Dan Vevers Does FMQs: Ruth Davidson wants her country back

27/01/2017
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CommonSpace columnist Dan Vevers returns with his take on this week’s FMQs

THERE aren’t enough nurses, children are dying, no one wants another divisive referendum and my new running regimen has seen me develop shin splints.

Scotland, 2017.

Although, to be fair, it’s probably not as bad as all that. Those were all just issues raised in a rather run-of-the-mill FMQs – well, with the exception of my shin splints. That’s democracy for you.

I really wish someone had risen to my defence on that one, to be honest. Something along the lines of: “The costs of good running trainers are prohibitive and the roads are too damn hard. When will this SNP government, which has been in power for 10 years, waken up to the reality that our roads need to be made of memory foam and hard things should be less difficult?”

Nurse, we need more nurses

Tory leader Ruth Davidson kicked us off by quoting the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), who say there are not enough nurses to meet Scotland’s needs.

There will always be challenges, the first minister responded, but we have loads more nurses than we used to.

I’m tempted to leave it there, because that pretty much sums up the whole debate – a debate which has been boring FMQs viewers like me to tears for a decade, and can be transplanted seamlessly onto pretty much any area of devolved policy.

But OK, there’s more.

Nicola Sturgeon in fact visited Napier University on Wednesday to confirm an increase in the number of student nurses along with the protection of the bursary and an extra £3m to support student nurses with dependents.

Which is all fine and well, responded Davidson, except that while the first minister was health secretary back in the ol’ Salmond era she brought about “catastrophic cuts” to student nurse places.

She’s right: in 2012-13, 300 less training places were made available for prospective nurses and midwives, as the Scottish Government was worried at the time about the “risk of oversupply and graduate unemployment”.

Ah, how times change. Still though, Ruth, “catastrophic”? It would prove to be just the start of a half hour of heady hyperbole.

Tax cuts for top earners

Sturgeon came out with her boilerplate response that the SNP had committed to investing £500m above inflation in the NHS – more so than any other party had pledged – but with a spicy twist: how can the Tories bitch and moan (I paraphrase) about a lack of resources when they want a tax cut for the top 10 per cent of earners?

The Tories want to “grow the tax base to fund our public services”, riposted Davidson. “She’s damaging our economy!” she added with a roar, I assume referring to Nicola Sturgeon.

“She’s doing it right now! Watch her closely. When she thinks nobody’s looking she’s attacking the economy!” (I made this up.)

The leader of the opposition then flipped a recent refrain of Sturgeon’s back at her: the question of “what kind of country we want to be”.

“I want a country that is run by a Scottish Government” – OK Ruth, good so far, I’m with you – “that spends its every waking hour” – wait, what about lunch? Days off? – “sorting out public services like the NHS” – that is important, I’m back with you – “and not obsessing about another referendum” – wait, what? – “I want a Scottish Government that actually wants to deal with the child obesity crisis exposed today” – hang on, are you saying they don’t want to deal with it? – “not one plotting how Brexit can be used to create more division and uncertainty in Scotland” – eh, are those two things linked?

She finished with a Farage-esque flourish: “That’s the country I want back!”

A government which doesn’t get lunch breaks, is all good with Brexit and makes children less fat. Let’s Make Scotland Great Again.

Scattergun Kezia

The Labour leader started strongly on child poverty, citing a new report by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health showing the glaring disparity in children’s health between rich and poor – with Scotland’s overall figures among the worst in Europe.

The kicker, added Kezia Dugdale, is the £327m in cuts the forthcoming Scottish budget is planning for local authorities (if, of course, the government manages to actually pass it).

The first minister replied that the report also said health indicators for children in Scotland were improving, and claimed the budget would provide an extra £200m for local services.

This, retorted Dugdale, was an example of “alternative facts” – and I groaned like a wildebeest, just like I did when she said the same thing to Derek Mackay in yesterday’s stormy draft budget debate.

Can we all please, please stop importing rubbish terminologies from the US, least of all from Kellyanne Conway? First “fake news”, and now this. Can’t we just stick with the old standby “I smell shite” and leave it at that?

It’s a shame, as she was making the valid point that Cosla, the STUC and the Fraser of Allander Institute all back up her £327m claim. She then fiercely issued an ultimatum: fix this, or Labour won’t back your budget.

This was all “a rather scattergun” line of questioning, remarked Sturgeon, who said her budget was a “strong budget that prioritises local services” along with fair tax and support for the economy.

In fact, claimed Dugdale, the first minister is forcing through cuts while “playing Russian Roulette with the constitution”, a flashy analogy that makes no technical sense if you spend even a second trying to break it down.

Sturgeon leapt back to her feet to call Dugdale’s comments “very telling”, at which point someone off-screen who I think was John Swinney echoed “very telling!”, which was the comedic high point of the session and reminiscent of a scene from the Spongebob Squarepants movie.

Willie Rennie!

The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader was back in contention at this FMQs, and didn’t waste time, starting off by sing-songing: “You’re not gonna pass your budget, nyeh nyeh nyeh,” all while putting his thumb on his nose and waggling his fingers at the FM.

“Yet again this week, this parliament and this government has been dominated by independence,” he said. “It’s been like that since I was a little Lib Dem lad just about to go into high school. Back in 2007.

“They laugh, but it’s this government that is obsessed with independence.”

And it’s true, they are laughing, but everyone’s laughing, it’s great. The chamber’s having a right old time. 

Nicola Sturgeon at first chides Rennie for “his tone” even while acknowledging he has been working diplomatically with her to bridge the budget impasse, but that just makes all the Lib Dem schoolboys go “Oooh” at the back and then laugh all the harder.

Tavish Scott is practically beside himself with mirth, and even the first minister can’t help but chuckle. This is the healing power of Willie Rennie in action, folks.

Sturgeon goes on to say that Rennie, Dugdale and Davidson all “looked the Scottish people in the eye” back in 2014 and assured the country that its place in Europe was secure.

Sorry, Nicola, but that’s just not realistic. There’s five million of them and they’re all different heights.

Picture courtesy of the Scottish Parliament

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