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Image vs. Reality: The SNP’s record in Scotland

Image depicts SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon. Image via DW.

The United Kingdom’s union is a historic family of nations that has adapted and evolved for over three centuries. In recent years, though, the union has faced significant tensions, precipitated by constitutional issues highlighted by Brexit and Covid-19. Leading the charge for independence in Scotland is the Scottish National Party (SNP), a nationalist and nominally progressive party led by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. The word “nominally” here is key; while the SNP may stand to the left of center on some issues, their actions and record in government show them to be no standard bearer for progressives. Their obsessive focus on independence has caused a callous neglect of vital issues which affect the most vulnerable in Scotland. Thus, the SNP must be shown as the nationalists they are, and remove the progressive label from their movement.

In order to argue that the SNP are no shining progressive beacon, it is important first to analyze what claim they have made to the Progressive tradition. Indeed, pinning down the SNP ideologically is challenging; as the only significant party supporting independence in Scotland (besides the Green Party) the SNP inevitably attracts a smorgasbord of opinions united under the banner of independence. 

Nevertheless, in recent years the SNP has broadly staked claim to the left-of-center, progressive wing of Scottish and UK politics. They clearly call on an anti-Tory rhetorical playbook; SNP activists are most at home criticising the Conservatives for being the “selfish party.” Indeed, Sturgeon describes herself as a “social democrat.” The SNP opposes Scotland hosting the UK’s nuclear weapons, and they stood firmly on the Remain side of the Brexit debate. The Conservatives’ underfunding of the National Health Service is a constant refrain of Sturgeon’s. Many have drawn parallels from Nicola Sturgeon to other ground-breaking female progressive politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Jacinda Ardern. 

If we are to take anyone’s word for it, then we can take Sturgeon’s. She herself supported creating a “progressive alliance” with Labour. Thus, there is reason to identify the SNP with the progressives of British politics; however, while many of the SNP’s stated positions and stances appear progressive at face value, one must look more deeply at their record in government. In doing so, it becomes clear that while the SNP may talk the progressive talk, they have no substantial claim to being a progressive party.

One of the SNP’s central arguments for independence is that Scotland must no longer be subject to the policies and perceived negative consequences of Tory governments. This argument falters when one considers the hopeless neglect of the vulnerable that has occurred under the SNP’s rule. What is perhaps most damning about the SNP’s record in government is that it has lasted for 14 years. Thus, their failures cannot be attributed to previous administrations. Indeed, in many of these failures, Scotland performs far worse than the UK as a whole, so the SNP can apportion little blame to Conservative led governments in Westminster.

One of the most tragic failings of the SNP concerns drug use. In 2019, there were 1,264 drug-related deaths in Scotland—twice as many as five years prior. Blame cannot simply be passed off to the UK government; the number of drug-related deaths is three times higher in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. Even Sturgeon herself admitted her culpability for such failings, stating that her government had taken their “eye off the ball” on the issue. As Scottish Labour Leader Anas Sarwar stated, Scotland has “the same drug laws as the rest of the UK but three-and-a-half times the rate of drugs deaths.”

On the country’s education system, once an exemplar in Europe, the SNP has once again presided over repeated failures. It is important to emphasize how much Scotland once valued its educational prowess; a common refrain, of dubious credibility, was that Scotland had “the best education system in the world.” Yet, 14 years of SNP rule has not been kind to the Scottish education system. Research shows the poverty-related attainment gap in Scotland “remained wide,” and Scotland has rolled further and further down assessments which compare education attainment across nations. 

Again, the SNP can pass no blame to Tory governments, as Scotland again ranks far lower than England on educational attainment. Much debate has occurred about the impact of Conservative governance over the education system; from the expansion of free schools to exam reform, one can dispute the merits of such policies. Yet in outcomes alone, it is the SNP, not the Conservatives, who have presided over the greater mismanagement of education. In a move which does not suggest any particular desire to remedy these results, Sturgeon removed Scotland from two out of the three international comparative education reviews it previously participated in.

On poverty, an issue which should be a rallying call for progressives, the SNP again presents failure. Poverty had been declining before the SNP assumed office in 2014; under SNP governance that number has begun rising again. Relative poverty, a measure of when households receive 50 percent less than median incomes, has risen to 20 percent of Scotland’s population in 2019-20 compared to 16 percent in 2010-11. In the UK as whole, this figure has continually fallen since 2011-12. One must bear in mind that this is against a backdrop of a Conservative Party perceived to have been shrinking the social security net in the UK, and who the SNP regard as cruel and ‘selfish’. It is a damning indictment on the SNP that the ‘selfish’ party performs better on poverty metrics.

The consequences of this dismal record are perhaps best reflected in life-expectancy figures, which show that Scotland has the lowest life expectancy at birth of all UK countries. Inequality persists at the heart of these figures; the life-expectancy of men in the most-deprived areas of Scotland is 13 years less than men in the least-deprived areas, and ten years less for women.

The SNP cannot simply return to its repeated complaint of underfunding to justify any of these results. Scotland now spends 30 percent more per person than England. According to the IFS, this is almost wholly due to the Barnett Formula, the mechanism that allocates the amount of public expenditure allocated to the Scottish government. Despite failing so significantly compared to the UK, Scotland’s budget deficit stands at 8.6 percent of GDP, while the UK-wide figure is 2.5 percent. Thus, the SNP repeatedly fails on numerous metrics compared to England and the UK as whole, despite spending significantly more. 

In light of all these failures, it seems particularly distasteful that the SNP has committed copious amounts of time, effort, and energy to relitigating and refreshing arguments for an independent Scotland. As people in Scotland suffer the consequences of 14 years of SNP misrule, now is not the time to argue for a divisive and disruptive referendum. 

One would hope that, despite the mendacity and polarization inherent in today’s politics, politicians are still judged on their record. If one applies this judgement to the SNP, removing the distraction of independence, the results are telling. Statistic after statistic shows the SNP to be no progressive party; progressives do not neglect the poor, nor the young, nor those suffering from drug abuse. Progressive rhetoric must be backed up by progressive outcomes. The SNP must change its record if it wishes to truly be a progressive party.