Tom Peterkin: SNP pledges on health and schools may be in vain

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Domestic policy should be the priority but it could prove difficult as the constitution dominates, says Tom Peterkin.

When Nicola Sturgeon made her “plus ça change … plus c’est la même chose” announcement on a second independence referendum this week she included a passage in her address to parliament that received scant attention.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Contained in her speech was a nod towards non-constitutional politics that was almost lost amid the noise around her intention to “reset” her referendum plans.

The First Minister noted that the SNP had been in power for a decade and now was a suitable time to “take stock and refresh”.

“Over this summer, as we prepare our next programme for government and our budget for the year ahead, that is exactly what we will do,” the First Minister said.

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“We will set out afresh our vision for the country that we lead, together with the creative, imaginative, bold and radical policies that, as far as is possible within the current powers that are available to us, will help us to realise that bold, ambitious vision for Scotland.”

Her talk of renewal led to a mild frisson of excitement amongst the Holyrood cognoscenti. For a moment or two the assumption was that the First Minister was dropping a large hint that she was about to freshen up her team. The assumption was that Ms Sturgeon would reshuffle her Cabinet to send out a signal that she intends to turn her attention on to the day job with re-energised vigour.

But those hoping that the claymores were being brought out from the thatch for bit of blood-letting were to be disappointed. When MSPs shuffled off to the parliament bar at close of play last night, there was still no sign of ministerial movement.

As the Scottish political establishment retired to their gin and tonics and jagerbombs, a source close to Ms Sturgeon insisted there was “nothing to” the reshuffle rumours. In any case, time is fast running out for any new appointments to be ratified by MSPs given that Holyrood breaks up for a two-month recess today.

Notwithstanding the absence of a reshuffle, there will be many who welcome the extract from Ms Sturgeon’s speech to parliament on Tuesday, which saw her pledge to provide public services that look after people “from cradle to grave”.

As Ms Sturgeon said: “That means continuing to work each and every day to improve education, to equip our national health service for the challenges of the future, to lift people out of poverty and to build a social security system with dignity at its heart.”

The First Minister was sensible to signal that she intends to get back to the day job – and not just for the obvious reason that running the country is what her job is supposed to be all about. The more cynical would suggest there are baser political motives for her promise to take a fresh look at domestic issues.

It was not just the threat of an indyref that cost the SNP dear in the general election. For months there have been concerns that Ms Sturgeon’s administration has taken its eye off the ball when it comes to the domestic agenda. Those concerns hit the SNP hard at the polls earlier this month.

The challenges facing Scottish education are well rehearsed. Various studies have shown pupils slipping down the international league table and standards of literacy and numeracy falling. As Ms Sturgeon revised her Indyref2 timetable by a matter of months, there were also signs that not all is well with the health service.

A series of reports identified hospital overcrowding in Glasgow, issues surrounding baby deaths in Ayrshire and financial problems in Tayside. Yesterday the chairman of the BMA in Scotland, Dr Peter Bennie, warned of staff shortages and the stresses faced by those working in the NHS.

The Scottish Government’s in-tray includes dealing with the computer problems which have delayed CAP payments for farmers. In addition, there are the economic challenges with the Fraser of Allander Institute warning that Scotland is on the edge of a recession.

Ruth Davidson also wants to shift the spotlight on to health, education and the bread and butter of devolution – despite the Indyref2 threat proving so profitable for her.The Scottish Conservative leader is desperate to portray her party as an alternative government. Hence her decision to steal a march on Ms Sturgeon yesterday by reshuffling her front bench.

By installing former health spokesman Donald Cameron as chief policy co-ordinator with a view to getting the party ready for the 2021 Scottish election, Ms Davidson indicated her intention to offer an alternative policy platform.

With the two main parties signalling that they intend to look beyond constitutional matters, the voting public could be forgiven for expecting some serious politics when parliament reconvenes in September.

Those expectations, alas, are likely to be in vain. Ms Sturgeon’s refusal to take Indyref2 off the table leaves the Scottish Conservatives with a profitable line of attack that they will not be able to resist exploiting as the 2021 election creeps closer.

Meanwhile, the Brexit negotiations and the £1 billion dished out to the DUP by the UK government will give the SNP a ready supply of ammunition. The SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford has already dipped into that particular magazine with his attacks on David Mundell and the claims that Scotland is losing out on Theresa May’s largesse. “Plus ça change…” as they say in the Holyrood bar.