Why SNP’s Medusa Touch ends up costing taxpayers a fortune

By Graham Grant

RICHARD Burton is remembered for many fine films, but a supernatural 1970s thriller in which he played a novelist with telekinetic powers may not be one of them.

It is a creepy movie, though, in which Burton’s character triggers disasters just by thinking about them – making him the sort of person you’d want to avoid at all costs.

Various catastrophes, including a crumbling cathedral and an air crash, are among the unfortunate events brought about simply through his negative thought processes.

Its clever title is The Medusa Touch – the opposite of the Midas Touch – because of the protagonist’s unerring capacity to bring about mayhem and destruction.

Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t seem the type to enjoy psychological horror movies, but she should make an exception for this one, because it captures the current condition of her party.

It is also beset by crises, fuelling the impression that everything it touches, regardless of intention, quickly founders in a quagmire – and turns into dust rather than King Midas’s gold.

The SNP in government is now neck-deep in the debris of failed or abortive policies as a result of chaotic ‘reform’ that has succeeded only in exacerbating the problems it set out to address.

The latest calamities include the prospect of Scotland’s last commercial shipyard entering administration, putting 350 jobs at risk, in a row over the spiralling cost of a CalMac ferry contract.

Billionaire Jim McColl – one of Miss Sturgeon’s economic advisers and owner of the Clydeside yard – has accused the SNP of refusing to foot the extra bill.

He said: ‘The way they are acting is economically damaging for the local area and for Scotland. Anybody with a Standard Grade in economics would be able to work this out, it’s not rocket science.’

That’s true, although Standard Grades have been replaced by Nationals, and the SNP’s botched curricular overhaul, combined with teacher shortages, mean there’s a good chance economics isn’t available in quite a few of our secondaries.

Back in 2014, Mr McColl had bought the shipyard out of administration, then won a £97million public sector contract when Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL), owned by the Scottish Government, ordered two dual-fuel ferries.

Mr McColl’s fury is understandable – he is a self-made billionaire but has to contend with the business acumen of career politician Derek Mackay, the blundering Finance Secretary, now apparently seen as a possible successor to Miss Sturgeon.

Worryingly, Mr Mackay is threatening to nationalise the yard, in a bout of political amnesia which has apparently erased all recollection of the saga over Prestwick Airport, bought by the Scottish Government in 2013 for the nominal sum of £1.

The Medusa Touch struck again because the losses were so substantial that the airport, described by Miss Sturgeon as a ‘viable enterprise’, had to be propped up with almost £40million worth of taxpayers’ cash – and is now on the market.

But it looks increasingly as though the taxpayer will have to step in to rescue Mr McColl’s yard, against his wishes – though the tycoon has also warned he may take legal action, and that ‘all options are on the table’.

These are problems that have been quietly simmering for months, while Miss Sturgeon postured over Brexit, and separatism – but now that they have burst into the open, the full extent of her government’s cack-handed handling of the situation has been laid bare.

Then there’s the deepening scandal over a new £150million children’s hospital in Edinburgh, which had been due to receive its first patients last month, but now – according to union bosses – may have to be scrapped altogether.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman overruled NHS Lothian and halted the opening after last-minute inspections highlighted safety concerns.

At the weekend, former card-carrying Communist Miss Freeman was unable to ‘give guarantees’ that it would be operational in 2020.

In the meantime, questions are piling up about the management of the project, after an architect involved in the design claimed health bosses were ‘pressured’ to sign off the building, despite knowing about the drainage issues.

Meanwhile it emerged last week that pass rates were lowered for a series of key exams as performance slumped – so that pupils sitting maths at Higher, Advanced Higher and National 5 levels were able to gain passes with lower results than last year.

The figures came after the number of pupils achieving top exam grades fell for the fourth year in a row, with a significant decline in National 4, Higher and Advanced Higher qualifications.

You might recall that in 2015, Miss Sturgeon said she wanted to be ‘judged on this’, adding: ‘If you are not, as First Minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people, then what are you prepared to?’

That judgment may come sooner than she would like, as the public sector watchdog Audit Scotland is set to launch an investigation into her educational reforms – and whether they have even begun to tackle deeply entrenched inequalities, as she promised they would.

And yet last week, as crises multiplied, many SNP politicians and activists spent much of their time berating the BBC for its allegedly inadequate coverage of an opinion poll showing a slender majority of respondents favoured independence.

Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse tweeted: ‘Almost five hours since the [Lord] Ashcroft poll indicating majority support for independence was published and yet it does not yet feature on the UK-controlled BBC’s Scotland web pages.

‘What does that tell you about BBC priorities, people of Scotland?’

The party and its backers, with more than a hint of hubris, are still busy proclaiming the demise of the Union as they discuss tactics on Twitter – and telling each other to try and be nice to No voters this time around.

One SNP-supporting journalist cautioned against ‘bitterness and squabbling’ (failing to realise that particular horse bolted some time ago), and won praise from Miss Sturgeon, who agreed that the ‘way we achieve [independence], and especially the way we seek to persuade those previously unpersuaded, must reflect the country we want to be’.

In the midst of this wishful thinking, a blogger blamed by many for stoking online thuggery and intimidation ahead of the 2014 referendum is allegedly in talks to set up his own separatist party, fed up with Miss Sturgeon’s failure to mirror the bolder approach of her predecessor, Alex Salmond – currently facing trial on a string of sex charges.

This was the sound of a political movement getting ahead of itself, in spectacular style; but while these discussions were taking place in the parallel universe of social media, in reality the chickens were coming home to roost – providing more plentiful evidence of Miss Sturgeon’s very own Medusa Touch.

In Miss Sturgeon’s real-life disaster movie, the consequences of her government’s action – and inaction – for shipyard workers, sick children and their families, as well as thousands of pupils, could be fundamental and long-lasting.

*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on August 13, 2019.

Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant

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