My Orcadian Column 13/9/18


It is difficult to think of a time, since coming to power in 2007, when SNP MSPs have not returned to Holyrood after the summer recess with a bit of a swagger.  Last week, however, felt different.

In part this reflects the fall-out from allegations of sexual harassment made against the former First Minister, Alex Salmond.  In particular, Mr Salmond’s decision to launch a crowd funding operation to cover his legal costs in challenging the Scottish Government has opened up sharp divisions within the SNP. Everyone has a right to defend themselves, but conducting that defence like a full-blown election campaign seems inappropriate and intimidatory, a view shared by many of Mr Salmond’s former colleagues.

Yet even before these serious allegations emerged, Nicola Sturgeon was not without her difficulties.  The blueprint for Scottish independence produced by her Growth Commission earlier in the year had already exposed splits within the nationalist movement thanks to its refreshing and revealing candour about the costs and risks associated with Scotland leaving the UK. 

Since then, despite open warfare within the UK Tory government, Nicola Sturgeon’s plan to use Brexit as a catalyst for indyref2 shows little sign of building momentum.  Moreover, the First Minister’s unwillingness to commit to a People’s Vote on any eventual Brexit deal looks ever more evasive.

So the pressure was on Nicola Sturgeon last week to outline a programme for government that would rally her troops and convince the public that her administration is not running out of steam.  On both counts, she fell short.

That is not to say that the legislative programme for the next twelve months is without its highlights.  For me, the additional £250m announced to support improvement in the treatment of mental health was an obvious and significant one.

Details of how the money will be spent and over what time period remain unclear, but this feels like the start of the sort of investment that will be needed to enhance all aspects of mental health care from specialist clinical services through to the support provided by a wide range of third sector organisations.

As uncomfortable coincidence would have it, however, shortly before the First Minister stood up to address parliament last week, the latest figures on waiting times for Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) were published. They were the worst on record, showing an annual drop in those being seen within the government’s 18-week target period from 80% to 68%.

The Mental Health Minister, Claire Haughey conceded that these figures are ‘wholly unacceptable’. Hopefully, though, this situation can be turned around and the new investment used to provide appropriate support to those of all ages who experience poor mental health.

Meantime, the other key message from the First Minister’s statement last week was her desire to see a transformation in the funding of infrastructure. Again, there was widespread support for this ambition, though I pointed out during my contribution to the subsequent debate that more attention to the needs of island communities would not have gone amiss. To be helpful, I suggested that funding for replacement vessels on Orkney’s internal ferry routes could redress this oversight and warned of the growing urgency in reaching agreement with Orkney Islands Council on how this could be done.

I also took the opportunity to remind the Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay that he would be expected to honour his commitment to fair funding for these lifeline ferry services in his Budget bill later this year.  Having accepted the principle of fair ferry funding in last year’s Budget, any attempt to row back from this would be seen by the communities in both Orkney and Shetland as an act of betrayal. 

As for the rest of what the First Minister had to say in her statement, it all felt a bit flat. Certainly there was little of the enthusiastic cheerleading from her backbenches that has characterised such occasions in the past.  All governments start to flag eventually as either events or their own promises catch up with them.  Could it be that this one is starting to reach its sell by date?


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