Public service workers are being used as human shields to blunt the arrows of the SNP’s army of critics
RUNNING a government in the post-accountability era is a wearying business — calling for a blend of denial, suppression, and endless deflection.
Nicola Sturgeon has mastered the art of dodging responsibility, or trying to, by reinterpreting attacks on her record as assaults on some other less deserving targets.
They become human shields, affording some shelter for the First Minister as her opponents open fire — and she won’t hesitate for a second before deploying them.
Question her record on education and you’re guilty of traducing teachers and indeed children — while any criticism of the NHS is a slander on hard-working medics.
Doctors, nurses, teachers — all of them have been drafted in to provide cover for Miss Sturgeon — blunting the arrows of those detractors who dare to take aim at her.
Last week Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar confronted her with yet more evidence of alleged failings at the SNP’s flagship super-hospital in Glasgow.
The Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH) was hailed by Miss Sturgeon as paving the way for the transformation of healthcare when she was Health Secretary.
Now it’s at the centre of a public inquiry over patient deaths, and Mr Sarwar raised the case of a six-month-old baby said to have died from an infection.
‘We take all of these concerns very seriously’, Miss Sturgeon assured MSPs, ‘but it is also important that politicians do not come to the chamber and try to erode confidence in the quality of care that is provided by dedicated clinicians at the QEUH every single day.’
So Mr Sarwar, in drawing attention to the death of a baby in circumstances that raise major questions over hospital safety, was in fact seeking to ‘erode confidence’ in clinicians.
He also had the temerity to point out that NHS whistleblowers are terrified of speaking out and that the health board managers should be sacked — something which Miss Sturgeon has refused to do.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise — they’re the fall guys, diverting attention from the SNP’s own failures, so they will be left in place for as long as possible.
A similar tactic was used during the first tumultuous years of the single police service, when dysfunctional hierarchies were relatively unchallenged — and ministers who were responsible for the mess looked on from the side-lines.
Miss Sturgeon said Mr Sarwar was crossing the line ‘from raising legitimate issues to undermine confidence in a hospital and in hard-working clinicians’.
Yet almost half of staff surveyed at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde say they don’t have full trust or confidence in the management team.
And about a third do not feel staff performance is managed well — while a third don’t feel the board cares about their health or wellbeing.
Many of the tireless NHS workers whom Miss Sturgeon rightly rates so highly clearly don’t believe they’re valued at all, and they may have a point.
Back in 2018, a school whistleblower wrote to John Swinney claiming that teachers had been told to ‘keep [their] mouths shut about the problems facing them’.
The Tories said it highlighted a ‘culture of fear and secrecy’ in the country’s classrooms, with teachers afraid of highlighting the ‘crisis’ at the chalkface.
The First Minister is content to let them soak up some of the criticism of her mismanagement — when you attack her, you’re really attacking doctors, nurses, and teachers, and that makes your motivation morally questionable.
But it’s not a new approach — back in 2016, the then Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson accused Miss Sturgeon of presiding over systemic failure in state education.
The response from the SNP leader was a familiar one — Miss Davidson was doing a ‘disservice to the work that is going on in education’.
The following year, Miss Davidson asked whether it was time we had a First Minister ‘who doesn’t just admit the occasional mistake but actually does something about them?’
Miss Sturgeon replied: ‘I am the first to admit there is much more to do, but Ruth Davidson should stop doing a disservice to teachers and pupils across the country by using terms like a failing education system.
‘We do not have a failing education system in Scotland — Ruth Davidson should be ashamed standing up here suggesting we do.’
Yet in 2019, a global report found that Scottish pupils lag behind those in Latvia, Slovenia and Estonia in maths — and are outperformed by children in England.
That same year, Miss Davidson challenged Miss Sturgeon about subject rationing in schools and was told — you guessed it — that she was ‘talking down Scottish education’.
However, the OECD found earlier this year that the ‘variation of subject choice between schools may have unforeseen consequences for learner progression’.
You might also wonder why the SNP Government has promised a shake-up of its schools quangos if there aren’t any education failures.
The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) is to be scrapped and replaced, while Education Scotland will see its powers of inspection removed.
Last week Education Scotland took the radical step of saying there wouldn’t be any formal school inspections in the new year, with the focus shifting instead to ‘recovery visits’.
An effective way of limiting scrutiny of failure is the removal of the mechanism by which it can be detected — a truth that Miss Sturgeon knows well.
Those quangos deserve the scrap heap but it took ministers long enough to act.
Again, that’s because they were useful — better to have criticism of organisations run by fat-cat managers than to have it directed at their political masters.
But in the meantime — while ministers looked on — the failures in schools have become more deeply ingrained.
And any attempt at pointing this out was seen as an attack upon teachers and children — you’d have to be pretty low and cynical to criticise kids, after all, and hard-working teachers.
It’s a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that has served Miss Sturgeon well for years — but surely it’s had its day after so many outings in the Holyrood chamber, and at the seemingly interminable stream of Covid briefings.
Nor is she the only notable practitioner of this time-worn trick.
During one of the shabbiest episodes in Holyrood history, Mr Swinney denied that Liam Fee, a Fife two-year-old murdered by his mother and her partner, had been subject to an early version of Named Person, the Orwellian scheme that sought to appoint state guardians for all children in Scotland.
In a show of righteous indignation, he said it was ‘atrocious’ to make that connection — effectively it was a slur on hard-working social workers.
Later an official report confirmed that the Named Person policy ‘contributed to confusion’ about who was responsible for providing support for Liam.
Five years on, you’ll be shocked to hear that there’s no sign of an apology from Mr Swinney.
But that’s entirely in keeping with a shameless administration that has no compunction about using its loyal public servants as convenient scapegoats for its many failures.
- This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on December 7th, 2021.
- *Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant