Nicola Sturgeon is invariably at her most persuasive best when she puts partisanship to one side and emphasises that, in addition to leading the Scottish National Party, she is also first minister of Scotland. Occasions such as yesterday, when she outlined her programme for government, give her that opportunity to shine. In place of boastfulness, there was modesty; in place of gurning about what she could not do, there was a refreshing emphasis on what she could. It was a speech tacitly admitting the truth of admissions made by former SNP ministers that during the referendum years the party allowed itself to be distracted by independence at the expense of ambitious government on the domestic front.
SNP types dislike the suggestion the party ever learnt anything from Tony Blair but the programme for government unveiled yesterday showed how deep that unacknowledged debt remains. The SNP is as keen on Third Way triangulation as any Blairite ever was.
The secret truth about the nationalists is that they are a moderate party in radical clothes. As a rule, the party saves its radical rhetoric for powers reserved to Westminster but takes a more modest, even prudent, approach to the responsibilities devolved to Edinburgh.
But if the centre of Scottish political gravity shifts then the SNP will shift too. That centre has long been mildly to the left of its English equivalent (a difference of greater degree than kind) and it has shifted a notch further left since June’s general election. Ms Sturgeon, keenly aware she cannot be left behind by the voters, has followed suit.
She has done so cleverly, however. It is clear that the SNP intend to increase income tax in Scotland at the next budget. But Sturgeon has helped spread responsibility for tax hikes by offering other parties the chance to make their own proposals on the matter, while also governing in the more collegiate style required of what is still – though it is easy to sometimes forget this – a minority government.
The Tories will not object to this either, of course, recognising that any moves to tax Scotland more highly offer them an opportunity to offer an alternative. Nevertheless, Sturgeon’s outreach was not confined to tax: the hallmark of this programme (besides its ambition, of which more soon) was the manner in which it offered something to every party.
A deposit-scheme for plastic bottles, to encourage recycling and reduce waste, may sound a small thing but a proposal which wins the approval of the Green party and the Daily Mail (which has been campaigning on this issue for some time) is a rare thing indeed. Similarly, extending free social care to Scots aged under 65 but suffering from dementia and related incapacitating ailments rewarded a Dundee Courier campaign lately taken up by the Conservative MSP Miles Briggs.
If these were small-bore items, larger calibre munitions came in the form of scrapping the public sector pay cap and beginning the process by which a public sector organisation can bid for the ScotRail franchise when Abellio’s current contract ends. Each of these, like the pressure on income tax, were a nod to Labour.
The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, were encouraged by reforms to criminal justice procedure. In addition to raising the age of criminal responsibility from 8 to 12, the government proposes a major reform of sentencing guidelines. At present there is a presumption that custodial sentences should not be imposed for offences that would otherwise result in up to three months in gaol. That will now be extended to 12 months. That risks controversy and tabloid outrage but it’s a bold move – in a genuine as well as a sardonic sense – nonetheless.
Even the Tories received a bauble or too, not least in the form of a lengthy section on how Scotland should refashion its economy to boost entrepreneurial activity and investment. Ruth Davidson has made much of the need for a reformed capitalism and an approach to government that intervenes in instances of market failure or inadequacy. A Scottish National Investment Bank, designed to meet a need for ‘long-term, patient, capital’, fits into that analysis. The detail matters, of course, but the announcement the bank is to be organised along lines recommended by Benny Higgins, late of Tesco Bank, is encouraging.
This too was a reminder that the SNP is a hybrid-party. It is relaxed about higher taxation for individuals and equally relaxed about lower taxation for businesses. More generally, its instincts are bossy and chivvying when it comes to individuals, but corporatist and encouraging when it comes to industry. This is, I suppose, a form of triangulation too.
In any event, a nationalist government can hardly afford to be a laissez-faire government even at the best of times and these are not times suited to such an approach in any case.
Aside from tax, the lollipop initiative was the announcement the government will begin to build the infrastructure needed to allow the phasing out of new petrol and diesel cars from 2032 onwards. This is an ambitious programme in a country that doesn’t currently have anything close to universal mobile phone reception and in which it will take a decade to dual-carriageway the A9 between Perth and Inverness. Nevertheless, it was a useful declaration of intent; a means of demonstrating that the Scottish government is prepared to embrace, and then tackle, long-term challenges.
That matters too, not least since it marked a welcome departure from the all-too prevalent nationalist suggestion nothing can be done in the absence of independence. That’s a palpably nonsensical but depressingly common view. Independence, mind you, is the love that dare not speak its name these days. Sturgeon referred to it only once and even then only in passing, a recognition that the moment has, for the time being, passed. It hasn’t disappeared forever, of course, and may be readdressed in the aftermath of Brexit.
But for the time being and although support for independence remains above 40 percent, it is a vote-loser for the SNP. The lesson of the general election has been learnt. And with there being no scheduled Scottish election until 2021 this is a time for concentrating on other things. The constitutional issue will always be there; we can, if we must and choose to do so, return to it some other time.
The detail is a different thing, for sure, and here a speech can only do so much. A hefty chunk of the SNP’s education reforms are drawn from Tory ideas (though they never put it like that), including giving more freedom to head-teachers and introducing standardised national testing. The implementation matters and that’s likely to cause the government significant problems in the year ahead. Likewise, a commitment to increase the NHS budget in real terms satisfies Labour demands, but the question remains whether this extra money can keep up with rising demand and, when it can’t, how the system must change to satisfy that demand.
Still, this was an encouraging return to form. It suggested a government that has learned from some of its past mistakes. There is – and will be – plenty to disagree with in this programme but it contains real measures that will make a real difference to many Scots’ lives (among these, expansions in childcare and reforms to student finance that will lessen at least some of the debt burden new graduates are landed with).
And savour this irony too: when the SNP stops talking as though it is the will of the Scottish people made flesh, it puts itself in a place where it can govern in the better interests of the Scottish people as a whole. In that respect the bloody nose given to the party in June was a necessary and humbling correction and a lesson that, at least this week, seems to have been learned.
Whether it will be enough to secure a remarkable fourth term in office at the next election is a different matter. By 2021 the SPN will have been in power for 14 years and although it must still be favoured to emerge from that election as the largest party, the argument that it is ‘time for a change’, regardless of the government’s performance, will be an appealing one. Time, as much as mistakes, rusts all governments in the end.
Even so, as I say, yesterday’s speech was a return, at least for a moment, of the Nicola Sturgeon who transcended Scottish politics when she first succeeded Alex Salmond. How long that return lasts is now the question upon which her fate may depend. But in the meantime, there is work to be done.