more than 40 years the separatists have devoted most of their energies to the constitution and to breaking up the UK. They are skilled at creating noise and manufacturing grievance. It is their obsession, pursued in the hope that eventually they will arrive at a point (perhaps in only a couple of years’ time) when they have made independence feel inevitable on both sides of the border. Their end-game requires everyone to be distracted by rows about powers rather than engaging their brains on education, health, policing and basic economic questions.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX