Scottish politics from a female, LibDem perspective
Published on 27/03/2013 00:00 in the Scotsman
I WAITED patiently this weekend to hear what our government at Holyrood has planned for us over the next three years.
Traditionally, conferences, like the SNP’s recent gathering in Inverness, are where policy announcements are made, government plans set out and ministers take the opportunity to highlight their successes in the full glare of the media spotlight. But not this time. This time I waited in vain.
I had hoped to hear what the SNP government was planning to do about the growing problems in the National Health Service and recent scandal over waiting times.
Perhaps it would tell us how it is going to overcome the chain of command problems that are threatening the launch of its single police force for Scotland.
Or maybe the SNP would reveal plans to relieve financial pressure on our colleges and tackle the issues surrounding the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence that are so worrying for parents.
No. Instead all I heard about was independence. And the only positive changes we were offered would be after independence, if we vote Yes, of course.
Don’t get me wrong, I am just as concerned about the forthcoming referendum as everyone else in Scotland. Now that I know the date and the question, I am as keen as every other voter to know exactly what it is that the SNP and the Yes Campaign want us all to give our consent to.
And I’m certainly not politically naive. I appreciate that after revealing the date on Thursday – to coincide with the SNP spring conference – the Inverness gathering was bound to be referendum heavy. But to quote Leiber and Stoller, or PJ Harvey if you prefer: “Is that all there is?”
I have other, and in many ways more immediate, concerns about Scotland’s future. I don’t want to waken up on 19 September, 2014, and discover that, whatever the outcome of the referendum the day before, we have ignored or put to one side, important issues and set our social progress, and our children’s opportunities back 20 years by focusing only on Yes or No.
Scotland is facing problems that cannot wait until our constitutional future is settled. And they don’t have to. Families need help now and the Scottish Government has the power to provide that help. The First Minister has promised a revolution in childcare in an independent Scotland. Why not now?
Past Scottish administrations didn’t need to wait for independence to introduce free personal care for the elderly, free travel for pensioners or abolish university tuition fees and this government didn’t have to wait to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol.
Scotland also needs jobs, but the SNP is sitting on hundreds of millions of pounds that it could have invested to boost our economy.
Last year, the party told the media almost weekly that it had more than £300 million of “shovel ready” projects that were being held up because it needed the cash from the UK government. The Scottish Government has since received an extra £400m from Westminster and it is not spending it.
It could, for example, have brought forward the promised upgrading of the A9 to dual carriageway and potentially saved lives on that apology for a main trunk road. Why the delay? Why only some early investigation and preparatory work in their Perthshire heartland just in time for SNP members to hear about it on their trip north on Friday?
Meanwhile, opposition MSPs at Holyrood are raising serious concerns about health, education and public services. Just yesterday, Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Jim Hume raised concerns about cancer treatment times as published figures revealed that the NHS failed to meet national waiting times standards for four out of ten cancer types.
Fellow Lib Dem MSP Liam McArthur drew attention to falling student numbers at our colleges and Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale has called for more financial support for students at Scotland’s universities. Politicians from all parties have called for clarity on the plans to centralise our police and fire services.
Perhaps the clearest accusation of this obsession overshadowing all else came last week during the Holyrood debate on Iraq. It was an opportunity a number of SNP back-benchers used to say that an independent Scotland would not have gone to war. Some on the Labour benches suggested this was perhaps not the best use of government time when there is a backlog of actual work to be done. But these issues appear to have slipped down the Scottish Government’s agenda in favour of constant confrontation with Westminster.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the suspicion that political point-scoring exercises to promote the independence argument has become more important than tackling the issues. Surely the people of Scotland are entitled to expect their two governments to work together constructively – regardless of their differences in the constitutional debate?
I expect my critics in the SNP will say I’m being negative, that I’ve bought the No campaign’s rhetoric. No doubt the SNP will point to the pro-UK campaign and say: “They’re doing it, too.” And, yes, they’d be right. Any argument the Yes campaign puts forward is countered by Better Together and opponents of separation – including me – take every opportunity to highlight the benefits of the UK.
But I was not fortunate enough to be elected to Holyrood to tackle Scotland’s social problems, protect our children’s future, improve their education and safeguard our health services. The SNP MSPs were. And their leadership was offered the opportunity to serve us all. And surely they can see for themselves the danger in focusing on that one issue – independence – to the exclusion of all others?
Its almost three years since the Scottish National Party was elected with a landslide victory that few, even among their own members, could have expected.
In the run up to that vote, those of us who knocked doors, handed out leaflets or attended public hustings, were consistently told that there was no reason not to vote SNP.
They had proven they could be just as competent as any other party in running Scotland. And when we asked about independence, more often that not voters told us that they did not think that was high on the agenda.
After all, there was very little about it in any of the SNP literature and it was never really mentioned in any political broadcasts or newspaper interviews. Now we hear little else. And there is so much more we need the SNP to think about.
• Christine Jardine is a former Liberal Democrat special adviser to the UK government