STEERING a car is easy enough. You turn the wheel and the car moves instantly; you hit the accelerator or brake and it responds to suit. Ships are more difficult.
The captain needs to anticipate so many variables that don’t quite respond in real time.
The impact of interest rates on inflation and the economy is another order of magnitude again. Notwithstanding the impact on expectations and behaviour today, the full impact of a Central Bank decision can take more than 18 months to filter through to the real economy.
Policy-making across the rest of government can take even longer. Reforms to the institutions of government, how it is funded and resources allocated can take generations to be properly felt. Educating a child to adulthood is a prime example.
As a result, the most influential policy-making tool is inertia and the power of yesterday. Vested interests are dug in by the way things are now. The daily news agenda vibrates increasingly around the noise of the moment looking for scandal where none exists, creating faux outrage around imagined nothings. Opposition parties (when they aren’t committing self-harm) normally pursue the government relentlessly and nothing is ever good enough, right or proper.
Leadership in such a world is difficult. Reforming leadership is even more so.
Polls last week put support for the SNP at the next Holyrood election at a stunning 62 per cent. With Labour in disarray, the Liberals an error margin from oblivion and the Tories hampered by decades of brand damage, you could be forgiven for thinking Nicola Sturgeon’s government was on easy street.
If she chose to, I guess she could be. But the First Minister is not that sort of individual. She didn’t seek office without thinking about it and anyone who knows her gets that she has a purpose in mind.
She knows political popularity and power could slip through her hands in a moment. She also knows that the challenges facing all governments everywhere are as acute as ever before, but so are the opportunities.
Simply stewarding the apparatus of government in Scotland should never be enough for anyone aspiring to leadership. We should never change for change’s sake, of course. But we should challenge the inertia of how things are now and ask “is this as good as it gets”?
Looking around Scotland today, the answer is an emphatic “no”. Our potential as a country to work individually and collectively to improve life quality and chances is crystal clear.
How we go about that takes inspiration, innovation, experimentation, guts, energy and the willingness to risk failure. In other words, it takes leadership.
Never before has a leader of government in Scotland been better placed to do all of the above. Will Sturgeon allow caution or confidence to win? My betting is on the latter.
Having led with great style and assuredness through the referendum aftermath and a stunning Westminster election, we will soon see the framing she will provide for the future course of public policy and politics for years and possibly decades to come.
The milestones are clear. A Programme for Government is expected to go before Holyrood at the start of September. The SNP’s own policy conference is then in October, followed by a budget at the end of the year. The content of the manifesto for next May should be pretty much clear from all of the above. What to expect?
I would expect to see a desire for completely refreshed thinking on how government works, from top to bottom of a system that has evolved over decades. Our local government structure was created by a party without mandate for a country that doesn’t exist anymore.
At the same time, the desire for proper localism and the empowerment of people to make material decisions about their own communities is manifest. Balancing that with the need for nation-building endeavour, led from the top as well as scale efficiencies to be obtained, is not simple. But it is achievable.
Wholesale reform of who, what and how we deliver public services is the core opportunity we have. Localism means we need to be prepared for difference. We need to be prepared to learn from failure and success. That is what self-reliance and self-determination is all about. There will be flak. There is with all transformation.
How we fund it all is crucial as financial powers increase. The key to that is asking ourselves how we grow the number of taxpayers and incentivise job creation, wealth creation and talent immigration.
Assigned VAT revenues may not be a real power but they should reward growth in population and performance.
On income tax we have 18,000 top rate taxpayers. We should want 50,000 and more, and soon. Policies to get us there would be far more sustainable than politically emblematic ones that are wrongly motivated and may be self-defeating.
The economy will succeed if we have infrastructure and education to rival anywhere in the world. This can only sustain if all have a stake in success.
The present judges Nicola Sturgeon very favourably. If she harnesses that support to deliver ambitious and fundamental transformation in schools, local governance and the competitiveness of the economy, then history’s judgment could be even better.