Daniel Johnson: Swinney saves the worst until last

Daniel Johnson MSP. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
Daniel Johnson MSP. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
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Outside of the World Cup, the biggest hit of the summer has been Love Island. The factoid people were throwing around as the series began was that more people had applied to be on the show than applied to go to Oxford and Cambridge.

The conclusion I draw is that often substance is trumped by gossip. The same is true in politics.

The last week of the parliamentary term has the same buzz of the last week of school. The last few days before recess tend to take a slower pace and a lighter mood with MSPs saying goodbyes and comparing holiday plans. Not so this year.

The last week of this term this year was overshadowed by the ultimate political gossip: a reshuffle. For those watching closely, it is the height of intrigue.

“I can’t believe she was passed over . . .” SNP colleagues whisper.

“I’m not surprised he was dropped . . .” opposition members murmur.

So as the reshuffle continued, it was almost all that MSPs and the Scottish political press were talking about. Cynically, the Scottish Government also used it to bury bad news.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP announced that he had shelved his education bill. What had been billed as a ‘centrepiece’ by the First Minister at the start of the year, was binned by the deputy at its close.

The proposal was to fundamentally shift control of our schools to the hands of the Scottish Government. A move opposed by teachers, parents, schools, councils, opposition parties and even the Government’s own education experts.

John Swinney pushed for legislation and structural change because he claimed it was the sole barrier to improving our schools. This despite the clear evidence that resources for schools have been squeezed, we have lost thousands of teachers over the last decade and class sizes are now among the biggest in the developed world.

Despite that, many of Edinburgh’s schools continue to be fantastic, but they are without doubt hindered by a lack of teachers and large class sizes.

Despite the effort to hide this embarrassing U-turn in the midst of a reshuffle, ironically it was the reshuffle that put education firmly in the headlines.

Nicola Sturgeon appointed Gillian Martin MSP as a junior education minister to serve under John Swinney. But it transpired she had authored a number of offensive and frankly shocking blog posts. She was sacked before she was even officially appointed, a first since devolved government in Scotland.

What connects these two events is not just timing. Since 2007, the SNP have enjoyed a reputation of being sure-footed and impervious to criticism. The events of last week shatter John Swinney’s reputation for competence. By appointing a minister she knew had written distasteful and intolerant articles, Nicola Sturgeon’s actions demonstrate worryingly poor judgement.

MSPs normally come back from summer recess feeling refreshed and ready to start work anew. But after last week, their troubles may just pick up where they left off.

n Daniel Johnson is Scottish Labour Party MSP for Edinburgh Southern