THE SNP’S NEW MANIFESTO is adorned with freebies. Free bus travel for under 22s, free dental care, free bicycles and laptops for children, free music lessons, free breakfasts and lunches for all primary school children all year, free school trips and free art materials. Sturgeon promises that all of this, along with an extra £2.5 billion investment in the NHS, will be funded with no corresponding increase in income tax. Many Scots may be wondering just how the SNP is going to achieve this mighty feat. In order to find the answer, we should look back to their pledges at previous elections.
In the run up to 2007’s Scottish Parliamentary Election, Salmond and Sturgeon adopted an ambitious programme for education, promising voters in their manifesto to “reduce class sizes in Primary 1, 2 and 3 to eighteen pupils or less.” This pledge was discarded by December 2010 and class sizes have subsequently risen. Last year, only 14 per cent of primary 1-3 pupils were in classes of 18 or fewer.
They also guaranteed to maintain the number of teachers. However, in the first three years of SNP government teacher numbers fell by 3,000 and are still lower than they were in 2007. The SNP’s 2017 programme for government featured a flagship Education Bill to reform school governance and give more power to headteachers and parents. This was likewise abandoned by John Swinney in 2018 in favour of a weak voluntary agreement with councils.
These were all flagship promises, policies that promised to upgrade education. All died within fewer than three years.
As many will remember, in their 2007 manifesto the SNP also promised to scrap the “unfair” council tax and replace it with a local income tax system “based on ability to pay.” After one failed attempt to get that proposal through the Scottish Parliament, the party of government killed that promise too. Even with its later majority the SNP did not put it into place.
SNP manifestos have always been stuffed full of pledges to do with boosting and upgrading the health service to provide proper treatment for Scots. They failed to end delayed discharge like promised in 2015, and the practice cost NHS Scotland £139 million last year. A standard set for urgent cancer referrals of 62 days hasn’t been fulfilled since 2012. This week Labour pointed out that Sturgeon has broken her legal Treatment Time Guarantee for patients over 380,000 times. Meanwhile, SNP austerity over the past decade has left the health service with a building repairs backlog amounting to over £1 billion.
In the SNP’s 2016 manifesto Sturgeon pledged to “deliver 100 per cent superfast broadband coverage for Scotland by the end of the next Parliament” with a scheme called R100 that would cost £600 million. The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy, Fergus Ewing, even promised to resign if the target was not fulfilled. Last year the SNP announced that it would be two years late. By March 2021, the SNP admitted that rollout to the Scottish highlands will not be complete until 2026, a delay of five years. Every home in Scotland was promised superfast broadband by this year.
Also in 2016 the SNP widely publicised its dedication to “a shared commitment right across education to close the attainment gap between children from the most and least deprived backgrounds.” It was a top priority, the SNP said. Five years later and the situation has not improved. 60 per cent of pupils from the most affluent areas head to university – the comparative figure for deprived areas is 26 per cent. This gap narrowed slightly between 2018 and April 2020, though that was due to the fact that fewer pupils from affluent areas reached a “positive follow-up destination” than their peers in poorer areas. Levelling down rather than levelling up, hardly a cause for celebration. Sturgeon also withdrew Scotland from two of the three international comparative reviews in which it participated. Only PISA remained, and there was little to celebrate in its 2018 report, which showed near-constant decline and a fall in science rankings from 10th to 19th, reading from 11th to 23rd, and maths from 11th to 24th since 2006. By 2019, Scottish pupils now performed at the OECD average in maths and reading, and below it in science.
This trend of failure is not limited to manifesto promises alone.
In 2014 Sturgeon, having taking Salmond’s place as FM, hailed a “childcare revolution” that would transform state support for young children, doubling the available free early learning childcare to 1200 hours and building or upgrading 750 nurseries. By last year, less than half of the infrastructure for increasing early learning hours was in place. Only 13 new nurseries had been built by 2019 and 84 were upgraded – a success rate of 13 per cent. Graduate recruitment targets to boost employment for nurseries in deprived areas, set out in 2018, have been missed every single year.
In 2018 the SNP promised to introduce a Local Democracy Bill in its programme for government, repeating previous commitments to decentralise government across Scotland. That too has failed to materialise as the SNP continues to gather power in Edinburgh, cutting funding to local authorities by 7 per cent since 2014. Cosla, the organisation that represents Scotland’s local councils, has even warned of widespread redundancies as a result of starved budgets.
Procurement projects have been regularly trumpeted by the SNP, who promise to improve Scotland’s infrastructure and services. These too, however, fall into a growing chasm of promises that the SNP either ditches or fails to deliver properly. The new sick children’s hospital in Little France in Edinburgh was due to open in 2012 but was delayed by 9 years, only opening this year. The two CalMac ferries built by Ferguson Marine were commissioned in 2015 to be operational by 2018 and serve the west coast. The subsequent delay has wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayer cash, while the ferries are due to be completed only by 2023 – five years late. The Aberdeen bypass opened two years late with an extra cost of £64 million.
These are only some of the commitments that the SNP neglected to bother implementing after wooing Scottish voters. The strategy has always been to promise big and either water those promises down or ditch them altogether, hoping that voters don’t notice. These flashy manifesto promises should thus be viewed with extreme caution. Don’t count on getting that free bike.