Ever had the feeling that you’ve been somewhere before? That notion that what you are seeing or hearing is elusively familiar? Call it deja vu or groundhog day, the effect can be disorienting and so it was yesterday at Holyrood when Nicola Sturgeon unveiled her Programme for Government.
This was the First Minister’s keenly-anticipated, game-changing ‘reset’. A year wasted straining to parlay Brexit into a second referendum ended in the ignominy of SNP giants losing their seats to newcomer Tories and Jeremy Corbyn’s tartan Trots. Miss Sturgeon’s star had plummeted to earth and brought her party’s fortunes down with it. It would all be fine in the autumn, her spin doctors assured. Nicola would bounce back, reboot the government, and rekindle the country’s cooled affections for her — just wait till Parliament returns from recess.
We waited. We are still waiting. The 2017 Programme for Government is not a reset but a retread — a schedule of repeats, a cluster of blandishments, a paean to the lukewarm and unambitious. The First Minister had three months to fashion a fresh plan to get her administration back on course and take Scotland forward. Instead she made new vows of old promises, ripped off the manifestos of her opponents, and substituted rhetoric for radicalism.
The Nationalist leader proclaimed to a packed chamber: ‘Improving education, including by closing the attainment gap, is our number one priority.’
It was clear. It was bold. It was… terribly familiar.
Rewind to May 2016 and we find Miss Sturgeon addressing the parliament in the wake of the Holyrood election. She declared: ‘During the election campaign, I said that closing the attainment gap in education would be the defining mission of a Scottish Government that is led by me.’
Go back a bit further and here is the First Minister setting out her 2015 Programme for Government: ‘Improving school attainment is arguably the single most important objective in this programme for government.’
All the way back to her first policy statement in 2014: ‘We will make it a priority to improve the educational outcomes of pupils in the most disadvantaged areas of Scotland.’
Equally reminiscent was the pledge of a new Scottish national investment bank, that Miss Sturgeon decreed would ‘provide the patient capital investment that the Scottish economy needs for the future’.
As Ruth Davidson pointed out, a hint of incredulity in her voice: ‘The Scottish Government announced a Scottish Business Development Bank as far back as May 2013. It was then re-announced in September 2013, but dropped in May 2014, before resurfacing in this First Minister’s first programme for government towards the end of 2014. Since then it has not only been delayed a few times, but the plan also changed from the setting up of a dedicated bank to being a part of the existing Scottish Investment Bank. And guess what, it still doesn’t operate in full.’
No wonder the Scottish Greens do her bidding so often. She’s an even bigger fan of recycling than they are.
It wasn’t only SNP commitments that the First Minister was repackaging — she had been at the photocopier with the other parties’ manifestos too. Once again, it fell to the Tory leader to query the mounting pile of promissory notes. The Scottish Government’s new policy spread had borrowed so extensively from Conservative proposals, she observed with her customary cheeky grin, it should be called ‘Something Borrowed, Something Blue’.
The Tories weren’t the only ones entitled to report a sizeable theft of political clothes. Labour has been left positively naked. The party’s call for the lifting of the public sector pay cap, once rebuffed, is now regurgitated. Anne McTaggart’s attempt to introduce a soft opt-out scheme for organ donations, once prevented, is now purloined. Monica Lennon’s campaign for free sanitary products has become a Scottish Government initiative.
The opposition shouldn’t bother trying to win elections. They should just sit back and let the SNP implement all their best policies.
There were occasional flickers of potential, hints dropped that something daring might lie in store. A citizens’ basic income, lately fashionable in public policy circles. An income tax rise to match tall oratory about social justice. Aha! Here was that trail-blazing signalled by her advisors. Only it wasn’t. The government would not be introducing a basic income but ‘working with interested local authorities to fund research into the concept’. There wasn’t a tax hike in the offing but ‘a discussion about how responsible and progressive use of our tax powers could help to build the kind of country that we want to be’.
The revolution was on its way but it couldn’t be rushed. ‘What Is To Be Done?’ Lenin once asked. ‘Let’s set up a feasibility study’ is the First Minister’s reply.
This is a government adrift in a malaise of its own devising. It came to power in 2007 full of promise — and full of promises — only to get sidetracked by the constitution. That first term witnessed a restive party eager to squeeze every second out of its first taste of power. The council tax freeze. A thousand extra police. Business rates cut. Free prescriptions. At-risk A&E wards saved.
Whether you laud or lament them, these were real, tangible measures that made a difference to people’s lives. The SNP’s undoing was its sweetest moment — the overall majority in 2011 that allowed them to hold their independence referendum. The gears of government ground to a halt and since then they have grown rusted and become jammed. After five years of neglect, Miss Sturgeon is trying to restart the engine only to realise the tyres are gone, the wheels are up on bricks and the exhaust is looking mighty dodgy.
The more powers the Scottish Parliament accrues, the less willing the SNP is to use them. The greater their scope for changing Scotland, the more entrenched their conservatism becomes. Nicola Sturgeon cannot reset her government because it is already set, immovably, in the constitutional cement of separation. The First Minister may have dared only one mention of independence yesterday but it was the unacknowledged author of a timid, listless address.
It would be churlish not to acknowledge where the Scottish Government is on the right track. The decision to extend free personal care to the under-65s, dubbed ‘Frank’s Law’ after late footballer Frank Kopel, corrects an injustice against sufferers of early on-set dementia and motor neurone disease. Amanda Kopel, who led a sometimes lonely fight for this change, has done her beloved husband proud.
Automatic pardons for men prosecuted under historic anti-gay laws is a decent and civilised measure, as is the commitment to stamp out homophobic bullying in schools. Wrongs were done, they must be righted, and future ones averted.
The announcement of a bottle deposit scheme should be cheered by everyone who cares about Scotland’s environment. The SNP’s adoption of a solution proposed by the Scottish Daily Mail is a reminder that, whatever our differences, we all have Scotland’s best interests at heart. Listening to unlikely allies isn’t easy but it is what pragmatic and open-minded governments do.
These are creditable reforms. They will make worthwhile changes. They do not amount to a Programme for Government. Nicola Sturgeon did not reveal a way forward yesterday — she confirmed that she is stuck and going nowhere fast.
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