AS Nicola Sturgeon heads for the exit, the scale of shambles she leaves behind is unfolding daily, confirming what those who saw through the glib veneer have long suspected. These really have been Scotland’s wasted years.

Wherever one looks, would-be successors are distancing themselves from the sinking flagships. It remains doubtful if any of them is capable of facing up to lessons that go beyond random promises to ditch legislation or re-arrange deckchairs.

The fundamentals of devolved government need urgent overhaul to salvage them from the legacy Ms Sturgeon will bequeath. Whatever one’s political standpoint, we are entitled to expect that challenges are addressed on their own merits, rather than as adjuncts to a perpetual constitutional debate. We are entitled to expect competence.

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Where I live, for example, the immediate concern is wholly devolved and has nothing to do with the constitution. It is that ferry services are permanently in doubt while lifeline air links are now also in chaos. Examine the entrails of these issues and what you find is an abject failure to govern competently or caringly, regardless of one’s political perspective. That is what needs fixed.

Devolved government offered huge opportunities to do things well at micro as well as macro level. It was supposed to bring government closer to people, to recognise diversity within Scotland and to be flexible and innovative in its approaches.

It needs ministers with passion and enthusiasm for what they are doing. It needs close contact with communities where political intervention could make the greatest difference. It needs to recognise that Scotland is a diverse country which must draw on all the varied expertise within it.

Instead, Scotland’s devolved government has narrowed itself into a centralised, self-regarding bureaucracy which hoards power and ruthlessly uses patronage and largesse to close down points of challenge. Within that stultifying environment, success is counted in headlines rather than outcomes. Money is squandered while demanding more.

Potential is inhibited by the fact that the current incumbents’ only real interest is in their constitutional ambition. If you doubt that, listen to the roadshows in which the three candidates are selling their wares to SNP audiences. Every answer comes back to either “referendum” or “independence”. Nothing else is an end in itself.

A new First Minister should be capable of asking why so little of what is boasted about actually comes to fruition; of why every target by which their predecessors asked to be judged has been missed by country miles; why so little has changed in aspects of Scottish life where change is most needed.

The failure to govern well for its own sake has consequences which are represented not just by the statistics of health and education but also by more immediate impacts upon people and communities. Let me elaborate upon that current example I referred to.

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For five months, there has been deadlock involving Highlands and Islands Airports Limited, a Scottish Government quango, and the unions. HIAL management maintain they have no flexibility beyond the five per cent Edinburgh allowed them to offer, though that limit has eventually been breached in every other dispute.

Gradually, this escalated into strikes and work to rule. In face of growing calls to become involved, the Transport Minister, Jenny Gilruth, stayed away. Last time she met the HIAL unions was before the industrial action began. It did not even feature as a possibility that her boss, Michael Matheson, would play any role. Why not?

The board of HIAL follows the usual SNP pattern. None of the directors appointed by ministers lives in the Highlands, far less islands. Individually and collectively, they were totally unaffected by the impact of mounting flight cancellations and the disruption caused in their name.

At the end of last week, Loganair – the only scheduled operator – raised the stakes, announcing cancellation of flights between Inverness and Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles for at least six weeks. The impacts would include loss of hundreds of mainland hospital appointments and the inability of visiting consultants to fly in and out.

HeraldScotland: Loganair flights have been disrupted in a pay dispute in which Highlands and Islands Airports Limited says its hands have been tiedLoganair flights have been disrupted in a pay dispute in which Highlands and Islands Airports Limited says its hands have been tied (Image: Newsquest)

Hey presto! Ms Gilruth has emerged from hiding. The outcomes will be apparent over the next few days and it seems likely that something will be done to secure a settlement to head off the Loganair threat. It could have happened long before now and the messages sent out tell us a lot about how Scotland is run.

Refusal to negotiate was determined in Edinburgh, oblivious to consequences in Scotland’s most peripheral communities. A minister who should have been in the midst of seeking a solution was posted missing. Nobody – repeat nobody – in the HIAL quango showed the slightest sign of dissent or urgency. In other words, in this instance as in many, devolution was a non-existent failure.

So what specific conclusions should a candidate for First Minister draw? The first is to acknowledge that it is an absolute disgrace this dispute was not sorted months ago. The second is that Transport Scotland is a particularly inept branch of the Scottish Government which has been at the heart of the ferry scandal and continues to show no respect for far-flung communities. So dismantle it and start again.

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The third is that the quango system is Scotland’s biggest rotten burgh, designed to produce compliant boards composed of tame trusties who hop from one quango to the next, dependent only on their silent, long-range acquiescence in previous roles.

These would be three big, bold statements arising out of just one case study. Then repeat the process. None of them has anything directly to do with the constitution – only with the betterment of open, competent, devolved government. Is it conceivable that any of the leadership candidates will recognise that distinction? I thought not.

Incidentally, I heard Joanna Cherry on radio yesterday talking authoritatively in her role as chair of Westminster’s cross-party Committee on Human Rights. It was not hard to understand why the SNP’s ruling cabal changed the rules to keep her out of Holyrood and a potential leadership challenge. She would have walked it.

Brian Wilson is a former Labour Party politician. He was MP for Cunninghame North from 1987 until 2005 and served as a Minister of State from 1997 to 2003