Sturgeon may shine on national TV… but Scots viewers can see the tarnish

PRIME-time televised political debates have a nasty habit of producing unexpected consequences.

Affable Nick Clegg became an unlikely superstar in 2010 after taking the podium alongside David Cameron and Gordon Brown.

A pale, sweaty Richard Nixon lost out in a 1960 TV clash with JFK after the more telegenic Kennedy, wearing makeup, coasted to victory.

The special edition of the BBC’s Question Time last week offered party leaders the chance to debate not with each other, but with the audience.

Nicola Sturgeon – the only participant not personally standing for election next month – was judged by many commentators to have ‘won’ the night with a confident performance.

But viewers in Scotland were entitled to arrive at a different conclusion: the First Minister was assisted by an audience that simply wasn’t capable of asking her tough questions.

By comparison, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson were subjected to a more torrid time – but then their largely English interrogators were more likely to know their track records.

For anyone north of the Border, there was an uncanny sense that Miss Sturgeon had sent an avatar in front of the TV cameras, a projection of the kind of politician she would like to be.

Many saw her as progressive, humane, unerringly reasonable, and relatable; she even followed up her appearance with tweets about her love of literature.

True, host Fiona Bruce did ask her about Scotland’s notional deficit of £12.6billion, more than half of the UK total of £23.5billion, only to be told it was all Westminster’s fault, which seemed to satisfy everyone.

Outrageously, Miss Sturgeon asserted that ‘proponents of independence’ would get Scexit right, unlike the Tories who had made such a hash of Brexit, so there would be no need for a confirmatory referendum on Scotland quitting the UK.

Quite what evidence she had in mind for the Nationalists’ innate ability to plan and manage is anyone’s guess – no-one asked her last week.

After all, this is a government that couldn’t even open a bridge properly, and begged for welfare powers only to make such a mess of implementing them that the full introduction of a new benefits system has had to be delayed until 2024.

And she denied anyone in the Yes camp had promised there wouldn’t be a repeat of the 2014 independence referendum, even though the ‘once in a generation’ pledge was included in black and white in the SNP’s infamous White Paper, written by, er Miss Sturgeon.

She is so desperate to get onto these programmes because she can use them to produce a sanitised, airbrushed facsimile of the politician she longs to be, safe in the knowledge no-one will ask too many uncomfortable questions.

The reality is infinitely more disturbing: she’s the leader of a dog-eared administration drained of any last vestige of radical policy-making beyond its central, all-consuming passion to rip apart the UK – a mission now riddled with countless contradictions.

Here is the head of a devolved government presiding over a health service in a state of slow-motion collapse, where child cancer patients have died in a flagship super-hospital at the centre of a forthcoming public inquiry about the contaminated water supply.

Face-off: Andrew Neil’s forensic interview with Nicola Sturgeon

Ministerial oversight of the rapidly accumulating problems within the NHS has been negligible, but a lame-duck Health Secretary limps on because her boss, former Health Secretary Miss Sturgeon, wants to use her to deflect attention away from her own role in the fiasco.

In the aftermath of these televisual events, it’s common for English voters to tweet about their adoration of Miss Sturgeon, and their desire to move to Scotland to escape the binary nature of Brexit politics. Talk about out of the frying pan…

But would they really want to live under the yoke of the UK’s most onerous tax regime, predicated on a set of crude, erroneous assumptions about the enormous wealth of higher-rate taxpayers?

It’s a system so manifestly unjust that the UK Government has had to step in to top up the earnings of members of the Armed Services, preventing a morale-sapping internal pay apartheid.

Meanwhile, the block grant Scotland receives from Westminster is set to shrink by £1billion over the three years from 2020–21, partly because the forecast for the amount of Scottish income tax likely to be raised has been scaled back.

Now bumbling Finance Secretary Derek Mackay insists the next UK Government must green-light turbocharged borrowing powers so he can ‘boost the economy’ and tackle climate change.

And how many parents would willingly move to Scotland if they knew the true scale of the chronic decline of state education, amid botched curricular reform and mounting evidence of a steep fall in classroom standards?

Miss Sturgeon’s £120million Pupil Equity Fund was meant to repair some of this damage, much of it self-inflicted, and close the ‘attainment gap’.

But it is now under the microscope of public spending watchdog Audit Scotland over concern that cash has been frittered away on vanity projects, such as the purchase of expensive teddy bears for primary school pupils in West Lothian.

Talking of the SNP’s planning prowess, how about the 2013 launch of Police Scotland, which saw our most prized public service hobbled by swingeing cuts, and created such fundamental structural flaws that it was blighted by years of hierarchical turmoil? And all the while, violent crime is on the rise.

Brief turns on UK-wide political shows such as last week’s charade may paint a picture of transparency – but it’s highly synthetic.

No-one questioned Miss Sturgeon about her use of an SNP email address, and the allegation that this might have helped her avoid scrutiny under freedom of information laws, routinely flouted under this highly secretive regime.

Then there are the policies that, one after another, have crumbled to dust, from the calamitous Named Person snooper scheme to the failed bid to ban sectarian chanting at football matches.

And we should be in no doubt that the vultures are circling, as the SNP slides ever-further into factionalism and in-fighting, and the Nationalist movement becomes increasingly restive over its demand for a re-run of the 2014 referendum.

You’d never know all this from the gloss and sheen of Miss Sturgeon’s smug cameos on these high-profile ‘debates’, where her unbridled self-delusion is allowed to run riot.

Granted, last night Miss Sturgeon faced the brilliantly forensic Andrew Neil, who dismantled her ramshackle arguments on a range of key issues.

It was the sort of evisceration that has been missing all too often in this campaign.

Apart from Neil’s admirable work, perhaps the harshest inquisition political leaders in Scotland are likely to face is an interview by a TV character – the fictional chief constable, Cameron Miekelson, from the BBC’s Scot Squad satire. He has nicknamed himself ‘Policey Paxman’ for the occasion.

The odd awkward question about the single police force aside, it should be another easy ride for Miss Sturgeon.

But at a UK level, is it too much to ask that broadcasters carry out some basic due diligence (perhaps even a quick Google) before inviting her onto a national platform?

Or will they continue to allow her to present to the world a manufactured alter ego most Scots know to be a cynical fraud?

*This column appeared in today’s Scottish Daily Mail on November 26, 2019.