The SNP’s record in government has escaped scrutiny for too long
By David Torrance
For the past eight years or so opinion polls have been remarkably kind to the SNP. The most recent shows support for both the party and its core aim of independence running at more than 50%, popularity unprecedented for an administration now more than eight years old.
Yesterday's STV poll was yet more good news for the SNP: 48% said the party had the best policies on health, 49% on education, and 40% on crime and anti-social behaviour. Party leader and first minister Nicola Sturgeon, meanwhile, enjoys a net approval rating of 48% compared to minus 40% for David Cameron north of the border.
Pundits keep saying the nationalists will peak, but the summit keeps on getting higher.
As a consequence of this apparently endless honeymoon, only recently has Scotland's new natural party of government endured any real detailed scrutiny of its actual record. As a result there remains a sizeable gap between SNP rhetoric and reality.
So what of its record: one, according to Ms Sturgeon and her ministers, of which they can be "proud"? SNP press releases now include a standard paragraph emphasising just how much they've achieved since winning the 2007 Holyrood election:
'We have frozen council tax, protected free higher education, cut NHS waiting times, reformed our colleges, introduced curriculum for excellence, protected police numbers and secured the highest levels of youth employment since 2005 and the second highest female employment in the EU.'
It sounds impressive, but is it all as good as it sounds, or even true? It's worth taking each of their claims in turn:
'We have frozen council tax'
Indeed they have, every year since 2007. This works through a carrot-and-stick approach – local authorities would lose central government cash if they increased council tax – but while undeniably popular, it is neither 'progressive' (as the SNP frequently describes the policy) nor particularly good for local democracy. Naturally, the freeze saves those inhabiting larger dwellings greater sums of cash than those living in small flats, though the Scottish government makes the point that the latter will most likely end up saving a greater proportion of their income as a result. The policy is also starving councils of cash, effectively compelling them to implement austerity at a local level, a convenient side effect from the SNP's point of view. To be fair, the council tax freeze was only ever supposed to be an interim measure while the Scottish government legislated for a Local Income Tax (which, paradoxically, it wanted to set nationally). That process, however, has taken longer than planned, with a cross-party commission expected to recommend a replacement for council tax later this year. The Convention for Scottish Local Authorities has already called for an immediate end to the freeze, but it looks likely to remain in place until next year’s Scottish Parliament election.
'We have protected free higher education'
Again, on the face of it, this is true, although that protection of 'free' higher education (it isn't, of course, free at all) is flawed. First of all it ends up supporting all students, and generally speaking they're more likely to be middle rather than working class, while in terms of access the number of poorer Scots attending university as a result of the SNP’s flagship policy has barely shifted (while there are signs of progress in England, which has fees of up to £9,000 a year but paid after graduation according to income). In government the SNP has actually only abolished the old 'graduate endowment fee' of £2,000. Tuition fees were scrapped by the first Labour/Lib Dem devolved administration. Statistical analysis, meanwhile, shows that Scotland has poor provision for student support compared to other parts of the UK, and Scottish students end up with proportionately more debt. Indeed, the SNP has actually cut bursaries for poorer students, although recently Nicola Sturgeon partially (and modestly) reversed this.
'We have cut NHS waiting times'
This claim is a bit trickier, not least because the latest official data shows increasing waiting times. In terms of outpatients, the past few quarters have seen the highest numbers since the current measurement system was introduced in 2008. The share of A&E patients seen within four hours has also trended downwards since 2011. The Scottish government's legally-binding 'treatment time guarantee' for inpatients isn't being met: the target was missed only five times in the final quarter of 2012, but nearly 4,500 times in the first quarter of this year. The median wait for inpatient treatment has increased from 35 days to 41 days over the past couple of years.
'We have reformed our colleges'
Scotland's further education (or college) sector has certainly been 'reformed', just not in a good way. Indeed, this sector – which doesn’t enjoy the media profile that universities too – has taken a financial and political hit in part to finance the SNP's flagship no-tuition-fees policy. Under the SNP the number of colleges has almost halved, the number of full-time college staff has fallen by almost 10%, and Scottish Government funding by 12% in real terms. The mergers policy (like that for policing) was intended to save money, which it did, but as a 2014 Colleges Scotland report revealed, as a result the number of students fell by more than 100,000 and hours of learning by almost 10 million. Given that colleges generally educated more working-class pupils than universities, the 'progressive' SNP’s sense of priorities seem the wrong way around.
'We have introduced curriculum for excellence'
Again, this is technically true, although simply including the word 'excellence' in the name of a new curriculum doesn't necessarily make it so. Actually initiated by the last Labour/Lib Dem Scottish Executive, the 'Curriculum for Excellence' (CfE) was implemented by the SNP and, unlike the general thrust of policy south of the border, focuses on 'context-specific, whole-school approaches'. It's perhaps too early too tell if the CfE has achieved its aims, although concerns about its implementation have regularly surfaced in the Scottish media. Again, the funding backdrop is interesting: spending on schools in Scotland has actually been cut by 5 per cent in real terms while remaining about level in England according to Audit Scotland, while the most recent numeracy and literacy statistics show that a declining share of Scottish pupils has been assessed as performing 'well' or 'very well'. Indeed, on several measures Scottish education – regularly, and quixotically, hailed by the SNP as 'the best in the world' – is worse than it was before they took office in 2007, not least the gap between poorer and richer state-sector pupils, which is widening according to the 2014 Scottish Survey of Literacy. On Tuesday the first minister claimed Scottish education was "getting better", but there's little real evidence to justify that assertion.
'We have protected police numbers'
On this point the SNP has a better record: while the number of police officers in England and Wales continues to fall, in Scotland they have increased by more than 1,000 since the 2007 Holyrood election. According to official statistics, the level of recorded crime in Scotland has also reached its lowest level in four decades. The Scottish government's record when it comes to policing more generally, however, is less rosy. While the centralisation of eight regional police forces to form Police Scotland will eventually save money, it's also meant the extension of Glasgow-style policing across the country, high rates of stop-and-search and the use of armed officers to respond to routine incidents. Last week Sir Stephen House, Police Scotland's chief constable, resigned, but beyond a review of stop and search the Scottish Government generally continues to defend the force.
'We have secured the highest levels of youth employment since 2005 and the second highest female employment in the EU'
According to figures compiled by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe), both these claims are true: female employment in Scotland now stands at 72.5 per cent, while youth unemployment is at its lowest level in six years. That said, the Scottish government has become famous for claiming the credit when employment figures look good and blaming Westminster when they're bad.
The SNP's constant mantra is that it's achieved all of the above (good or bad) 'despite unprecedented Tory cuts to Scotland’s budget'. But although the Conservatives have undeniably reduced the Scottish block grant, what the Scottish government doesn't say is that the Barnett Formula has meant lower proportionate cuts than in most UK government departments. Sure, finance secretary John Swinney has 'balanced the books' in every Scottish Budget since 2007, but then under the 1998 Scotland Act he's had no choice.
None of this means that the SNP in government has been a disaster, far from it – it's reputation for competence (which was key to its 2011 election victory) is generally well deserved and any cock-ups have been small beer. But at the same time it hasn't been transformative, and nowhere near as radical, bold and ambitious as the always-slick presentation dictates. It's probably more accurate to say that since 2007 the Scottish government has been no better or no worse than its Labour/Lib Dem predecessors.
And what has been really lacking is proper scrutiny of the sort applied to the UK government on a daily basis. Before the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 there was much talk of a 'democratic deficit' in Scotland. Now there's an accountability deficit, and it's one from which the SNP continues to benefit.
David Torrance is Alex Salmond's biographer. Salmond: Against the Odds – the revised post-referendum edition, is out in paperback now. Follow him on Twitter here.
The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.