False promises, false hope … and one unwelcome truth that even the SNP cannot avoid

AFTER six years of entrenched secrecy, the Sturgeon regime is finally buckling under the weight of its own deceptions.

And there’s little doubt it will cling doggedly to those secrets for as long as it can, perhaps until after it has ceased to exist.

Richard Nixon spent most of his life after quitting the presidency battling to keep control of hours of Oval Office tape recordings.

With the same stubbornness, Nicola Sturgeon’s government is suppressing files relating to the Alex Salmond judicial review, in defiance of parliament.

And there’s something Nixonian about its tendency towards cover-up, paranoia and obfuscation – and, it seems, a deeply ingrained aversion to telling the whole truth.

For Nationalists, truth is a malleable concept and open to interpretation – but in recent days the SNP’s opponents have alleged repeatedly that Miss Sturgeon has lied.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross, commenting on her highly evasive TV interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday, said she had ‘doubled down on a clear-cut lie’, and was ‘disgracing the office of the First Minister’.

Tory MSP Oliver Mundell was thrown out of the Holyrood debating chamber for saying Miss Sturgeon had ‘lied’ about her pledge to be fully compliant with the Salmond probe.

The Tories, who have led the fight to prise the Salmond dossier away from the firm grasp of SNP ministers, allege that the government’s refusal to hand over the documents demanded by MSPs shows they have ‘something to hide’.

Mr Marr spoke about a ‘gap’ between the SNP’s presentation of policy and its implementation, from Covid to schools and the Salmond row, though it is more of a gulf than a gap.

The question of whether Miss Sturgeon misled parliament over her knowledge of the Salmond claims, and therefore broke the ministerial code, is subject to a separate inquiry.

Meanwhile, Miss Sturgeon’s deputy John Swinney, who has been tasked with exploring the legal avenues which would allow the lawyers’ advice ministers received on the Salmond judicial review to be released, faces the possibility of a no confidence vote.

Opposition parties believe ministers ignored legal guidance not to fight a court challenge raised by Mr Salmond last year over the government’s handling of sexual misconduct complaints against him by two civil servants.

As the pressure increases, Miss Sturgeon’s government is ordering in extra supplies of whitewash and applying it liberally to the battered wreckage of its policy agenda, such as it is.

It’s the equivalent of a second-hand car salesman persuading you that the vehicle you have your eye on has had only one careful owner and is in perfect condition, despite knowing it’s on its last legs and its milometer has been extensively fiddled with.

But the wheels are coming off this cut-and-shut administration, hence the saturation coverage of the SNP’s conference in recent days, previewing Miss Sturgeon’s keynote virtual speech yesterday.

It backfired badly: the Marr ordeal was a rare opportunity for network TV viewers to see Miss Sturgeon with her back to the wall, held to account for a series of failings.

Her Covid ‘elimination strategy’ was exposed as a sham, with figures showing Scotland’s Covid death rate rising higher than England’s.

The First Minister tried to repair some of the damage yesterday by telling Sky’s Kay Burley that it was unfair to pick data for such a short spell – you had to look at the whole pandemic.

That seems an odd approach: how can we judge her government on its performance tackling the second wave of Covid by analysis of how things were going, say, six months ago?

Miss Sturgeon also said the last thing viewers who had lost relatives to Covid wanted to hear from her was that Scotland was faring better than England on the Covid front – but then she went on to make exactly that point.

She trotted out some well-worn and sincere lines about her sorrow over coronavirus deaths in care homes, which are again rising sharply.

But we know, because she and her Health Secretary and her top medic have told us, that in some cases Covid-positive patients can be discharged into residential care, while an inquiry into what went wrong during the first outbreaks, when nearly 2,000 care home residents died, is still on the backburner.

Unsportingly, the Marr interview also forced Miss Sturgeon to confront another unwelcome truth: that her long-ago pledge to fix state education had failed.

(Six years of secrecy: Sturgeon is under pressure)

Millions have been pumped into a scheme to close the ‘attainment gap’ without much tangible return, while the inaptly named Curriculum for Excellence is regularly savaged even by some of those who helped to devise it.

At the weekend, we discovered the boss of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) was allowed to censor a supposedly impartial report into the exams fiasco, which had been written by an academic who once urged people to vote for the SNP.

But we’re asked to accept there’s nothing remotely sinister about a government which promised a fearlessly independent report sending it to the head of the agency at the heart of the mess to give it the odd tweak.

The government simply asserted in response to the row that the report had been ‘entirely independent’, while the SQA said it had been ‘robust’.

For months now, the BBC has screened Miss Sturgeon’s daily coronavirus briefings, which have turned into party political broadcasts and frequently veer off-topic.

These press conferences may serve a purpose, but they have also helped to deflect public scrutiny away from her administration’s record over the last 13 years.

They have allowed the First Minister to emote about how we all need to stick together, and generate favourable headlines about how she’s handling the crisis.

But the disaster of her government in pre-Covid days (remember them?) hasn’t gone away, from chaotic mismanagement of the NHS to the hash it made of state school reform.

With vaccine roll-out on the horizon – and what could possibly go wrong with Jeane Freeman in charge? – attention is beginning to turn to the post-virus era, and to next May’s election.

The polls are in the SNP’s favour and last year at the snap General Election it performed well, largely because voters consciously deferred judgment on its track record.

In the last few days, we’ve seen a desperate attempt at shoring up Miss Sturgeon’s position in the face of disintegrating internal discipline: a party ruled with an iron fist has now turned into a sack full of ferrets.

The old routine about a second independence referendum, this time in the midst of an economic calamity, has been dusted off, with a threadbare plan for a four-day week thrown in for good measure.

It’s a dated shtick, designed for the hard core, and truly believing any of it hinges on the suspension of all rational faculties.

But there is one truth that even the SNP can’t avoid: there’s more than a whiff of hubris about its ministers entreating us all to join them in a leap of faith, forging a bold new state, when their party has systematically betrayed our trust for over a decade.

*This column was published in the Scottish Daily Mail on December 1, 2020.

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper