Jim O’Neill reviews Nicola Sturgeon’s conference speech and questions whether “Progress” was an accurate backdrop.


“Progress”. Funny kind of rallying call. “What do we want? Progress. When do we want it? Oh some time over the next ten years or so.” For this is another Leaderene who wants to go on and on. The programme Nicola set out was for the next ten years. So, what did it contain? How nationalist was it?

Independence is clearly a nationalist shibboleth. But Nicola has set it on the back burner. Sometime after Brexit has been completed. That would take us to 2022 at the earliest. And Nicola also believes that the word “National” in the party’s title is a turnoff. So, the Scottish Nicola Party (see what I did there? No need to change the initials) will lead us into the next independence referendum. Progress?

Many of the other proposals are straight plagiarism from current Labour policies. We should be flattered. For instance, a National Investment Bank was in Labour’s 2017 Manifesto, and both leadership contenders support it.

But she has gone back home to Irvine for other key pledges. The Labour controlled North Ayrshire Council, led by Joe Cullinane, has already implemented free sanitary products in schools. And last week, the council passed a Labour motion by Robert Foster, calling for an exemption from Council Tax for care leavers. They even had a not-for-profit energy company in their 2017 manifesto, and work has already started on it. We only need support for municipal bus companies to round off the set.

But did Nicola give her home council credit for these ideas? Of course, she didn’t. It was as if, as in the Herald cartoon, she had thought of them all herself. These are all Labour progress, not SNP progress.

Maybe she was referring to the progress achieved over the past 10 years. OK, they built a bridge over the Forth, but what about public services?

After 10 years, and many education ministers, the attainment of Scottish children had gone backward, both by world standards and by the SNP’s own standards. Their laissez faire attitude to the inspection of schools has just been reversed, with many more schools to be inspected over the next year. John Swinney, the latest education minister, has alienated the workforce with even more changes to the curriculum, alienated local authorities by attacking their responsibility for schools, and failed to maintain the number of teachers through recruitment policies and the 1% pay cap, so that they are now offering people from industry who can teach the STEM subjects £20,000 to retrain as teachers. Progress?

The Scottish National Health Service is also in serious trouble. Recruitment problems, initiated by Nicola herself as health minister, and the public sector pay cap, have led to a crisis of staffing in nurses, and similar problems for hospital doctors have led to every target being missed by a distance. In primary care we are faced with doctors leaving, and practices closing their doors to new patients or closing completely. Progress?

In social work, lack of recruitment and the pay cap has led to ever larger caseloads, leading to burnout and absence through stress, causing even greater workload to others and endangering children, who fall through the gaps as we have seen in a number of cases here and elsewhere in the UK. Progress?

One of the great powers that the early devolved Scotland received was powers on economic improvement. But many poorer areas, like my own, have seen little improvement, with funding to local authorities cut, both through the austerity policies of John Swinney and now Derek Mackay, and also the Council Tax freeze. This has meant that councils have not been able to invest in their own areas and attract new businesses to replace the heavy industry lost over the last decades. Progress?

I know that this is just one Labour supporter’s view of the last ten years and the future years of the SNP administration, and I will be accused, as usual, of #SNPbad, but I challenge SNP supporters to point out where the improvements have been in the areas I have identified.

Progress? I think not!