Jim O’Neill responds to the extraordinary behaviour of John Swinney and the SNP following their defeat in parliament on primary school testing.


Now we have it finally. The SNP do not really believe in democracy.

Let us set aside, for the moment, the issue in dispute, the testing of P1 pupils. There is now a more fundamental issue at stake, the primacy of democratic decisions in the Scottish Parliament.

Having been defeated 63 – 61 on the issue in the vote, John Swinney said he would reflect on the decision, but that Councils should go on testing anyway. Given that the decision of the Scottish Parliament was not mandatory, the correct response should have been to reflect on the decision but to call a moratorium on the tests while he did so. Given our past experience of Mr Swinney, it could be some time before he finishes his reflection. And one council, Aberdeen City, has already announced a moratorium on testing.

Then, when Richard Leonard pressed her on the decision, Nicola Sturgeon said that while her most able Minister was reflecting on the decision, she believed that testing at P1 was necessary and nothing would change her mind. That despite the many commentators, the teaching profession and the Scottish Parliament itself that have expressed opposition to them. As Leonard said, what makes her so certain given that the vast majority of practitioners opposed them?

But it is their contempt for the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament that is most concerning. Even Patrick Harvie’s Greens, usually certain to dig them out of a hole in Parliament, opposed the tests. Is this what we are to look forward in an independent Scotland? An arrogant SNP Government imposing it’s own policies by diktat despite any opposition majority in the Parliament? This precedent is very dangerous. It shows tendencies towards dictatorship, a state that I would not want to live under.

However, let us return to John Swinney’s time in charge of education. After the last election, Nicola Sturgeon said that education was her first priority and that her government should be judged on that. That was why she was putting her best minister and Deputy in charge of it. So let us look at Mr Swinney’s time in charge. Can he point us to one successful intervention in the sector?

The first issue is the much lauded Education Bill. Two years into trying to put together a bill that would get through Parliament, he abandoned it in favour of getting its terms agreed with councils directly, thereby bypassing Parliament and avoiding open debate on those terms. Once again, sidelining democratic scrutiny by Parliament.

But even this is not new. The Named Person proposals were also rejected by Parliament but Mr Swinney resolved to pursue them anyway. It took a resort to court by NO2NP to stop his proposals in their track. We still await his revised plans but, since so many are opposed even to the basic principle of agents of the state overseeing every parent’s upbringing of their children, I suspect they are being quiety abandoned.

And now we have teachers in dispute. I was a teachers’ union leader during the last great teachers’ dispute in the 1980s. I was also a member of the Teachers’ Negotiating Committee, and I saw how the then Government had an effective veto over any offer by the employers. I cannot think it is any different today.

What resolved it then was a change of Secretary of State, and a change in the government’s attitude to teachers from not being prepared to compromise to being prepared to do so, with the arrival of George Younger in the top job.

The problem is I can’t see John Swinney changing his confrontational approach. You only need to watch him both performing himself and sitting beside Ms Sturgeon during FMQs. He should not play poker as his anger is obvious when anyone challenges SNP policy and he is always first to applaud loudly when Ms Surgeon responds, even if it is the fourth repetition of the same statistics.

So where do we go from here? Can Ms Sturgeon find someone else, as Thatcher did, to change the Scottish Government’s way of presenting their education policies? Can Swinney change his spots? We are facing a critical time in Scottish education verging on a return to the dark days of the 1980s. Scotland’s children deserve better.