Euan McColm: Swinney could produce education results

JOHN Swinney is key to giving unbeatable nationalists something to fight for, writes Euan McColm

Deputy First Minister John Swinney. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

The tricky thing about power is that exercising it means the risk of losing it. Politicians with thwocking great mandates end up paralysed by the fear that their policies might prove to be terrible vote-losers. It’s one thing to plan a radical agenda but quite another to get down to delivering it. Who wants to gamble with decisions that might upset the public?

The result is cautious government, where political capital amassed must be protected rather than used.

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I wonder if First Minister Nicola Sturgeon may be guilty of this caution. The SNP’s polling numbers continue to soar, while Sturgeon’s approval ratings are the envy of her opponents. Yet the First Minister seems unwilling to do anything radical with the power she wields.

The result is that Sturgeon leads a Scottish Government without a clear purpose. No political party, regardless of how successful it may be, should let this happen. It makes space for ­opponents.

Unless events take a most peculiar turn, Sturgeon will, next May, lead the SNP to its third Holyrood victory. Few would bet against the party achieving an even greater majority at Holyrood than it did in 2011.

But, after that, what next for Sturgeon? What does she plan to achieve? A great many of her supporters will hope the First Minister’s priority is to stage – and then win – a second independence referendum. But Sturgeon has signalled she doesn’t envisage such a vote before 2021, and the more excitable members of the SNP should get used to that reality.

Without the constitutional battle to provide a focus for its next term in office, the SNP requires something else, something substantial.

Ministers have new powers over taxes coming soon, and, I’d imagine, would rather not feel compelled to use them for the sake of being seen to do something. The SNP might argue that Holyrood should have power over taxation, but whether the Government will want to use those powers to any significant degree remains doubtful.

What Sturgeon could do with, then, is a substantial project, a mission. She should use some of that political capital while she has it. After all, political capital can be eroded by circumstances beyond the holder’s control. Use it, as they say, or lose it.

Scotland’s education system is in need of reform. Inequality – the “attainment gap” – remains a problem, with too few young people from poorer backgrounds making it to university, while there are grave concerns over whether the controversial Curriculum for Excellence is providing the broad education that schools should provide.

Hollering about free tuition is all well and good but it’s no compensation for the lack of attention currently being given to ensuring our schools perform as well as possible.

One obvious problem with such a suggestion is that the Education Secretary, Angela Constance, is out of her depth, over-promoted because she was among the best of a bad lot rather than because of any particular political talent (see also Justice Secretary Michael Matheson).

I’m told by SNP sources that Sturgeon and her Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, are engaged in a necessary programme of micro-management when it comes to some members of the Scottish Government’s front-bench team.

For its reputation as a dynamic, radical party, the SNP owes a debt to a very small band of people. And that band is dwindling. Former first minister Alex Salmond has left serious politics in order to pursue a vendetta against the BBC, while the SNP’s talented director of communications, Kevin Pringle, has departed for the private sector.

Beyond Swinney, Westminster leader Angus Robertson, her chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, and her husband, the party’s chief executive, Peter Murrell, Sturgeon has few significant thinkers on whom she can depend.

Swinney may be Holyrood’s most capable parliamentary performer. He certainly ranks among the best and opponents struggle to land punches on him. Having spent an unhappy four years between 2000 and 2004 as leader of the SNP, Swinney appeared to have found his calling as the SNP’s Finance Secretary, a position he’s held since the SNP first came to power in 2007.

Perhaps it’s now time for Sturgeon to give Swinney a new challenge.

Sturgeon and Swinney make a formidable team. He is fiercely loyal to his leader and she depends to a great extent on his advice and support. Sturgeon recognises, too, that Swinney’s handling of the finance portfolio has been seen as a success. Public trust in the Finance Secretary is a crucial part of the SNP’s success story.

But Swinney could do more for his leader, now, in a different role.

The Labour Party recently succeeded in making the SNP look vulnerable over the issue of tax credits. The nationalists’ response to Labour leader Kezia Dugdale’s pledge that, in power, she would overturn cuts to the benefit was muddled and uncertain.

This episode doesn’t herald the downfall of the SNP but it does illustrate the truth that political parties – even the most successful ones – aren’t invincible.

The SNP cannot afford to go into its third term in government without plans of real substance. This cold, hard political fact happily collides with the real need for root and branch reform of the education system.

A cabinet reshuffle that saw Swinney put in charge of education, with orders to challenge orthodoxies and deliver a system that raises standards, would be a bold but wise move.

Sturgeon will breeze next May’s election. Expectations are so high that, should the SNP not win all 73 constituencies, it will appear a failure of sorts.

But the First Minister should not take for granted the continuing support of those who will carry her to power again, next year.

Nicola Sturgeon may never be more politically powerful than she is right now. And that means she has no time to waste in dealing with the serious issues our education system faces.

Putting John Swinney in charge of the department would be a very good start.