In the Tories’ darkest hours after the Blair landslide in 1997, I was asked by a former minister what the party needed to do to return to government. He found my reply unhelpful, which I suppose it was. “Wait,” I said, “two terms of Labour government, ten years should do the trick.” It took longer – three terms and almost thirteen years, and even then David Cameron’s party didn’t get a majority in the Commons and had to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Nevertheless, essentially, I was right. People get tired of a governing party. The wheel turns, even if slowly.
This, as Gerald Warner pointed out in his article here the other day, is now happening to the SNP. Its beautiful morning is turning into a wet and dirty afternoon. In my youth I remember someone telling an Aberdeenshire farmer, “that’s an awfu’ bonnie wife you hae, Wardie.” “Aye, aye,” he replied, “but the bloom’s aff o’ her.” That’s how it is with Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP today. The bloom’s aff o’ them.”
It’s partly so because they have failed in government. Scottish schools and the NHS Scotland are both in a bad way. Gerald Warner quoted figures here. I don’t need to repeat them. The SNP is being held responsible for these failures and shortcomings. Of course it is. That’s the fate of governments. I may think it absurd. Indeed I do think it absurd because I believe that the ability of governments to effect improvements, or even maintain present standards, in these areas is very limited.
I don’t pretend to know a lot about the Health Service, but anyone can see that it is experiencing increasing demand without the resources to meet this. No doubt government decisions contribute to this inability, but the problems of our NHS would still be acute even if health ministers had the wisdom of Solomon. The chief cause of the crisis in the NHS is our longevity. As Max Pemberton, who has worked in the Health Service for more that twenty years, wrote in The Spectator, “When the NHS was created in 1948, life expectancy was 13 years shorter than it is today… The longer people live, the more likely they are to develop a chronic disease.” An 85 year-old, he remarked, costs the NHS more than five times as much as the average 30 year-old.
There’s not much politicians can do about this, unless they order a cull of oldies like me. This might not be electorally popular.
As for schools, everyone of sense knows that the two most important things are the quality of teachers and the quality of parents. Good teachers and good parents make for good schools. Teaching is a less attractive career than it was fifty or sixty years ago, partly because there are more – and better-paid – opportunities for bright graduates, and far more career opportunities for intelligent women, opportunities denied to their grandmothers, no matter how intelligent and able they were. Teaching and nursing were the two careers open to bright and capable girls.
So it is now more difficult to attract able young men and women to the teaching profession. As an illustration I recall that when I lived in Edinburgh in the 1980s and hovered on the fringe of literary circles, most of the best Scottish poets were, or had been, school teachers – for example, Norman McCaig, Robert Garioch, Sorley Maclean and Iain Crichton Smith. Not only poets: the best Scottish novelist of my generation, William McIlvanney, taught for twenty years in Ayrshire schools. Novelists and poets today are more likely to be writers-in-residence at universities or colleges or local authorities, not teaching English grammar and composition to schoolchildren.
Scottish schools used to have a deservedly high reputation. This was at least partly due to the determination of parents, especially mothers, that their children should “get on” in the world. Is that determination so strong today? There is reason to think it isn’t. It wasn’t of course only mothers who saw education as their children’s way to a better life. I have just been reading a book by Tom English and Peter Burns on the 1971 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand. Many of the Lions stars then came from Wales, most from a mining background. All of them spoke of their fathers’ determination that they should get themselves an education so that they didn’t have to follow them down the pit. People talk nostalgically of close-knit mining communities, but caring parents in these communities often wanted their sons to get on and get out.
Nevertheless the criticism now being directed at the SNP for the perceived failings of schools and the Health Service is understandable and justified. Nicola Sturgeon and her ministers have asked for it. Having laid claim to a power and influence they don’t actually possess, they cannot reasonably complain if people take them at their word. Likewise, since ministers will claim credit for a good set of exam results, they invite blame when standards of literacy and numeracy are seen to be unsatisfactory.
It’s not only on account of this failure to make good on exaggerated promises that the bloom is coming off the SNP; it’s because the party has now had a long run in office, even if at first as a minority government. People weary of politicians who have been on the stage for years. (There were Tories who breathed a sigh of relief when Margaret Thatcher was dislodged in 1990.) Nicola Sturgeon may still be adored by the faithful, but an awful lot of not very political Scots are now bored and irritated by her – even many who at first regarded her as a welcome and much-needed change from Alex Salmond.
So, yes, it’s likely that the SNP will lose a few seats on June 8th and consequently lose momentum. There’s now unlikely to be a second Independence Referendum, at least till Brexit has become a reality. The SNP may also, as Gerald Warner suggests, lose power at the next Holyrood election, even while remaining the largest party in the Scottish Parliament, and a Unionist coalition might form the government.
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That however would be a dangerous moment for the Union. The demand for Independence wouldn’t disappear. On the contrary it might be stimulated. The SNP would be refreshed by the experience of opposition where it would have no responsibility for the state of schools and the NHS. If a Nationalist politician put the same sort of question to me as that Tory ex-minister did twenty years ago, I would perforce give him the same sort of answer: wait.
This is the paradox of Scottish politics today. The longer the SNP stays in office, the less attractive independence seems to Middle Scotland, the less likely a second referendum becomes. But, with the SNP in opposition, things might well soon look very different. The independence tide is going out now, but tides turn, tides turn.