Failing SNP still election winners

By Scott McDonald

At the time of writing the opinion polls are predicting that the Scottish National Party (SNP) is poised to win an overall majority, or failing that, there will be a majority of pro-independence MSPs in the Scottish Parliament after the election on 6 May 2021. The same opinion polls are reporting that the position on Scottish independence is 50:50 for and against. If the SNP falls short of an overall majority it is predicted that, with the addition of pro-independence parties winning some list seats, there will be a majority for independence in the Parliament. This would replicate the current situation in which a minority SNP administration is supported by the Scottish Greens. (1)

This outcome is being predicted despite the SNP Scottish Government’s failings, admitted mistakes, incompetence and catastrophes over health, education, industrial and economic matters; a variety of scandals involving SNP MPs and MSPs; and the deep divisions within the party which have finally emerged into public view.


One third of the 10,000 Covid deaths in Scotland have been in care homes. Jeanne Freeman, SNP government Health Secretary, has confirmed that the Scottish Government failed to stop the spread of the Covid 19 virus infection into care homes and failed to understand the social care sector as a whole. She told the BBC: “We didn’t take the right precautions to make sure that older people leaving hospital going into care homes were as safe as they could be and that was a mistake.” (2)

There was a crisis in the Health Service prior to the pandemic, which has now been exacerbated. Waiting list targets have not been met for years and the backlog has grown hugely since the onset of Covid 19.

The Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH) in Glasgow has been beset with problems since it opened in 2015 at a cost of £842 million. It is the largest campus of its kind in Europe with some 1300 beds, treating about 750,000 patients every year from as far away as the isle of Skye. In 2018 a panel fell from the 10th floor shattering near the front entrance. The following year it was announced that cladding similar to that used on Grenfell Tower would be replaced at a cost to the taxpayer of £6 million. In January 2019 it emerged that two patients had died after contracting a fungal infection linked to pigeon droppings. Later that same year it came to light that two children had died in 2017 in a ward affected by water contamination. One of the children, 10 year-old Milly Main, was recovering from leukaemia but her Hickman Line, a catheter used to administer drugs, became infected. Milly went into toxic shock and died days later.

A report was leaked by whistle-blowers in 2019 to Anas Sarwar, now Scottish Labour Leader, which showed that days after the hospital opened in 2015 warnings were given about the risk of water contamination. The report ranked infection control measures as "high risk" in several areas. Despite the warnings, the hospital stayed open. It was put into “special measures” in November 2019 following issues of infection prevention, management and control after a series of deaths at the hospital.

In Edinburgh a new hospital for children is long delayed and in dispute between the builders and the Scottish Government. In recent years NHS Tayside has been in “special measures” and currently NHS Lothian as well as NHS Greater Glasgow are also in “special measures”.


In terms of education the attainment gap under the SNP’s fourteen years in government has widened and the national examination body, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, is not fit for purpose. SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon following the previous election asked that she be judged at this election on her performance on education. So far during this election campaign she has not mentioned that. Of course, the pandemic has made a bad situation worse. In response the SNP are promising that every child will be given a laptop. For the 50% of children living below the poverty line in Sturgeon’s own constituency (Glasgow Southside) that will not make them less hungry; and if you are hungry, you are much less able to learn with or without a laptop.


One of the many economic failures is that of the Ferguson shipyard, which had gone into administration in 2014, and was bought by billionaire Jim McColl, claiming that he was “begged” to buy the yard. McColl was one of the most prominent business figures to support Scottish independence ahead of the 2014 referendum, and he enjoyed a close relationship with the Scottish Government sitting on its council of economic advisers. McColl’s shipyard won the contract from CalMac, owned by the Scottish Government, to build two new ferries for the Island of Arran and the Hebrides at a cost of £100 million. The contract was running well over time and budget and led to a serious dispute between McColl and the Scottish Government. McColl’s put Ferguson Marine into administration and the Scottish Government took ownership of the company in 2019 and in the process wrote off about £50 million of previous loans. So, the Scottish Government became both the contractor and client. Now three years late and £100 million over budget the ferries are still unfinished. It is a sorry tale of mismanagement, incompetence and cronies falling out.


Derek McKay was Cabinet Secretary for Finance in the Scottish Government until he resigned in May 2020 when it was revealed that he had pestered a 16-year-old boy in private on Instagram and Facebook over a six-month period bombarding him with messages. His behaviour was described as predatory and unacceptable grooming. McKay remained as an independent MSP until April 2021 when Parliament dissolved. He continued to collect his salary and expenses totalling some £100,000 although he did not attend Parliament during that time. The bookies had him as favourite to replace Nicola Sturgeon as SNP Scottish Government First Minister until his ignominious departure.

Natalie McGarry, the former SNP MP for Glasgow East, goes on trial in May 2021 having been charged with embezzlement of more than £25,000 from Women for Independence.

Patrick Grady MP stood down as Chief Whip of the SNP at Westminster in March 2021. This followed a formal complaint after reports of sexual harassment that he groped two male staffers at the SNP Christmas party in London in 2016. The SNP sat on the complaints until they went formal years later.

Joanna Cherry MP was sacked from her role as SNP Justice spokesperson in February 2021. She had signed the Women’s Pledge which opposes the reform of the Gender Recognition Act. Cherry had come under sustained attack from the transgender lobby in the SNP. Her removal from the SNP front bench according to an SNP spokesperson was “because of unacceptable behaviour which did not meet the standards of front bench spokespersons - not because of the views she holds”. At a meeting of the SNP Westminster group Joanna Cherry MP compared her unfavourable treatment with that of Grady by the SNP hierarchy. The transgender lobby in the SNP wields considerable influence with the leadership. According to reports the debate around the issue has created a toxic atmosphere in the SNP.


Complaints were raised with the Scottish Government by women alleging that Alex Salmond had sexually harassed them when he was First Minister. Alex Salmond took the Scottish Government to judicial review over its handling of the matter. It emerged that the civil servant appointed as investigating officer had substantial prior contact with the complainants. The judge in the case branded the probe into Salmond “unlawful, unfair and tainted by apparent bias”. Salmond was awarded more than £500,000 in costs. The Scottish Crown Office brought 13 criminal charges of sexual harassment and attempted rape involving nine women against Salmond. He admitted inappropriate behaviour but denied that it was criminal. Salmond was brought to trial but the jury acquitted him on all charges.

Following the judicial review and trial the Scottish Parliament established a Parliamentary Committee on the “Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints”. The Committee comprised 9 MSPs: 4 SNP, 2 Tory, 1 Labour, 1 Liberal Democrat and a Scottish Green, who during the proceedings left the Greens and became an Independent. (3) Many scathing comments were made about the calibre and contributions of the SNP members on the Committee. They had been specially selected by the SNP’s Whips’ office and reflected the poor quality of the SNP’s MSPs. Any bright SNP MSP must hold a government post!

The Committee, in trying to get to the bottom of what happened, asked for papers which the Scottish Government refused to submit for legal reasons, ostensibly to protect the names of the complainants. Parliament voted twice to have the papers handed over. It was only when the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, was threatened with a vote of no-confidence that some of the papers, heavily redacted, were handed over at the very, very last minute. Some of these papers contained advice the Scottish Government had received from external counsel during the judicial review process. From these papers it is clear that the Scottish Government ignored the legal advice to abandon the costly court case against Salmond over flaws in the government’s complaints process.

The Parliament and the Committee had been advised that it would be illegal to publish some papers. The Lord Advocate, James Wolffe QC, “told the parliamentary inquiry that he had nothing to do with legal advice given to MSPs as to what could and could not be published. The fact that the advice came from his own office was, apparently, nothing to do with him. One wonders where the Crown Office buck actually stops – or indeed if there is a buck at all.” (4) The Committee in its report referred to “the challenges it faced in obtaining information from the Scottish Government…These difficulties cannot be overstated as they have seriously inhibited our ability to fully scrutinise the work of the Scottish Government which is at the heart of our remit.” (5) The Committee in its report noted that it had been misled by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on some matters. (6) The Committee concluded that “fundamental errors were made which called the procedure into question. These errors were compounded by the way in which the judicial review was dealt with by the Scottish Government. This resulted in over £500,000 of public money being spent on defending a judicial review that ultimately had to be conceded.” (7)

In a separate inquiry, Northern Irish Judge, James Hamilton QC, an adviser to the Scottish Government, found that Sturgeon had not broken the ministerial code but may have misled Parliament. However, he expressed his frustration at the heavy redaction of his report: “I am deeply frustrated that applicable court orders will have the effect of preventing the full publication of a report which fulfils my remit and which I believe it would be in the public interest to publish.” He said in a note on the publication, “…I have reluctantly accepted that a redacted report should be published in order to bring this process to a close…” 22 March 2021.


Despite the many failings, mistakes, catastrophes and scandals the SNP are likely to be re-elected as the government in the election on 6 May. How can this be you may ask?

There has been an anti-Tory majority in Scotland for some forty years. There is a deep anti-Tory feeling in Scotland although it should be noted that there is still a substantial Tory base, which has never gone away. Under Thatcher in the 1980s the Tories went on a relentless attack against the working-class across the whole of Britain. The defeat of the miner’s strike in 1984-85 was a watershed moment and unleashed a period of unremitting attack on the gains made by the working-class over previous generations.

Labour won the election of 1997 under the leadership of Tony Blair on a wave of anti-Tory feeling. Blair and his government left in place most of the Tories’ legislation and introduced devolution believing that it would blunt support for independence. When Blair and the right-wing Labour government took Britain to war in Iraq many Labour supporters were further alienated. With the crash of 2007-8 and the defeat of Labour in the election of 2010 the Tories took office and Cameron/Osborne began a period of austerity. With the trade union movement severely weakened and the Labour Party badly discredited by its time in government the SNP made gains in Scotland.

David Cameron, when UK Tory Prime Minister, allowed the SNP to set the referendum question giving them the advantage of the positive answer, ‘YES’, which is always worth a few percentage points. Despite being defeated in the referendum, the head of steam built up by the SNP did not disappear. Much of Labour’s support in Scotland had defected to the SNP before Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party. There was no Corbyn bounce in Scotland. The Tories under the leadership of Boris Johnson have been a gift to the SNP, which presents itself as a ‘progressive social democratic party’, and has always had the aim of destroying Labour and replacing it.

The 2016 referendum on the EU with Scotland voting 68% to 32% to remain in the EU consolidated the SNP’s position. Many people are under the illusion that the EU is a progressive internationalist organisation and saw those leading the campaign to exit the EU as racist ‘Little Englanders’. Labour was being further squeezed between the SNP and the Tories. Starmer’s right-wing leadership of the Labour Party has further undermined Labour in Scotland.

The SNP point to Westminster as being to blame for everything and that only with independence will the Scottish people have control of their own affairs and be able to move forward. They have promised another independence referendum in the first half of the next Scottish Parliament. There are divisions within the independence camp over this timetable with Alex Salmond’s newly formed Alba party arguing that there is not enough urgency on the issue. Salmond and the Alba party are gaming the Scottish parliament electoral system by telling people to vote SNP in the constituency vote and Alba in the list vote. By doing so they argue that this will produce a ‘super-majority’ of independence supporting MSPs at the expense of ‘unionists”. If this tactic works it may be at the expense of the Labour Party.

Over the past fourteen years as the government in Scotland the SNP has steadily centralised power across many institutions in Scottish society. At the same time the leadership of the SNP has held a vice-like grip on the party and the wider independence support base, notably exercised through Nicola Sturgeon as Party Leader and First Minister and her husband, Peter Murrell, as Chief Executive of the SNP. The mainstream media has generally been supine towards the SNP and the Scottish Government but recently a pro-independence columnist, Kevin McKenna, in The Herald, wrote: “Scotland is in the grip of a single party run by an all-powerful - and very affluent husband-and-wife team who have made themselves virtually untouchable. This couple have constructed a fearsome apparatus in which the police, the judiciary and the entire civil service now dance to their tune.” (8)

If the SNP form the next Scottish government they will move for another independence referendum, which Prime Minister Johnson may refuse. This will feed into the SNP grievance narrative but it will also lead to further divisions in the independence camp as to how to tactically proceed. In addition, many issues will come to the fore including what currency to use, the prospect of a hard border with England, Scotland’s large debt and the difficulties of re-joining the EU. The SNP winning this election will be far from the end of the story.   

1) The additional member system is the system used for elections to the Scottish Parliament. It is a form of mixed electoral system which combines traditional single member first past the post constituencies with regions elected by a proportional list system. There are a total of 129 MSPs: 73 constituency MSPs and 56 list MSPs.

2) BBC podcast, Political Thinking with Nick Robinson, reported in The Herald, 9 April 2021.

3) Andy Wightman MSP resigned from the Scottish Green Party in December 2020 alleging that the party was intolerant to discussion of potential clashes between transgender and women’s rights. He continued as an independent MSP until Parliament dissolved in April 2021.

4) Magnus Linklater, The Times, 10 April 2021.

5) Report of the Scottish Parliamentary Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Complaints, 23 March 2021, para 31.

6) Ibid: for example para 718: “The Committee finds it hard to believe that the First Minister had no knowledge of any concerns about inappropriate behaviour on the part of Mr Salmond prior to November 2017. If she did have such knowledge, then she should have acted upon it. If she did have such knowledge, then she has misled the Committee.” and para 720: “Her written evidence is therefore an inaccurate account of what happened, and she has misled the Committee on this matter. This is a potential breach of the Ministerial Code under the terms of section 1.3 (c)”

7) Ibid: para 727.

8) Kevin McKenna, The Herald, 5 April 2021      


Queen Elizabeth University Hospital and Royal Hospital for Sick Children

Nicola Sturgeon talks with Erasmus students but fails on education - photo by Jim McDougall

Salmond was brought to trial but the jury acquitted him on all charges