In an alternate, preferable reality the SNP government would this week have announced a major rethink of Scotland’s disgracefully failing education system. Ministers would have been embarrassed by the results of the latest Pisa study, which show the nation’s schools are continuing their long-term decline in maths, science and reading.
Jenny Gilruth, the Education Secretary, would have called an emergency press conference to promise urgent action: “It’s clear that as things stand we are failing to provide the quality of education our children deserve and need. The Curriculum for Excellence is not fit for purpose, as the Pisa data proves, and must be rethought from the bottom up. If Holyrood cannot deliver a decent education system, if it can do nothing more than oversee decline, then what is the point of it? What is the point of me?”
Instead, the devolved government gave its response with the shameless headline “Scottish education maintains international standing”.
In an alternate, preferable reality Shona Robison, the Finance Secretary, would be preparing to deliver a Budget on 19 December that faces up to economic fact. “To govern is to choose. In this tight climate, and because we have failed to improve economic growth, we must prioritise what truly matters and make some hard decisions. I admit there is a lot of wasteful spending by this government, so I am announcing a widespread programme of efficiencies that will allow us to concentrate our resources where they matter. I also accept that we have reached the end of the road with our increasingly baroque and self-defeating experiment with ever higher income taxes. People are skint, and frankly we need to stop making them poorer to fund our ideological wheezes. If we want to spend more money, we must first grow the economy.”
Instead, Robison will blame Westminster for every spending restriction she faces, avoid any difficult decisions that might cause tension with the public sector, and, it is rumoured, introduce yet another tax increase on those earning between £75,000 and £125,000.
In an alternate, preferable reality Humza Yousaf, the First Minister, would announce before Christmas that he is ending the coalition between the SNP and the Greens. “I would like to apologise for inflicting this tiny, extremist movement and its incompetent leaders on the Scottish people. Truthfully, they have caused us and you nothing but trouble. The tail has wagged the dog for too long. Lorna and Patrick, you’re simply not up to it. Sling your hook.”
Instead, Yousaf is clinging to the Bute House Agreement, which created the coalition, as if it were some sort of biblical truth. He is terrified by the prospect of governing as a minority administration, when that is precisely what the Nats should do if they want to have a chance of reconnecting with middle Scotland.
The thing is, had Kate Forbes defeated Yousaf in this year’s SNP leadership election – which she came reasonably close to doing – she would already have taken the steps I outline above, if perhaps using more diplomatic language.
In her interview with Jason Cowley in the Christmas edition of the New Statesman, Forbes calls for the SNP-Green partnership to end. It “should be repealed and the SNP should operate again as a one-party minority government”, she said. “We were elected on a SNP manifesto, not a Green Party manifesto or the Bute House Agreement. Nearly all the issues that have lost us support in the last year are found in the Bute House Agreement and not in the SNP manifesto. I see it particularly acutely with the economy and in rural Scotland, as the Greens appear to want to overregulate rural communities out of existence and hike taxes to a rate that will ultimately reduce public revenue. That is despite the cost-of-living crisis hitting our economy and the rural sector particularly hard.”
Forbes is right, and her analysis of where her party has gone wrong is equally astute. “The momentum of the SNP has stalled in the last year, even if support for independence has remained strong. We have lost the perception of being a broad movement moving together towards something bigger – independence. People have left the party. We keep having to ditch or rework major policies, for good reason but not without political or financial cost.”
Now, the SNP has been in government for too long, and while Forbes is popular with the general public, even she might not have been able to right the ship. Democratic gravity is finally beginning to assert itself, partly due to the passage of time, but also due to the government’s many self-inflicted wounds and the return of Scottish Labour as an electable force.
It remains baffling, however, that Forbes remains on the back benches when Yousaf’s cabinet is among the weakest of the devolution era. There are good and talented people in the administration but there are not enough of them, and too many of the big jobs are in the hands of second-raters. As a consequence, most of the interesting thinking by nationalists is being done on the back benches by Forbes and others.
Meanwhile Scotland is being run by a failing, flailing government that is either unable to recognise its flaws, or lacks the courage to face up to them. Someone needs to let some air into the room – there is a better reality than this to be had.