WHEN the First Minister declares that something has her “full confidence”, it must by now surely undermine the confidence of her audience.

Since confidence means to trust fully, “full confidence” is already one of those phrases, like “safe haven” or “absolute guarantee”, that by redundantly qualifying a term supposed to be definitive, sows doubt by protesting too much.

But perhaps Nicola Sturgeon uses confidence in one of its other senses; such as trust in, or admission of being party to, secrets; privileged information; self-belief; or the foreknowledge of the outcome of events.

If it were the last, she would have been disabused of the notion and surprised that, shortly after she had declared full confidence in the Scottish Qualifications Authority, her Education Secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville, announced that the SQA and Education Scotland were to be subject to a comprehensive review.

Since it is inconceivable that the First Minister was not fully apprised of this, it looks as though an assurance of “full confidence” is simply a verbal tic, or a knee-jerk response to deflect criticism rather than deal with the substance of the objection.

Unfortunately, the history of loudly declared confidence from ministers and the contrasting record in the issues under scrutiny seems to bear this out. Failed waiting list targets and worsening health outcomes, delivery of replacement ferries on time and within budget, rectifying dreadful infrastructure errors with hospitals, tackling the worst drug death toll in Europe and providing Holyrood committees with all the evidence they required to do their job: these are just some areas where vocal government confidence has been, to take the most charitable view, misplaced.

This does little to inspire the electorate’s confidence in ministerial judgments, or give us reason to trust their competence in identifying and rectifying areas where policy is not being implemented or, worse, is proving counterproductive.

This week’s elementary misreading of statistics on children in hospital “because of Covid” by Humza Yousaf, to make an unscientific claim about soft play areas that was immediately contradicted by doctors, might almost have been designed to undermine public confidence.

At a moment when safe rebuilding of the health service and economy is, we keep being told, “dependent on the data”, it is hardly reassuring that Mr Yousaf, who did not cover himself with glory as Justice Secretary, should now be in a role where he seems not to understand that data, or related issues such as the difference between correlation and causation.

Even for those who take a generally favourable view of the SNP’s record, there can be no area that inspires less confidence than education – the First Minister’s avowed priority – where, by any metric you care to cite, the position has worsened markedly under its policies. Every one of the measures Ms Somerville announced to tackle the problem – investment, recruitment of teaching staff, closing the poverty gap – is one that corrects policies her party has either pursued or neglected over the past 14 years.

They are nonetheless welcome, even if they fall into the category of rejoicing over the sinner who repents. But any review of SQA and Education Scotland is almost certain to require root-and-branch reform, and a willingness from the Government to accept that there are occasions on which outcomes they have attempt to deny, dispute or evade require a reversal of misguided policy that they have defended in the face of the facts.

That is an attitude healthier than misplaced confidence, and might usefully be applied to a range of other quangos and public bodies; full confidence in Calmac, for example, is a good deal less useful than actually having workable ferries serving island communities.

The education review comes too late for this year’s exams, still a source of uncertainty and worry for pupils and parents despite the authorities having had a year to prepare. No one has much confidence that they will be better handled than last year’s fiasco. If this review is to prevent recurrence of those failings and improve matters, humility and honest scrutiny, rather than ministers’ self-assurance, will be the more useful attitude.