Orcadian Column, 9 March 2023

9 Mar 2023

Last week began with a funeral service in St Magnus Cathedral celebrating the life of Robin Preston and concluded with news that Don Peace from Stronsay had sadly passed away.

Their backgrounds were very different: one an Oxbridge graduate, the other a proud graduate from the university of life, yet they also had much in common. Both were great storytellers, with a fine sense of humour and a gentle wisdom. I felt very privileged to know them and count them as friends.

Robin and Don also had a happy knack, in the main, of being able to disagree agreeably, a skill that formed the basis of a talk I gave to the Orkney Rotary last weekend after a particularly fabulous meal at the Lynnfield Hotel. The theme was prompted by Nicola Sturgeon’s comments when announcing her intention to stand down as First Minister about the ‘brutality of politics’.

The perspective struck a chord with most MSP colleagues I have spoken to since, though it would be wrong to assume that the brickbats and abuse always come from ‘the other side’. As Churchill was alleged to have observed, “the opposition occupies the benches in front of you, but the enemy sits behind you”.

It is a political truism with which it has been hard to argue while watching the unfolding SNP leadership contest over recent days. For a party that has prided itself on rock solid discipline and unity over the past decade and a half, it is fascinating to witness how difficult many SNP MPs, MSPs and members appear to find the notion of differing views and dissenting opinions.

Exchanges at hustings, as well as comments offered up via social and mainstream media have been uncompromising, often highly personal and increasingly acrimonious. Indeed, it’s hard to see how Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes or Ash Regan could now serve in the Cabinet of whoever is victorious.

The process has also triggered unprecedented criticism of Nicola Sturgeon’s own track record in government with each candidate distancing themselves from flagship policies ranging from the proposed centralisation of care services to the ill-fated deposit return scheme. Kate Forbes has also declared that ‘fancy new policies’ are less important than “doing what we’re going to say and doing it well”, in a thinly veiled rebuke of the First Minister’s tendency to prioritise presentation over delivery.

The contest has thrown up ‘lighter’ moments too, of course. Ash Regan’s proposal for an independence ‘readiness thermometer’ has had social media in stitches and most SNP members with their head in their hands. Meanwhile, lengthy and tortuous debates about whether the Stone of Destiny can be allowed south for the King’s coronation is ‘cat nip’ for some nationalists but a matter of complete indifference to most Scots.

It does, though, highlight the difficulty when the electorate is so narrowly drawn and every candidate is forced to pander to the wants of members rather than the needs of the wider public. So it is that Humza Yousaf, the current favourite, has declared he won’t be the First Minister but the SNP’s ‘First Activist for Independence’. It’s not a great look for a Health Secretary in the midst of a crisis in our NHS and is a statement that makes it impossible for him later to claim that his priority is health, education, the economy or environment.

Returning to the day job, I plan to raise concerns in parliament this week about Loganair’s decision to suspend its services between Inverness and the islands over the coming weeks. It’s a serious blow that will affect many islanders needing to travel for work and even health appointments. It also underscores the urgent need to resolve the ongoing dispute between management and staff at Highlands & Islands Airports Ltd.

Scottish Ministers have been keen to emphasise their involvement in talks to resolve disputes in health and education. As HIAL is wholly-owned by the Scottish Government and these are lifeline air services, it’s long past time that Ministers showed the same level of engagement and urgency in bringing this dispute to an end. I’m pretty sure that would be the not so ‘gentle’ advice from Robin and Don.

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