Tom Peterkin: Calm before storm as Holyrood prepares for kick off

Sturgeons approach drew criticism from Willie Rennie and new official opposition leader Ruth Davidson. Picture: PA
Sturgeons approach drew criticism from Willie Rennie and new official opposition leader Ruth Davidson. Picture: PA
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NICOLA Sturgeon shows signs of seeking consensus but it’s too early to judge it a success, reckons Tom Peterkin

Since the Scottish election, there has been day-upon-day of listlessness down Holyrood way as MSPs wait to get down to business. The lull has seen the new MSPs go through some sort of new induction process while behind the scenes, the discussions and bargaining about how the new scrutinising committees should be made up have been taking place.At the front of house, however, the long days since 5 May have been remarkable for their inactivity, with seasoned observers complaining that the lack of action in the chamber and committee rooms makes it feel like a parliamentary recess. It seems to have taken an inordinate length of time to get the new parliament down to the serious business of running Scotland.

Ruth Davidson is still waiting to have a crack at Nicola Sturgeon from her new position as the official leader of the opposition. Some of the torpor will be relieved next week when at last Holyrood gets round to hosting the inaugural First Minister’s Questions a week today.

After the swearing-in ceremonies of last week, yesterday saw the first stirrings of MSPs actually getting down to work when Holyrood sat for the first time to debate a Nicola Sturgeon statement titled “Taking Scotland Forward”.

In what is supposed to be a sort of sneak preview of the SNP’s programme for government, Ms Sturgeon once more underlined her intention to put reform of education at the heart of her administration.

With the teaching unions agitating for industrial action amid complaints of an unmanageable workload resulting from the Curriculum for Excellence reforms, Ms Sturgeon is keen to seize the initiative. To that end, she announced the creation of a “national summit on school reform and raising attainment”.

As she embarks on her mission to close the attainment gap between pupils from well off backgrounds and their poorer counterparts, the First Minister showed a willingness to get other parties involved – an approach that she will have to apply to all forms of government now she no longer commands a Holyrood majority.

Invited to take part were party leaders and those dealing with education on the opposition front benches.

By extending the invitation to her opponents, Ms Sturgeon looks as if she is trying to get them onside when it comes to reforms. Just how straightforward this will be remains to be seen. Amongst the opposition parties there is a range of opinion about how best to improve Scotland’s schools. Ms Sturgeon is talking of publishing more data on school performance and has signalled that schools could break free of local authority control – approaches that stand a good chance of gaining Tory support but opposition from other parties.

In the meantime those of a cynical bent might be tempted to view talk of a summit as a ruse to create the impression of action while attempting to tie in her opponents at a time when unions are restless.

In defence against those who thought her statement a tad lightweight, it should be mentioned that it did cover subjects other than education. The establishment of a Scottish Social Security Agency, expanding carers’ benefits and new climate change targets were also on her agenda. Most of her ideas, however, were familiar.

Therefore there was criticism that her approach seemed more managerial than visionary. It was the Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie, who accused her of seeking “security in timidity”.

“She is hunting for things like plans, advisers, councils of advisers, consultations, summits – anything but action to make a change for the future of our country. I think we need to choose bold, ambitious options rather than the timidity that we have seen from the SNP statement today,” was how Mr Rennie put it

The Conservative leader Ruth Davidson touched on a similar theme.

Ms Davidson remarked that the First Minister had been “criticised for caution and inaction during her first 18 months of tenure” adding that the criticism had “stung”. The Tory leader said the Scottish Government could either “take the easy option which says – just keep things quiet, manage their way around problems, take regular pot shots at the UK government – all in the hope that the show stays on the road until the promised day of Indyref2”.

Or, according to Ms Davidson, ministers could take the “harder road – a choice which focuses on bringing about long-term change, right now. Change that will cause conflict among vested interests and create hostility… But change that will show this government has left its mark.”

Between them, Ms Davidson and Mr Rennie put their finger on the dilemma facing Ms Sturgeon in the first few months of the new parliament. With the really tricky questions on how Ms Sturgeon will choose to use the new income tax powers coming to Holyrood still some way off, there must be a temptation for her to run a “steady as she goes” administration while minority government beds in.

Whatever the impression made by her speech yesterday, Ms Sturgeon must know deep down that, having invested so much rhetoric into sorting out education, the easy option is no longer an option – especially where Scotland’s schools are concerned.