“Facts are chiels that winna ding” is one of Alex Salmond’s favourite Burns quotes, so it was with particular relish that Labour’s education spokesman, Hugh Henry, flung the words in the FMs face on Thursday when it became clear that Salmond had got his facts wrong on college funding. At First Minister’s Questions Salmond had said repeatedly that further education spending had increased when it had actually fallen. A humbled First Minister returned to the debating chamber later that afternoon to apologise for misleading parliament. “Ding, dong!” said Henry.Now, the education secretary, Mike Russell, has agreed to come to parliament today to set the record straight.
It seems the Scottish government’s omnibourach moment is not over. This is the third time in a month that leading figures in the government have found it necessary to make an emergency statement before the close of play in parliament. In October Alex Salmond was forced to answer accusations from opposition leaders that he’d been “lying” over claimed legal advice on European Union membership. He apologised last week for inadvertently misleading parliament on college spending. This could be habit forming.
What with “Plan McB” wilting under the impact of recession, unemployment rising and support for independence waning, things seem to have stopped going Salmond’s way recently. Following the climb-down on the second referendum question, and the unexpected resignation of senior nationalists after the conference debate on Nato, Labour sense that Salmond may finally be outstaying his welcome, both in the SNP and in the country. Mind you, they’ve said that often enough before and the FM’s popularity has remained stubbornly high.
And it has to be said that last week’s kerfuffle was pretty trivial. Even First Ministers get things wrong sometimes and Salmond accepted full responsibility. Though he made it clear that the original fault lay with the education secretary, Mike Russell, whose civil servants had provided misleading figures on college spending. This was an embarrassing episode for Russell, not least because he had been sitting right next to his leader as he quoted the erroneous numbers, nodding vigorously in agreement. The education secretary was already under fire for allegedly bullying the principal of Stow College, Kirk Ramsay, into resigning over a surreptitious recording he made of a meeting addressed by Russell.
There is a real concern in the further education sector that the government has sold colleges out ,imposing a 24% budget cut over three years, according to Audit Scotland, in order to stuff Scotland’s universities with cash. There is some truth in the charge that Russell is in the pockets of the university vice chancellors, not just over finance but over the governance reforms proposed by the Prondzynski report earlier this year. Russell appears to be watering down Prondynski’s recommendations faster than a Benidorm barman dilutes bodega table wine. Mind you, this had little really to do with the row over statistics or Russell’s alleged high-handedness towards Mr Ramsay. Ministers do have a right to be told when they are being recorded, otherwise it becomes impossible for them to speak freely in private.
But the Labour leader Johann Lamont wasn’t having any of it. She dismissed the First Minister’s apology on Thursday and accused Salmond of being a purveyor of serial falsehood. “How”, she demanded, “can anyone believe anything the first minister says ever again”. This is a mantra we hear from Labour politicians with mind-numbing regularity. Which suggests that the trust issue is playing well in the focus groups that Labour consult religiously to find out what the voters are thinking. She also claimed the government was behaving in a dictatorial manner by refusing parliamentary inquiries either into Mike Russell’s conduct or the non-advice on EU membership.
I’m not sure Labour are wise to attack the FM quite so intemperately as a liar. It not only debases political discourse, it misses the point. The mix up over the legal advice on EU membership and the mistakes over college funding figures, were minor matters in themselves with little resonance beyond Holyrood. There was no conspiracy behind the cock-ups. But they may indicate a degree of exhaustion at the top and a loss of political direction..
One theory, widely discussed at the Herald Politician of the Year event last week, is that Salmond is simply knackered after twenty years leading his party, albeit with a career break in the early noughties. He is now the longest serving FM in the short history of the Scottish parliament. And some are saying that if he doesn’t slow down, he might not last until the next election. Actually, my impression is the First Minister remains pretty robust physically, despite being over weight, and seems to have energy to burn. Aides insist he is simply incapable of slowing down.
But it is dangerous when everything rests on one man. Another theory is that Salmond is missing his ace spin-doctor, Kevin Pringle, who has been relieved of his daily fire-fighting role so that he can devote his attention to the referendum as head of strategic communications. Pringle is widely regarded the best in the business and had an uncanny ability to anticipate problems. He had such a solid rapport with the fractious and difficult Scottish press that issues seemed to evaporate whenever he hit the phones.
However I suspect there is more going on here than personnel changes. The truth is that the SNP government is showing signs of having lost its way. The preoccupation with the referendum and the minutiae of constitutional politics has strained its relations with Scottish voters, many of whom regard independence, and the endless questions about questions, to be irrelevant in an economic recession and a diversion from the real issues of jobs, houses and whether their children have a future.
The Scottish government did a very effective job of being onside with the people during its first term of office after 2007. All those headline policies on prescription charges, accident and emergency units, tuition fees. What have we heard recently from ministers are less populist measures like cuts in drink driving limits, police and fire service mergers, fantasy high-speed rail links and of course same sex marriage, a divisive issue on which the SNP has taken a principled stand, but at the cost of antagonising the Roman Catholic Church.
Has the government done enough, critics wonder, to challenge the profiteering of energy companies, the failure of the banks to lend to small businesses, the chronic housing shortages in Scotland? Has it taken the full measure of youth unemployment, which appears to be rising when it is falling south of the border? Alex Salmond says that, under devolution, he has only limited powers over the economy and that he can’t be expected to deliver recovery with one hand tied behind its back. This is true.
But the government needs to be seen to do more in the here and now, and rely less on pie in the sky after independence. The truth is that many of our current problems would remain much the same if Scotland were to go it alone: the low rate of business start ups, the size of the public sector bureaucracies, the poor health of the population, the indifferent quality of secondary education, the perennial problems of alcohol and drug dependency – these are all immune to constitutional solutions.
Having an unassailable parliamentary majority, like the SNP’s, can be a mixed blessing. It can encourage complacency and arrogance; a refusal to admit fault and a contempt for legitimate criticism. But it also leads to self-delusion. The idea that you can do no wrong. Perhaps the BBC isn’t the only organisation that, right now, needs to get a grip.