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Voices of Scotland: Fourteen years of SNP failure

Disillusionment with New Labour government narrowly gained the SNP a majority in 2007 – but they soon revealed themselves to be a 'business as usual' neoliberal party, writes GORDON MACKAY

BY the time the next Scottish Parliament election comes around in 2021 the Scottish National Party will have been the sole party of government in Scotland for 14 years, longer than any single party United Kingdom government since 1830 with the exception of the Tory governments of Thatcher/Major.

After such a period of uninterrupted power and popular support, actually increasing their share of the constituency vote at each election, it would be easy to excuse the thought that the SNP had earned its political success by bold promises, and then delivering on them, changing the face of Scotland in the way that some multi-term governments have done for Britain.

The reality is somewhat different, and the fact is that not only has the SNP repeatedly made very few specific electoral promises, as compared to broad brush claims of societal transformation, but when they have done so they repeatedly fail to achieve what they promise.

A look back at the SNP manifesto of 2007, the election that first introduced them to office, highlights the failure of the SNP in government, other than being in government as an end in itself.

It is widely thought that over and above disillusionment with eight years of Tony Blair’s New Labour government there were two specific policy areas that got the SNP over the line in front of Labour by a single seat in the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections. The first was the pledge to abolish the council tax, the second was a commitment to the NHS.

The abolition of the council tax was of course never delivered, not then, not 12 years later. That failure to follow through on big promises has been symptomatic of the SNP in power. They could, to be fair, in 2007 justifiably claim they did not have the parliamentary votes to get abolition through, but noticeably in the following parliament when they did have an outright majority they simply did not act.

The failure to improve the NHS however was a failure of an altogether different nature, with the change not requiring votes in the Holyrood chamber. As well as never delivering on their commitment to democratise the NHS by ensuring that at least half of all NHS Board members would be elected by the public, three very specific promises were made on improving the health of the nation that were measurable and would show progress towards a fairer, more equal and just society.

The first was to reduce the need for prescription of antidepressant medication; the second was committing to ensuring the two month waiting time target for cancer patients between diagnosis and treatment was met. The third related to the major cause of ill-health in Scotland, poverty. The SNP manifesto said that reducing poverty would be an SNP priority as it had been a sign of serious political and economic failure.

Not only has the SNP in government failed to achieve these promises, they haven’t even kept us standing still as a country. In every one of these three important determinants of a decent society Scotland is worse, and significantly worse, off than it was before the SNP came to power.

The prescribing of antidepressants in Scotland rose from 3.8 million items in 2007 to 6.6 million items in 2018, an increase of over 73 per cent.

The SNP government has a target of 95 per cent of all urgent cancer referrals to begin treatment within 62 days of referral. Not only is the target not being met, the level of failure is woeful, with almost one patient in five not beginning treatment within the government’s own treatment window.

Finally, the level of poverty in Scotland in 2007 was running at 17 per cent, quite rightly described as a sign of serious political and economic failure. The problem for the SNP, even if it currently does not appear to be an electoral one, is that after 12 years of SNP government poverty is now the burden of 20 per cent of the population. Truly a sign of serious political and economic failure, but not apparently of theirs.

There was a fifth SNP manifesto commitment in 2007 that covered the whole of the public sector but has a particular current resonance in the NHS. “Seeking better value for capital projects within a Scottish Futures Trust” brings us to the Sick Children’s Hospital in Edinburgh.

Some readers of this newspaper may remember a 1981 episode of Yes Minister entitled The Compassionate Society about a hospital with no patients. In that episode the Cabinet Secretary Jim Hacker was desperately trying to get patients into a hospital which due to funding shortages wasn’t admitting them.

In Edinburgh the real Cabinet Secretary Jeanne Freeman is doing everything she can to keep patients out of hospital while creating a funding shortage.

Although completed in February, Ms Freeman ordered the new hospital not to be opened until further checks have been carried out on the hospital ventilation system. Possibly the first question to ask is, as NHS Lothian were content to open the hospital, why is the board still in place if the Cabinet Secretary believes there is significant doubt over the safety of the hospital? Following straight on from that is the fact that the Sick Children’s Hospital cost £150 million to build, but the repayment cost for the Scottish public will be £432 million.

That means that by the end of this year the Scottish taxpayer will have paid £14 million to private financiers for a hospital that cannot admit patients due to the Cabinet Secretary’s safety concerns. It will be interesting to hear how the Cabinet Secretary defines SNP “best value.”

The SNP has failed for 12 years to change Scotland for the better. In the area that best encapsulates the decent society, healthcare, Scotland has become less fair, less equal, less just, and still we take money out of our healthcare system to fill the pockets of the greedy. Do we intend to carry on like this?

Gordon Mackay is former president of Unison and a member of the Unison EC.

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