TEN years ago the Scottish National Party entered government for the first time after the most chaotic election in Scottish electoral history. It was a wild night: ballot boxes went missing and thousands of voters inadvertently spoiled their ballot papers. Next day, the result was far from clear, even as Alex Salmond helicoptered into Edinburgh and declared himself the First Minister elect.
It was certainly a victory for chutzpah. Salmond ran a minority administration on the slimmest of margins – 47 seats to Labour’s 46 – dependent on other parties’ abstentions in crucial votes to survive. Most Labour MSPs and press commentators didn’t expect the SNP administration to last six months. But just look at it now: the SNP has more seats in Holyrood than Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservatives combined.
When it loses seats, as expected, in the General Election next month, the SNP will still probably return more MPs than all the other parties combined. It has extended its command of local government taking Labour’s last bastion, Glasgow. But has the Scottish Government’s performance in office matched its electoral success? That’s a more difficult question.
Opposition parties say the SNP is all promise and no delivery: that it has used the national question to obscure failures in health, education and the economy, blaming Westminster for everything that goes wrong. Some on the left accuse Nicola Sturgeon of pursuing essentially Tory – or New Labour – policies beneath a fog of social democratic rhetoric. After all, didn’t she abandon plans for a 50p rate of tax and cut Air Passenger Duty instead?
To govern is to disappoint. However, the SNP can point to the benefits Scots receive through what Alex Salmond used to call the “social wage”: free higher education, free personal care, free prescriptions, free school meals and (extended) free childcare. These much-derided “freebies” as the Conservatives call such universal benefits, are the foundation of the SNP’s claim to be a social democratic party. The Labour Party manifesto is in some ways a tribute to the Scottish government, since it is proposing to adopt many similar universal benefits. The commitment to a publicly-provided NHS also bolsters Ms Sturgeon’s claim to be on the left. Nicola Sturgeon closed the last private elective surgery unit at Strathcathro and claims that by abolishing prescription charges she was completing the “original project” of the NHS.
The National Health Service appears to be performing better in Scotland than in England, where there is a deepening crisis of finance and provision. Scottish voters appear much more satisfied with their Scottish service, even though NHS spending, current and capital, has not kept pace with increases across the rest of the UK. The SNP may be benefiting from the fact that privatisation was halted in its tracks here, or it may be that morale is higher in the Scottish service. Whatever, while some targets have been missed, the health of the nation appears to be in relatively safe hands.
Scottish education remains true to the comprehensive principle, and the SNP has not adopted any of the reforms south of the border. However, it’s clear that the SNP has failed to improve academic performance significantly over the past decade. Scotland has fallen behind in the international performance tables, and while it is wrong to say as, Ruth Davidson has, that “one in five pupils are functionally illiterate” there’s no doubt that standards in reading and writing aren’t good enough. The number of working class school-leavers going to university also remains dismally low. To be fair, Sturgeon accepts this failure and has invited Scots to judge her on her ability to bridge the attainment gap in future. The Scottish Government is now courting controversy by reviewing measures, like testing and opted-out schools, that have been used south of the Border.
Nor is the Scottish economy performing well. Scotland’s growth rate is significantly lower than south of the Border, and while job creation has held up, investment in sunrise industries is inadequate. Poor growth is largely due to the crash in the oil industry, which has shed an astonishing 120,000 jobs in two years. Scotland has been a fossil fuel economy for decades and the SNP has been as guilty as any in not seeking to diversify.
One of the more embarrassing items on the SNP’s 10-year balance sheet is inequality. This has grown significantly over the past 10 years, on most measures, with the top one per cent owning more wealth than the bottom 50 per cent of Scots. According to Oxfam, the top four Scots families now own more than the entire bottom 20 per cent. In income terms, the top 10 per cent earn more than the bottom 50 per cent combined, and 75 per cent of the increase in income in the past decade has gone to the better off.
Despite the First Minister’s commitment to equality, relative and absolute poverty figures have been rising again in recent years, though they’ve yet to reach the same levels as 10 years ago. Again, all this is part of a UK trend and the picture north and south of the Border is much the same. But the conclusion has to be that 10 years of SNP government has not significantly altered inequality.
The SNP is calling for a 50 per cent tax to be introduced in the UK, but not in Scotland. Ms Sturgeon says the additional rate would bring in little revenue here because wealthy people would avoid paying it. She may be right, but this is the same argument made by the former UK Tory Chancellor George Osborne, when he scrapped it.
If Ms Sturgeon seems more interested in gender equality than in social inequality, that’s probably because the former is easier to achieve: as in her gender-balanced cabinet. Real social equality involves very hard choices – like Nordic levels of tax. However, less well-off voters clearly trust Ms Sturgeon to look after their interests, which is why so many have switched from Labour.
So, the SNP has pursued a cautious, centre-left agenda, not hugely different to what went before, under Labour. But we should always remember that the SNP is the party of independence, not socialism. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the SNP years was persuading 1.6 million Scots to vote to leave the UK in 2014. A majority now believe Scotland will be an independent country in 10 or 15 years. A decade ago that would have been laughed off as SNP pie in the sky.