‘Get back to the day job.’ The six magic words that delivered the Scottish Tories their best election night in decades. Ruth Davidson recited this incantation endlessly during the campaign and Labour and the Liberal Democrats quickly joined in. As messages go, it was blunt but effective, capturing the public mood that Nicola Sturgeon has allowed herself to be distracted by the independence issue.
After the UK chose to leave the EU despite Scotland’s Remain vote, the First Minister planned to parlay opposition to Brexit into support for independence. But her scheme went from no-brainer to harebrained in a breathtakingly short period of time. Like Theresa May’s snap election gamble, the opportunism was too naked and overestimated Sturgeon’s public support. The people revolted, the SNP leader’s favourability ratings tanked, and Ruth Davidson’s star rose. Independence, which motivated half the country to give the SNP 56 out of 59 seats in the 2015 election, now drove the Unionist majority to the polls to give the Nats a shoeing.
The limitations of getting back to the day job are obvious in new education reforms announced on Thursday. Education minister John Swinney hailed the changes as an example of ‘radical and bold action’, triggering the cordon of conservatism erected around Scottish schooling by teachers, their unions and local authorities. They needn’t have worried.
True, some of the measures should be welcomed by proponents of education reform. Headteachers will get more autonomy to spend their funding as they see fit and will get to select staff and tailor the curriculum to their school’s needs. In return, they will assume responsibility for closing the attainment gap that has exposed Scotland’s schools as one of the motor engines of inequality north of the border.
But these are patch-up jobs, not radical or bold remedies. Headteachers are getting more say on spending resources but still have to work within parameters set by councils and Holyrood. Teachers will remain local authority employees so headteachers won’t be able to sack them. The Curriculum for Excellence, introduced by the Nats in the face of near-universal opposition, is staying put. Education Scotland, the mark-your-own-homework quango charged with improving and inspecting schools, is to remain in place despite concerns raised by teachers. Most unforgivably of all, Scottish parents who tried to set up a free school were told to take a running jump.
Mums and dads at St Joseph’s in Milngavie, East Dunbartonshire – faced with closure and the loss of their only local Catholic primary school – proposed an opt-out so that St Joe’s doors stayed open. The notion that anyone other than the state can run education is dismayingly alien in Scotland, a nation governed by the refrain ‘but it’s aye been this way’. So Swinney rejected the parents’ proposals and St Joseph’s was martyred to appease the status quo lobby.
On the face of it, this seems like a jolly old fudge – and it is – but it’s more than that. Ten years into Nationalist government in Edinburgh and the public policy agenda is paralysed. Teacher numbers have fallen by 4,000, a quarter of training places for mathematics goes unfilled, literacy and numeracy rates are spiralling, 150,000 college places have been cut, and Scotland is now the hardest place in the UK for a poor child to get into university.
It’s not just education. In health, A&E waiting times and cancer treatment targets go unmet and a pledge to reduce junior doctors’ hours has been ripped up; almost 3,000 nursing and midwifery posts lie empty, the highest level since records began. The Scottish economy lags behind the UK in growth and the SNP’s confused prescriptions – cut business rates while making those on the 40p rate pay more in income tax – are showing no signs of improving things. The farming sector is still trying to get back on its feet after a £178m IT system failed to deliver CAP payments on time.
There is a reason the SNP doesn’t want to get back to ‘the day job’. It is a series of policy quagmires, some created by the Nats, others pre-existing but exacerbated over a decade. They have no idea how to extract themselves and are aware that the voters are starting to notice. Six in ten Scots want Nicola Sturgeon to shelve plans for a second independence referendum; even a third of Yes voters agree. The Nats have no idea what to do.
This confronts us with an alternative theory for why the SNP keeps pushing independence in the face of public hostility – why Sturgeon wouldn’t even allow the possibility of postponing a future plebiscite to be discussed at the first post-election cabinet. It’s not simply that Nationalists are obsessed with independence or even that they purely want to distract from their record in government. It’s that independence is the only thing they can do. The SNP was not made for governing but for campaigning; for all their rhetoric to the contrary, changing society comes a distant second to their ultimate goal of changing flags on poles and brass plaques on buildings. They lack the interest, the nous, and frankly the ministerial talent to solve the problems afflicting Scotland. Independence is their day job. It’s everything else that’s the distraction to them.