As Alex Salmond issued a call for a fresh push for independence at an Edinburgh rally last weekend, it was clear that the mood among the core Nationalist movement in Scotland remains as febrile as ever. The former First Minister was quick to insist his comments were not directed at his successor Nicola Sturgeon.
But it can’t have sat easily with the current SNP leader who has endured recent attacks from senior Nationalist figures like Kenny MacAskill and Jim Sillars over leadership.
But could it be that Ms Sturgeon is playing more of a long game? The vision of a fairer society and a different way of doing things was always going to be pivotal to the success of any future Yes campaign.
When the First Minister signalled last week that she will use Holyrood’s new tax powers to increase income tax, it was the clearest and boldest hint yet that she is determined to set out a different approach to the way things are done.
The tax debate is a relatively new one in Scotland. But raising rates is always fraught with risk for politicians. Even last year’s decision not to implement the UK’s rise in the threshold for the 40p higher rate – effectively a tax hike for Scots in that band – produced a backlash with claims Scotland was now “the highest taxed part of the UK”. Spurious parliamentary answers were rushed out by SNP ministers indicating that when council tax and other tenuous charges are taken into account, the average Scot still pays less than other UK citizens. But there won’t be any dodging the claims when Derek Mackay publishes his budget in December which is expected to set out plans for a one pence rise for those earning more than £24,000.
It marks the most radical move yet on the part of the First Minister to shift Scotland towards the SNP’s vision of a Scandinavian-style modern democracy with strong public services – and higher taxes to pay for them. Perhaps this is best exemplified in the language of Ms Sturgeon’s options paper unveiled last week which talks of the “social contract” which “underpins our society and economy” in Scotland.
The paper made clear that the universal benefits introduced by Holyrood which are not avaialble south of the border are key parts of this contract. These include free tuition fees for Scottish students at university, free personal care for elderly Scots and free prescriptions for medicine at the pharmacy. Scots can also get eye exams free of charge on the NHS and over 60s enjoy concessionary travel around the country, although the age limit is expected to go up.
But perhaps the most significant shift towards the modern, European democracy which Ms Sturgeon is pursuing is the introduction of what is effectively universal free childcare. The First Minister has hailed this as “transformational”, getting a generation of mothers back into the workplace, with plans for childcare provision for most toddlers mirroring the current school week by 2021.
So while the departure of Mark McDonald as children’s minister was overshadowed by the “inappropriate” behaviour which prompted him to go, it also a major political blow, given he had been tasked with making this dream a reality. The job now goes to Maree Todd, a Highland and Islands MSP who has only been in Parliament for 18 months. It seems a daunting task for a relative novice, who now finds herself carrying not just the hopes of a generation of mothers but the Nationalist movement’s vision of a Nordic nirvana.