This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

It’s an election year. Expect big promises, glowing visions and brutal attacks from the various parties vying for power and survival. But that’s not all.

Politicians also trade in amnesia. They would rather voters forget the empty pledges. The stupidity, the scandal. The truth. So expect lots of history being airbrushed as well.

Which is why this week is my favourite in the political schedule. It’s when National Records of Scotland (NRS) have their annual release of Scottish cabinet papers.

The material made public this week dates from 2008, the SNP’s first full year in office.

You may have seen some of the stories on The Herald’s website. John Swinney considered selling off Scottish Water and the CalMac ferry fleet. Alex Salmond got a chip off the Stone of Destiny as a personal gift. And Humza Yousaf was part of one of the SNP’s first scandals in power, about a bunch of party cronies who landed £400,000 in government grants and then messed up big time.

Read more:

National Records | SNP cabinet updated on cronyism row involving Yousaf and his cousin

I’ve been digging into these government records for years. Don’t envy me. A lot of the stuff is strictly for nerds. It’s repetitive, bureaucratic, a slog. But there are always surprises and insights into the running of the country.

That’s true of the old Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, which was routinely patronised by Tony Blair’s crew, and of the SNP age. Although there is an added edge to the latter. Until now, no government has been in power long enough for its private discussions to come out while it is still in charge.

It’s fascinating to follow the career trajectories of those involved.

Mr Salmond and Kenny MacAskill are off with Alba, Nicola Sturgeon is doing her memoirs, and John Swinney is headed for academe. But Fiona Hyslop (then education secretary) and Richard Lochhead (rural affairs secretary) are still rattling around the government, albeit in smaller roles. While Shona Robison, a junior minister to Ms Surgeon’s health secretary, is deputy FM. As for Mr Yousaf, he was a parliamentary press officer. I wonder if he misses it.

So what impression do all those pages convey about the SNP in 2008? A pretty favourable one, I’d say. After the initial shock of entering office in 2007 and seeing many of their manifesto pledges collide with reality, the files show a government getting into its stride.

Mr Salmond seems to take more of a back seat in cabinet than in the early days, with fewer interventions from him in the minutes. Occasionally his irritation comes through – at a ScotRail franchise extension being sprung on him, or at muddled communications. But generally he seems more content with how his team is performing and less hands-on.

That all changes in the second half of 2008 with the financial crash. The First Minister throws himself into talks over the fate of HBOS and fulminates against short-sellers.

The Herald: Alex Salmond, Humza Yousaf and Osama Saeed (top R)
Mr Swinney is an omnipresent finance secretary, largely because so many tough financial decisions face the government. Ms Sturgeon is also a big figure, putting forward a range of commendable plans to tackle the ills of tobacco and alcohol, as well as being involved in marking the government’s first anniversary. “The Government’s approach should be businesslike and avoid any hint of triumphalism,” she declared. How things changed.

Read more:

National Records | Swinney considered selling Scottish Water and CalMac ferry fleet

But overall, the impression is of a group of intensely focused, serious people trying to do their very best. The threat of a strike at Grangemouth causing a national fuel shortage is treated with the utmost gravity. Ministers wrestle with many of the problems seen today – high energy bills, a flatlining economy, spending cuts. Independence barely gets a mention.

They may not get everything right, but they are not the clowns of caricature. You can even feel sympathy. As the global crash snowballs, they have no idea what’s coming at them.

Ministers wonder if a frothy “Year of Homecoming” can perk up the economy and fret about shoppers buying tinned salmon instead of fresh Scottish cuts if they feel the pinch. The realisation that it’s the worst slump since the Great Depression dawns very late. It must have been similar for Covid. Yet we constantly expect our politicians to see round corners.

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The annual cabinet files release is a wonderful thing for resisting amnesia. It gives us the facts without the spin. We must always remember to remember.

But it’s a good corrective to cynicism, too. It’s bloody hard being in government. And that’s also the truth.