WHEN you’re the leader of a struggling little party on the fringes of politics, it must be difficult to resist the temptation to get your name in the paper.

Willie Rennie — whose party’s support has slumped from 19 per cent to less than seven per cent under his leadership — certainly seemed to be a man in the grip of desperation last week when I heard him on BBC Radio Scotland denouncing the Scottish Government for carrying out some finishing work on the new Queensferry Crossing. It prompted an arch-Unionist of my acquaintance to scoff with disbelief that any politician should be so removed from reality as to imagine that a major engineering project could ever be perfect from day one.

No government is above criticism. Indeed, unless we believe a one-party state is healthy, we all have to acknowledge that Scotland needs strong opposition parties that hold our government to account and offer different solutions to the problems we face.

Constructive opposition can benefit everyone. A case in point is the suggestion this weekend by John Finnie of the Scottish Greens, backed by Richard Leonard, to move towards regulation and public control of our bus services in most areas of Scotland, along the lines of the model of Lothian Buses. If I had any influence, I would be advising Humza Yousaf to open up discussions with the Greens and Labour about how that might practically be achieved.

But back to Willie Rennie – and to Ruth Davidson, who predictably joined in the chorus of complaint over a few days’ closure of some bridge lanes. Such silly point-scoring trivialises politics and generates public cynicism. It is also dishonest and hypocritical.

The Channel Tunnel, built under John Major’s Tory government, took 20 per cent longer to build than planned, came in at 80 per over budget and is still beset with problems, including occasional full-scale closures.

The Scottish Parliament building, constructed under a Labour-LibDem coalition, cost ten times more than estimated, opened three years late, and continues to be a source of controversy over the its location and its architecture.

The Edinburgh tram project, again driven by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, cost more than double the original forecast and was opened three years late.

But worse still was the schools and hospitals privatisation debacle, which will, when all is said and done, have cost the Scottish taxpayer £36 billion. Projects that cost £8bn to build have drained four times that sum from the public purse thanks to the ingenuity of the Private Finance Initiative, or PFI as its usually referred to.

Like the Poll Tax, PFI was piloted in Scotland in 1994 when the Tory government used the system to fund the new Skye Bridge. It was a bit like Bright House for politicians — except that instead of paying £300 for a £100 TV, they paid private profiteers £130 million for a £25m bridge.

And then things got even worse. The old Labour-controlled Glasgow City Council embarked on a PFI school-building programme in the early 2000s whose total construction cost was £225 million. By the time the last repayment is made in 2030, the price tag to the council will have risen more than six times over, to £1.5bn. The final bill for the Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Larbert, which cost £293m, will be £1.8bn.

When critics complain of minor snagging on the Queensferry Crossing they should stop to think about the state of some of our modern schools and hospitals across Scotland which they delivered under PFI. To maximise profits, private construction companies used inferior materials, and shrunk the sizes of classrooms and hospital wards to cut costs.

The result is that, while spacious former school buildings built in the Victorian and Edwardian eras continue to stand proud and sturdy, many of their recent replacements will have reached the end of their lives long before the taxpayer has paid the bill.

Some of the gleaming new buildings were even discovered to be dangerous, forcing the closure of 19 schools in Edinburgh, for weeks and months on end. So those who make such a song and dance about a few lane closures and temporary delays on a brand-new bridge really should get a grip of reality.

And they should also bear in mind that the PFI projects they drove forward with such gusto in the past are now partly responsible – along with Brexit instability and Tory-driven austerity – for the crisis facing local public services today. The debts run up a decade ago by local authorities to build new PFI schools will this year cost councils almost half a billion pounds in debt repayments.

THAT is not to suggest the Scottish Government is beyond criticism. Yes, PFI was swiftly abandoned when the SNP came to power. Its replacement — notwithstanding Labour protests to the contrary — was an improvement. For a start, any surplus or underspend is returned to the public sector, which removes the incentive to cut corners or reduce the quality of the new buildings. Scottish Futures Trust, the public body which now oversees major infrastructure projects, also has the power to impose caps on the interest rates charged by private investors.

But Scottish Government capital investment still involves negotiating with the private sector. And that means private profiteers are able to line their pockets at public expense.

That unsatisfactory arrangement flows from the shackles placed on Scotland’s borrowing powers by Westminster. This year, despite easing of restrictions, the limit imposed on Scottish public borrowing for building schools, hospitals and other public infrastructure is just £600m a year – which is not much more than the annual cost to Scotland’s local authorities of PFI debt repayments.

At the very top, both in Scotland and across Britain, the Labour leadership has changed dramatically compared to the Blair-Brown years. But below Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard, most of the party’s MPs and MSPs still have an affinity with the ideology that brought privatisation right into the heart of our schools and hospitals.

Had it not been for the rise of the independence movement and the SNP, Labour would have carried on with business as usual. With perhaps a tweak here and there, New Labour would still reign supreme.

To replace the Tories as Scotland’s official opposition, and to become a credible force again, Scottish Labour needs to take responsibility for its own recent history – including the chaos it helped create within our public services and the financial burden it has left behind.

If it does, Scottish politics will be all the better for it, and Labour may regain a bit more trust. And who knows, even Willie Rennie might rise above petty-minded trivia and start to make his party relevant to the new Scotland.