By Bill Heaney
This was to have been the Big One. The Great Debate. The SNP government had made a a huge error and they would be made to pay for it. The First Minister would get it in the neck. All Hell would break loose in the Holyrood chamber.
There would be blood on the walls. Scalps would be taken, and one in particular, that of John Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Education. This would be the day when what happened really was ‘unprecedented’.
However, no one appears to have taken into account the fact that Mr Swinney is bald as a coot and taking his scalp literally would be extraordinarily difficult, particularly since he has all that experience and guile in his head, gained during so many years in that dirty game called politics.
Metaphorically, his SNP colleagues circled the wagons, and no arrow fired by the weak as water opposition came anywhere near to striking Big Bad John, who left the Opposition speechless and heading for the hills.
They never laid a glove on him. This debate was a potential gattling gun with no ammunition.
The Conservatives sent in a raiding party led by Jamie Greene, a West Scotland list MSP, whose only resemblance to Jackson Carl\aw, the person he was replacing for the day, is that he too has ginger hair.
His contribution was dire – and predictable, as was almost every attack he made on Mr Swinney. Powder puff stuff.
This was the work of an amateur politician aspiring to mediocrity, whose best line was an old one that the Swinney speech had been “the longest resignation speech in history, minus the resignation”.
Mr Greene had a long indictment of charges against Mr Swinney – “In extraordinary circumstances, Mr Swinney promised us an exam system that would disadvantage no one. He promised dialogue, openness and fairness for all. What did we get instead? A methodology that is clouded and secret; a lack of transparency and engagement; teachers being ignored; a postcode lottery that, disgracefully, penalised those from our toughest communities the most; a grading process that put the system ahead of the individual; and endless denial that there was a problem with any of that.”
Even a quote that “just last week, the education secretary said ‘there is no evidence that young people in deprived communities have been disadvantaged’ didn’t send any warmth down the Ginger Man’s way.
Ruth Davidson will have to do better before linesman Douglas Ross turns up on the Holyrood touchline.
His call for the Education Secretary to resign was met with apathy which one could almost see running down the chamber stairs to the foot of the Presiding Officer’s podium.
This debate was coming nowhere close to being The Big One. Actually, it was dull and boring since it consisted of politicians telling people what they had already told the media over the few preceding days.
An attempt to drag First Minister Nicola Sturgeon into things was remarkably unsuccessful and she thought that her colleague and her party were in so little danger from what was going on that she slipped away out of the chamber.
Mr Greene was beginning to look puce as the chamber turned a deaf ear to his comments such as: “He [Swinney] was backed by the First Minister the whole way. Today, they have been forced into an apology and a humiliating U-turn. Questions remain to be answered.
“First, who signed off the adoption of the methodology? Was it the cabinet secretary, the Cabinet or the SQA? More important, why was the flawed approach agreed to, pursued and defended so vigorously by him and his Government?
“Secondly, how will the cabinet secretary physically ensure that those who are eligible for a university place will get one, given the implications of his comments today?
“Finally, although I welcome the announcement of a short-term inquiry into the fiasco, which is something that the Conservatives have been calling for, given the importance of the wider OECD review into Scottish education, will the cabinet secretary commit to bringing forward the publication of that vital report, and most certainly before May 2021?”
What was the point of all these questions. It was like sitting through a football match at which everyone had been told the score as they were going through the turnstiles.
We all knew in advance what Mr Swinney’s plans were and we knew too how they would be received by the previously dismayed pupils and parents.
So far as I can gather they are content with them.
Even to the extent that one of them told me: “Remember what Samuel Smiles said: “A man who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”
If this is the best the Opposition can do then the SNP will walk it at the Holyrood election next May.
There may be other events that could change that though, but Labour and the Tories, Liberals and Greens will have to come up with a better performance than this one if they are to have any chance of making a real impression on the electorate.