Why Sturgeon can’t apologise for Covid mistakes

Scrolling through Facebook the other day I came across an advert paid for by the Scottish Government advising tenants that they cannot be moved out of their accommodation without written notice. At the corner of the advert – too large to be inconspicuous – was the familiar blue and white saltire featuring the legend: “Fairer Scotland”.

Huge amounts of tax-payers’ money is used every day, not primarily to promote public information messages about tenants’ rights, but to hammer home the message that Scotland is fairer, healthier, friendlier, better than… well, you can guess who.

It’s all part of a grand, publicly-funded strategy aimed at convincing undecided Scots that independence really would result in more “progress” towards a society that most of them would want to see. But a vital plank of the strategy is to convince voters that those in charge – Nicola Sturgeon and her lieutenants – are not just up to the job of forging a new nation but are unimpeachable embodiments of political perfection.

Boris Johnson may find it difficult to say the word “sorry”, but the word seems to have been completely expunged from the Scottish dictionary. Take two recent and obvious examples.

Last week MSPs at Holyrood demanded to know how money set aside by the Scottish government would be used to improve air circulation in schools and consequently reduce the incidence of Covid. Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, said: “The Covid pandemic began more than two years ago. The Scottish government has had all that time to make our schools fit for use. Why then, First Minister, are we in the position, after all this time, that one of your Government’s ideas to protect kids and teachers is to chop the bottom off of classroom doors?”

In dismissive tones, the First Minister replied: “If doors or windows are not enabling that natural flow of air in the way that is wanted, it strikes me as basic common sense to take measures to rectify that.”

This caused much amusement in the political sphere, and much consternation among those who could see the risks from having fire doors that didn’t stretch all the way to the floor. The Fire Brigades Union demanded an emergency meeting with ministers to discuss the plan, and parents were understandably worried.

Yet no minister has actually admitted that the plan was a stupid one. Indeed, one of them, Shirley-Anne Somerville, has doubled down and insisted that “undercutting” would be needed if new extractor fans changed the air pressure in classrooms – an argument that was entirely missing from the First Minister’s argument just days earlier.

This follows another public spat involving the question as to which government – Scottish or UK – would be responsible for paying pensions in an independent Scotland.

Politicians across the globe are known for their reluctance to admit when they have said something wrong. In Scotland that reluctance has become unhealthily obsessive. The independence project is built on the precarious assumption that its leaders are never wrong about anything, and so whatever the First Minister says must be right, always. 

The aim is to instill in voters an unquestioning confidence in the SNP, a belief that they are people in whom the fate of a nation can be placed without concern that they will stumble or fumble like other, less perfect political leaders would. If they started going around admitting they had got something wrong, then such confidence would take a serious hit.

The problem is that voters can make their own judgement about whether it would be safe to start cutting up fire doors in schools or demanding that English tax-payers start funding the pensions of a foreign country. A public admission of fault could be forgiven. An insistence on pursuing a policy that makes no sense or is deliberately dangerous would be unforgivable.

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