I first experience frontline politics as the Press Officer for George Robertson when he was Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland in the early, pre-government Blair years. It was instructive.
The thing that, naively, I hadn’t expected going into the job was how much of the business of politics is ‘just getting through the day’. People think that politics is strategic, like a game of chess. Mostly it’s not. Mostly it is like playing tennis against half a dozen opponents at once – the balls are flying over the net faster than you can return them.
Since the beginning of time I suspect that people of every human civilisation have had the same realisation – that if you are constantly turning your back to put out little fires behind you because of things you did yesterday, bigger fires will break out in front of you.
But without question, since the dawn of humanity and even equipped with that knowledge, humans will always turn to put out the little fires and those bigger fires will break out ahead. In politics you just keep doing it until it’s an inferno – and then you leave the stage. This is the story of the Major years, the constant relaunches of the Blair project, the short-lived Brown administration and so on.
What is different in Scotland just now is not that the pattern is any different, its that it is exaggerated yet not examined. For about five years now bigger and bigger fires have been breaking out all around the Scottish Government. Scotland’s First Minister doesn’t just turn to put them out, she converts the process into a full-on theatrical production.
And because of the poorly-resourced nature of Scotland’s media it is dragged from covering one theatrical production to the next but doesn’t have the capacity to draw effective lines between all of them.
Thus today the talk is all of the army being called onto the streets of Scotland to save the ambulance service, entirely obscuring yesterday and the frankly catastrophic failure to keep a Scottish ferry contract in the hands of a Scottish shipbuilder the government has thrown money at.
Both make us forget that a few days before that the Scottish Government quietly dropped plans for a National Energy Company on the day the last wind turbine manufacturer in Scotland folded – and so on back to a year into the administration when the high-profile Poverty Tsar criticised the Scottish Government’s failure to heed any of her advice and then was promptly ‘disappeared’ completely.
This cycle of failure, confessional, drama, repeat has been the primary feature of this administration. Drug deaths couldn’t be further down the agenda until they prove embarrassing so there is a heartfelt ‘we took our eye of the ball’, a blameless Minister is sacked for show and money is thrown at the problem.
But I was in conversation with someone in public health expressing enormous frustration that this simply upended the entire public health agenda – if you’re not calling about drug deaths now the phone will ring out. And so inevitably in a short period of time there will be an indicator that some other function in public health has been badly neglected and it’ll start all over again.
Being seen is a small part of leadership – learning from why you’ve been making errors and changing how you do business to avoid them in the future is more important
Despite the increasingly convenient excuse of Covid, it is simply not true to suggest that the problem with our ambulances is sudden or unexpected. There are quite a few possible measures of performance but Anas Sarwar had a pretty cutting one in pointing out that in 2003 Sturgeon called an ambulance waiting list of 84,000 a ‘humiliation’ while she now presides over a waiting list of 600,000.
The Scottish Government is driven by announcements, mainly the launch of a fund for one purpose or a new working group on another. These gain coverage and give you one-sentence answers for First Ministers Questions. But if setting up a £10 million fund to tackle poverty and inviting bids did anything to reduce poverty, there wouldn’t be any poverty in Scotland by now.
What fixes structural problems is a forensic analysis of why the structural problem is arising, identifying the mechanisms within the structure which are failing and addressing that root cause. The Scottish Government has an arsenal of adjectives to describe the Scotland it wants but no obvious structural analysis of why this Scotland isn’t that Scotland.
And so we wait for the next error – Calmac Ferrries, care home Covid deaths, SQA results screw-ups, cack-handed smoke detector regulation, massive failures in internal complaints procedures, BiFab closure, botching Named Person, reducing life expectancy, the GRA mess, incompetent legislation struck down by the Supreme Court, missed carbon targets, malicious prosecution by the Crown Office, resourcing crises in local government, mesh implant and cervical smear scandals, ineffective childcare rollout, inexplicable delays in implementing social security powers, the list goes on and on.
The First Minister’s champions focus on the theatrics that occur after failure and point to ‘decisive, strong leadership’. But in reality being seen is a small part of leadership – learning from why you’ve been making errors and changing how you do business to avoid them in the future is a more important part.
In a normal country with normal politics and a normal media, there would be widespread understanding that this government is in crisis. That it really is in crisis yet the public doesn’t seem aware reveals how lacking in normality the political situation in Scotland is.
So onwards we drift, waiting for the next failure, the next knee jerk response. And as we look straight down to the fire we’re in the middle of, ahead of us the next fire is already sparking into life.