Education Secretary John Swinney’s U-turn was about as complete as could be, to the extent that it was more an O than a U. All those SQA moderators may as well not bothered – Swinney has rubbed out their markings.
The questions about what this means for the future of Scottish education are profound (David Jamieson explores some of them on Sourcehere). But it’s also important to recognise the political context. There’s a lot of parents out there, and most of them vote. The U-turn is the starting pistol on the 2021 Scottish election campaign.
From a political stand-point, the SNP had been having a good crisis until now. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been seen to have handled the pandemic well, especially in comparison to the hapless Prime Minister in Number 10, and that has also translated into a poll boost for the party. They have been consistently polling at well over 50 per cent for the constituency vote since April, miles ahead of their nearest challenger, with the Tories in the low 20’s. The latest YouGov poll, released today, puts the SNP on a record 74 MSPs. With nine months to go until the vote, that’s a strong position to be in.
But there are vulnerabilities. A 2018 poll found 73 per cent of Scots thought improving public services was the most important priority, rising to 84 per cent among SNP voters. On the SNP’s record of managing key public services like the NHS and schools, there had been a clear trend towards declining confidence pre-pandemic. A December poll found -12 negative ratings for healthcare, and -8 for education, which had all been in the positives a year earlier.
“The electorate is more critical of the SNP’s record than it was at the time of the last Scottish Parliament election in 2016,” psephologist Sir John Curtice said at the time.
That didn’t affect their General Election performance the same month, but that was an election dominated by Brexit. In a Holyrood election, one would expect the domestic record and public services to play a more prominent role. Sturgeon indicated in an interview with The BBC last Friday that she expected this to be an election about who Scots “trust” to lead in the twin health and economic crisis set in motion by the pandemic, implying that would take precedence over constitutional debates.
“Right now the majority of the people in the country we serve are worried about their health and they’re worried about their ability to pay their bills,” she said. “Opinion polls would suggest they massively trust the SNP to lead them through that crisis. If they ever thought the SNP was turning away from that priority and focusing on its own agendas and engaging in infighting I’m sure they would pass a verdict on that.”
The reality is, though, that the terrain of constitutional politics may be firmer ground for the SNP leader, with the unionist opposition split three ways, and the issue of Brexit is likely to dominate politics again towards the end of this year, as the transition period ends. The ‘Yes-Remain’ ticket has served the party well in recent elections.
On the economy and public services, its less clear what the SNP’s offer is, other than trust in their leader. The Scottish Government’s economic recovery implementation plan is as flat as a pancake, and it’s difficult to see the First Minister asking the public to judge her on education again. While the First Minister may see her handling of the pandemic as the key focal point of her campaign, that particular book still has a few chapters yet to be written.
Of course the SNP’s weaknesses are only really electoral vulnerabilities if the opposition can expose them, and it’s not clear that any of the parties can. The immediate focus of the Tories and Labour is to draw out the pain for Swinney over the SQA debacle, but with the Greens now set to vote with the government in a No Confidence vote on the Education Secretary, they are not likely to get that particular scalp. And in a fight for second place, it’s likely the unionist parties will battle with one another, returning to the familiar ground of ‘who is tougher on opposing independence?’
While Sturgeon might not want to talk about it, the SNP’s enduring strength is built on the pre-dominance of constitutional politics in Scotland, which keeps their pro-union opponents largely incapable of reaching large sections of the electorate, and thus unable to make the Scottish Government’s weaknesses count at the ballot box.
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