Tory leader Douglas Ross and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
By Bill Heaney
“Let us be absolutely clear. I can be helpful to the First Minister—[Interruption.]—if people can hear me. Perhaps we cannot continue, Presiding Officer.”
Nicola Sturgeon has made no secret of the fact that she cannot stand Douglas Ross and has no time for Tories, but she was forced to listen: “John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon seemed to enjoy the start of my question, so I will repeat it. Apparently, the First Minister could not bear to watch this week’s SNP leaders’ debate, but her ears must have been burning as the candidates torched the SNP’s record in government.
“Let me be helpful to Nicola Sturgeon, as I try to be, and update her on what was said. Her finance secretary Kate Forbes said about Scotland that the trains never run on time, the police service is stretched to breaking point and there are record high waiting times in the NHS.
“Does the First Minister applaud, as we do on this side of the chamber, her finance secretary’s honest assessment of the SNP’s record in government?”
Ms Sturgeon said – and few would believe her on this: “Unfortunately, I did not catch the leadership debate the other night, because I was on my way back from a wonderful visit to the inspirational Glasgow Women’s Library, which is a fabulous place that I recommend to everybody in the chamber.
“The only verdict on my Government that really matters, of course, is the verdict from the people whom we serve—the people of Scotland. That verdict—winning no fewer than eight elections—has been pretty clear over the eight years of my leadership.
“Under this Government, we have seen a 20 per cent increase in NHS staff and the highest number of doctors and nurses proportionately anywhere in the United Kingdom. We have seen a doubling of the NHS budget. We have seen the best-performing accident and emergency departments anywhere in the United Kingdom for the past seven years.
“Scotland is the only part of the UK with no NHS strikes and the highest-paid NHS workforce anywhere on these islands.
“There has been a significant reduction in hospital infections, and there are £10,000 nurse bursaries at a time when the Tories in England have scrapped nurse bursaries. We have scrapped prescription charges and taken away parking charges at NHS hospitals. We are leading the way on public health measures.”
Douglas Ross quipped: “If the First Minister really did miss the first television debate, there is another one tonight. I am really worried that 30 minutes will not be long enough for the candidates to trash her record in government.
“Last week, I said that there seem to be two Kate Forbes—one with a terrible record in government and one who says that the Government has a terrible record. Now the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy is in an even bigger guddle.
“She cannot decide whether she is in government or in opposition. Just listen again to that statement from Kate Forbes. The current finance secretary said that the current SNP Government leaves trains that never run on time, the police service stretched to breaking point and record high waiting times in our NHS. That is a quote sorted for every Scottish Conservative leaflet going forward.
“There is even more material that we can use. Kate Forbes said: ‘More of the same is not a manifesto—it’s an acceptance of mediocrity’.
“The First Minister might expect to hear that from me, but did she really expect to hear it from her own finance secretary?”
The SNP benches cheered and Labour and the Tories jeered at this as The First Minister hit back. “I am very aware that, for Douglas Ross, mediocrity is, of course, a dizzy height that he has never come close to achieving. There is no confusion whatsoever about where Douglas Ross is in terms of government or opposition. He is in opposition now, and he will remain in opposition for a long, long time to come.
“Douglas Ross talked about crime. Let us talk about the record of my Government, which has been endorsed eight times in eight years by the Scottish people under my leadership. Crime is down by more than 48 per cent. Violent crime alone is down by 48 per cent.
“Automatic early release has been ended—that was opposed by the Scottish Conservatives, of course. We see re-offending rates among the lowest ever and a higher number of police officers than there was at any time during previous Scottish administrations—the number is higher proportionately than that in any other part of the UK. We have strengthened the law on domestic abuse.
“Then there is transport. ScotRail is in public ownership. There are lower fares on average than there are where the Tories are in power. There is the £11 billion of investment in rail infrastructure. The M74 has been completed, the Aberdeen bypass has been built, and the Queensferry crossing has been built. There is the highest investment in active travel in any UK nation.”
The gloves were off. This sounded more like Kelvin Hall on a fight night than a parliamentary chamber.
Douglas Ross countered: “If the First Minister continued with that record in government on transport, it would be about the A9 delayed, the A96 delayed, and ferries rusting in the docks and not serving the island communities that they are there for.
“However, the First Minister seems to think that if she does not mention Kate Forbes—if she pretends that she did not watch the debate—those comments did not occur.
“This was a Scottish Government minister, someone currently serving under Nicola Sturgeon, tearing apart the SNP’s record in government. If Nicola Sturgeon will not focus on Kate Forbes, we know that one of her closest allies will.
“Shona Robison—a current Cabinet colleague of Kate Forbes—said that Kate Forbes is trashing the record of the SNP Government.
“However, Kate Forbes has voted for every single SNP policy. She has backed every single SNP referendum demand and every one of the SNP budgets. She is the finance secretary—she writes the budgets.
“Also, Kate Forbes was Nicola Sturgeon’s right-hand woman, handpicked by the First Minister to rise up rapidly through the ranks. When promoting Kate Forbes in February 2020, the First Minister said this in the chamber: ‘Kate Forbes … has a forensic grasp of detail.’
“On this Government’s record, Kate Forbes has got the detail bang on the money, has she not?”
The First Minister was smiling for a change, content even.
She said: “All three of those colleagues of mine who are vying to be my successor and vying to have the joy of First Minister’s question time every Thursday at 12 o’clock, either are or have been members of my Government, so of course they all share in the success of the Government that I am proud to lead.
“I am now, by my own choice, an outgoing leader. If I were to offer advice, first, to those who are vying to succeed me, it would be this: of course, the internal process is really important but, although it might not feel like it right now, it is the relatively easy part.
“Being First Minister is hard; it is tough; and it is a massive responsibility. Whoever emerges in the position of First Minister and is standing here three weeks today has one overriding task. It is to govern, and it is to serve in a way that inspires the people of Scotland to keep placing trust in us, just as they have done consistently since 2007 and just as they have done eight times over the eight years of my leadership. That is what matters, because without that trust, nothing else is possible.
“Finally, to my opponents, perhaps a word to the wise as well. I cannot grudge them watching the first SNP leadership election in 20 years, because we have had lots of Tory and Labour leaderships to enjoy over those years.
“However, as long as they are using virtually all of their air time to talk about the SNP because they have nothing positive to offer, fundamentally the problem is not ours; the problem is theirs, because they are destined to stay exactly where they are right now—in opposition.”