Last week the nation followed the red brick road to the Emerald City, pulled back the curtain and revealed the vacuousness that stood behind it. The great and powerful couldn’t hide any more and telling the people to not believe what their eyes were telling them was the only tactic left as the clock ticked down to 10pm on Thursday night.

The lack of heart, courage and brain were not the afflictions of those who undertook the journey, but rather defined those upon whom judgment was to imminently be passed.

Goblins and witches had been slain and there was euphoria as Rishi Sunak and John Swinney had been torn from their lives by a tornado that had been building for years. For Sunak it has taken his house. Swinney’s was left severely storm damaged.

Friday morning began with lots of sorrys. John Swinney was “very sorry to be losing so many able Members of Parliament” and was sorry for the difficulties this would cause those who would be losing their jobs. An hour later and 400 miles further south, Rishi Sunak was just sorry.

In the first 10 minutes of his press conference John Swinney was listening, learning and reflecting no fewer than 16 times. That’s a lot of soul searching! But it was what he said immediately before this that really should have grabbed the headlines. Swinney told us “It [the Scottish National Party] needs to heal its relationship with the people of Scotland” A sickness and disease metaphor was bold given he had just been on the receiving end of an SNP-endectomy, but alluding to the party of government being bad for the health of its citizens was not on my bingo card for apologies or excuses.


What lies behind Chief Constable's latest apology?

The new clearances mean the people have no police

What is going wrong at Police Scotland?

The inevitable recriminations have already begun and as a once-invincible party scrambles to get more and more of its soiled linen into public view, the less its ability “to listen, to learn, and reflect” will be. Even at this early stage it seems destined to repeat the mistakes of the Labour Party in 2007, remain in denial over just where its problems lie, and for a very long time to come.

In all my time in the Scottish Police Federation I only knew one Scottish Government: an SNP one. I have seen the government (and party) change enormously over that time. It swept to power in 2007, again in 11, 16, and yet again in 21. One thing my experience with Justice showed was that it became consistently poorer at listening, learning and reflecting over those years.

The 2007-11 government was a remarkable beast. It’s no secret it didn’t expect to survive longer than a few months and set out with a vim and vigour to make a difference that was (in political terms at least) unprecedented. It largely bypassed the civil service and spoke directly to charities, trade unions, police forces, health boards, and so much more. The intent and purpose were clear, and the desire to make things happen was welcome and refreshing. Even though it hit the realities of the global financial crisis in late 2008, it didn’t hold it back. Police numbers soared and years of neglect to the plights of policing were finally being turned around. The mood at party conferences was buoyant. The attendees as diverse in age and appearance as they were in opinion. This was a party going places.

2011-16 were the glory years for the party but saw a different style of government to its predecessor version. It became more cautious as the civil service regained some of its managerial tendencies. Access was more challenging and the government began to show signs of a deaf ear as warnings over the risks posed by court closures, and the removal of local councillors as a presence in police governance were ignored. Despite this the prospect of an independence referendum saw a government that was constantly trying to please whilst up against the bite of austerity. Public sector wage freezes imposed by the Chancellor were not copied in full in Scotland and the sense things could be just that little bit better was being constantly promoted. Party conferences were euphoric but after losing the referendum maintained a misplaced high that rankled with many of the party faithful. As the party exploded in size, the smaller supporters that had been its life-blood were priced out as mega venues drove up costs and led to the embracing of big corporate cash.

What will John Swinney do next?What will John Swinney do next? (Image: PA)

From 2016 the government switched off. Justice became irrelevant and meetings became more about box ticking than acting on concerns. Police reform had been undertaken. Police numbers were still high – attention could be turned elsewhere. The decades-long neglect of Scotland’s police stations and infrastructure was inconsequential. Scotland’s lawyers were getting noisy about the neglect of legal aid and risks to justice. It became harder to hold in police cells those who committed crimes and the slide in public confidence was well under way as the 101 system frustrated thousands trying to phone the police each day.

Party conferences became more about performance than serious policy. The 30, 40, 50, 60-year campaigners who had done the hard yards became an elusive sight as the selfie and endorphin chasing new blood dominated. The party was believing its own PR even though the real world was ringing alarm bells. In each of those years I took warnings right to the heart of the SNP. In each of those years it didn’t listen – it didn’t think it had to!

If John Swinney wants to pave an SNP-yellow brick road to electoral success in 2026 he is going to have to do more than listen. He will have to purge the many voices his party has relied on to justify its approaches to countless policies in recent years. That will create new tensions and dangers but these have to be confronted or he faces an even greater risk that as he now starts to listen, the public stop listening to him.

Calum Steele is a former General Secretary of the Scottish Police Federation