Nicola Sturgeon goes back to basics in policy agenda speech

In politics, celebrated strategist Kenny Rogers (almost) advised, you gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, and know when to keep people who read the Daily Mail on side.

That is what Nicola Sturgeon does in her programme for government, unveiled in Edinburgh on Tuesday. The delivery was calm and assured and so too was the policy agenda. There was something for those doing well and something for those doing it tough.

“We intend to become the real northern powerhouse,” the First Minister trumpeted in her decidedly pro-business agenda, and the centrepiece involved a 50% cut in air passenger duty from 2018. The long-standing SNP policy is popular with the industry and is expected to boost tourist receipts. Elsewhere, firms will get more rates relief (“the most competitive business rates package in the UK”) and streamlining in the planning process, as well as a business development bank and a newly-announced £40m growth fund for small- and medium-sized enterprises.

But to emphasise the difference between the SNP’s pro-business outlook and that of the Conservative government, there was also a raft of social justice measures. Rent controls will come into force in some areas and employment tribunal fees will be junked. The Scottish Government will fight the Tories’ trade union reforms and deliver 30,000 additional apprenticeships every year by 2020. A Social Security Bill will seek to use the forthcoming Smith powers to mitigate some of the impact of UK welfare changes. Free childcare provision will almost double from 600 hours per annum to 1140 by 2020.

Every tilt right was counter-weighted with a shimmy left; balance not boldness was the object of the exercise. Critics might peg it as a safe statement but it is better understood as judicious, constructed with a looming election in mind and the long-game of independence playing out in the tall grass. It was a programme that drew battle lines ahead of next May’s Holyrood elections. The Scottish Greens are an established presence on the SNP’s left and Rise — an alliance of the Hillhead People’s Front and the People’s Front of Morningside — launched at the weekend.

The proposals outlined by Sturgeon are not the legislative agenda of someone unduly troubled by the latest rebranding of the obscure and embittered of radical politics in Scotland. It is clear from what was announced on Tuesday that the SNP will remain firmly on the centre ground from which they have won two Holyrood and one Westminster election. This may cause disquiet amongst those Nationalists convinced they are on the barricades of a radical movement but it underscores how canny Sturgeon is. She talks a good lefty game but she knows where the country is and she’s right there beside it, smack-bang in the middle.

This is sensible positioning on her part. The Greens might cause some trouble on the regional lists — where they have real talents like Zara Kitson and Andy Wightman — but the farther-left can be ignored with confidence. They are not an option for most of the members of Sturgeon’s national coalition. Middle Scotland and the SNP are as one on the economic and social prescriptions of the day and all but the most hashtag-afflicted Alba-gu-bràthers know a majority SNP government is the surest way to get a second referendum.

Where the charge of cautiousness has greater purchase is on education. Once again a Scottish politician dodged the difficult decisions that need to be taken if our failing education system is to be turned around. Labour and the Nationalists have consistently let children down through ideology, policy conservatism, and a desire to keep teachers and their unions in the tent. The successes of academies and free schools are mostly ignored and even a whisper about the benefits of vouchers and education savings accounts to the US school choice agenda will get you suspended, expelled and told to write “I will not think outside the box” 1000 times.

But Sturgeon struck a meaningful blow against mediocrity and excuse-making by announcing a new regime of standardised assessment. Pupils in primaries one, four, and seven and those in the third year of secondary school will sit nationally-designed tests in literacy and numeracy. This is anathema to some but as the First Minister pointed out, teachers have to be able to identify problems early on and parents want to know how their children are progressing. There would be no league tables, Sturgeon insisted, which is a shame but the very existence of the data means they will easily be compiled by newspapers. Parents will claw a morsel of power from local authority bureaucrats.

Sturgeon delivered a solid programme that won’t win converts — precious few are the agnostics left in Scotland — but will reassure those who vote SNP for its competent management. The opposition can only carp from the sidelines, pointing out the (very real) shortcomings of the last eight years, but this has failed to produce any results so far. Perhaps their attacks will manage to break through in the coming months but it seems unlikely. The 2016 election was always going to be fought on the SNP’s terms and the First Minister’s programme only confirms that.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © First Minister of Scotland by Creative Commons 2.0.

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