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