Hon­estly, John, why can’t you ad­mit this pol­icy is a mis­take?

Scottish Daily Mail - - News -

HON­EstY in pol­i­tics is such a rare com­mod­ity that when a politi­cian emerges whose in­tegrity is be­yond ques­tion, peo­ple tend to no­tice.

John swin­ney, the Deputy First Min­is­ter, earned the moniker ‘Hon­est John’ after years of bal­anc­ing the books at Holy­rood as Fi­nance sec­re­tary.

true, this was a legal obli­ga­tion, but Mr swin­ney, with all the charisma of a char­tered ac­coun­tant, ap­peared trust­wor­thy, ca­pa­ble and – as tony Blair might have de­scribed him – a ‘pretty straight sort of guy’.

that ‘steady as she goes’ qual­ity saw him pro­pelled to the po­si­tion of Ni­cola stur­geon’s deputy.

In­deed, his abil­ity was judged so highly that he was given another brief, and not an in­con­sid­er­able one – the small mat­ter of fix­ing our fail­ing state schools after al­most a decade of Na­tion­al­ist in­er­tia.

thrown into the mix were the sham­bolic statu­tory in­quiry into child abuse and the Named Per­son scheme: per­haps the ul­ti­mate po­lit­i­cal poi­soned chal­ice.

tak­ing the helm of that dis­as­ter­prone pol­icy now threat­ens to be­come a chal­lenge too far for a man pre­vi­ously re­garded as a ‘safe pair of hands’ – leav­ing his nick­name of ‘Hon­est John’ in tat­ters.

Granted, Named Per­son – a sys­tem amount­ing to mass state sur­veil­lance of all chil­dren up to the age of 18 – was in­her­ited from An­gela Con­stance, ar­guably the most in­ept min­is­ter de­volved gov­ern­ment has ever seen.

But Mr swin­ney took to the task of shoring up the scheme with great en­thu­si­asm, back­ing it to the hilt, with right­eous fury di­rected against any­one who dared crit­i­cise it.

Dev­as­tat­ing

Last week, five judges at the supreme Court in Lon­don ruled that the leg­is­la­tion un­der­pin­ning Named Per­son was ‘de­fec­tive’ and would breach Euro­pean hu­man rights leg­is­la­tion. the dev­as­tat­ing judg­ment – the first time the UK’s most pow­er­ful court has ruled against a sub­stan­tive Gov­ern­ment pol­icy – warned that ‘to­tal­i­tar­ian’ states in­doc­tri­nate the pop­u­lace by first tar­get­ing chil­dren.

It was an in­dict­ment of the cack-handed law-mak­ing skills of our parliamentary rep­re­sen­ta­tives and of the scot­tish judges who waved through the leg­is­la­tion at an ear­lier re­view and sub­se­quent ap­peal.

But most of all it was a hu­mil­i­a­tion for the Na­tion­al­ist lead­er­ship, who had ig­nored a slew of warn­ings over the po­ten­tial il­le­gal­ity of their flag­ship law, and its im­prac­ti­ca­bil­ity.

A poorly-briefed Ni­cola stur­geon had blun­dered into the row ahead of the Holy­rood elec­tion in May, of­fer­ing false re­as­sur­ances that the grossly in­tru­sive scheme was en­tirely op­tional for fam­i­lies.

In a breath­tak­ing show of ar­ro­gant de­fi­ance, Mr swin­ney and Miss stur­geon have vowed to plough ahead with the pol­icy – once they have ironed out the in­con­ve­nient prob­lem of its il­le­gal­ity.

Mr swin­ney emerges from this episode as a fig­ure whose cred­i­bil­ity has been called into ques­tion, given the depths to which he was pre­pared to sink to sal­vage the pol­icy.

Dur­ing a frac­tious Holy­rood de­bate in June, he launched a vit­ri­olic at­tack on new tory MsP Adam tomkins, a law pro­fes­sor, for ques­tion­ing the le­gal­ity of Named Per­son.

Mr swin­ney said Mr tomkins should be ‘ashamed’, hav­ing ‘fu­elled the ab­sur­dity of the at­tacks made on this pol­icy’.

Now five of the UK’s top judges have ruled the leg­is­la­tion was un­sound be­cause ‘in­for­ma­tion shar­ing’ be­tween pub­lic bodies with­out parental con­sent is un­law­ful. there was no con­dem­na­tion by Mr swin­ney of the ‘ab­sur­dity’ shown by some of the pol­icy’s staunch­est ad­vo­cates, in­clud­ing sNP min­is­ter Humza Yousaf, who had claimed its op­po­nents were putting chil­dren’s lives at risk.

Like­wise, the sNP had turned a blind eye to the smears of Na­tion­al­ist MsP John Ma­son, who had claimed that some of those who op­pose Named Per­son may be child abusers.

then there was the cha­rade over Liam Fee, the two-yearold tor­tured and abused by his mother and her part­ner, de­spite hav­ing a Named Per­son to look after his in­ter­ests.

Mr swin­ney, in another show of right­eous indig­na­tion, said it was ‘atro­cious to try to es­tab­lish any link be­tween the Named Per­son propo­si­tion and the Liam Fee case’.

He claimed Liam ‘did not have a Named Per­son in terms of the leg­is­la­tion that par­lia­ment has put in place’.

But he was later forced to con­cede that ev­ery child in Fife has had a ‘con­tact point’ un­der the re­gion’s pi­lot ver­sion of the scheme, launched in 2009.

Cam­paign­ers pointed out that the scot­tish Gov­ern­ment had trum­peted the sup­posed suc­cess of the state guardian pi­lot in Fife and schemes in other ar­eas as proof it should be rolled out na­tion­wide.

those very pi­lots are now re­view­ing their own pro­ce­dures in light of the supreme Court judg­ment, as par­ents pre­pare to launch legal ac­tion over the shar­ing of in­for­ma­tion they fear was al­lowed to go on.

Nor is Mr swin­ney a lat­ter­day con­vert to Named Per­son. two months be­fore be­com­ing Ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary, he told child­care pro­fes­sion­als at a con­fer­ence in Perth they should ‘ag­gres­sively’ chal­lenge peo­ple who ques­tion Get­ting It Right For Ev­ery Child, the strat­egy which un­der­pins the state guardian ini­tia­tive.

Re­form

Mr swin­ney is, in fact, some­thing of an evan­ge­list for a pol­icy which – as for­mer sNP deputy leader Jim sil­lars told the Mail this week – is in dan­ger of be­com­ing the party’s poll tax.

the Ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary could have de­cided after tak­ing of­fice that Named Per­son, as Mr sil­lars be­lieves, should be placed in ‘per­ma­nent cold stor­age’, al­low­ing him to fo­cus on ed­u­ca­tion re­form (which, after all, is sup­posed to be Miss stur­geon’s cen­tral mis­sion).

But he de­cided in­stead to cling to the wreck­age and ig­nore the alarm bells.

Last week, within min­utes of the publi­ca­tion of the supreme Court’s judg­ment, Mr swin­ney pub­lished a Press re­lease headed: ‘swin­ney com­mits to roll out ser­vice as legal bid to scrap NP scheme fails.’

the Na­tion­al­ists are past masters of such spin, but this was a new low in their pol­i­tics of de­nial.

It was fol­lowed by Miss stur­geon tweet­ing jour­nal­ists to be­rate them for hav­ing the gall to read the 49-page judg­ment and then write up its find­ings.

this approach ap­peared to be hav­ing the de­sired ef­fect on BBC scot­land, one of whose re­porters tweeted: ‘Ba­si­cally, the supreme Court has no prob­lem with the prin­ci­ple of Named Per­son – but didn’t like spe­cific in­for­ma­tion­shar­ing pro­pos­als’.

this is like ar­gu­ing that a car is per­fectly road­wor­thy ex­cept for the de­fec­tive en­gine.

the very DNA of Named Per­son, which rested on the con­cept of in­for­ma­tion-shar­ing, will have to be ripped out – this is no mere tweak­ing ex­er­cise.

the re­fusal of Pre­sid­ing Of­fi­cer Ken Mac­in­tosh to re­call the scot­tish par­lia­ment from its lengthy sum­mer re­cess means there will be no early pub­lic scru­tiny of this mess.

For a party hith­erto wed­ded to pop­ulism, the fail­ure of the sNP’s po­lit­i­cal an­ten­nae on this is­sue is strik­ing and it is pay­ing a heavy price for its re­fusal to heed con­cerns of the elec­torate and of those charged with mak­ing the Named Per­son scheme work.

What un­der­lies this ob­sti­nacy is, of course, pride: drop­ping the pol­icy would be seen as a de­feat, and that is clearly an un­palat­able prospect.

But as he searches for a new nick­name, Hon­est John, de­fender of the in­de­fen­si­ble, should be re­minded of the old adage – that pride comes be­fore a fall.

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