First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had a chance to stop the sense of Scottish Government drift in the new Programme for Government, but she blew it, writes Tom Peterkin.
Can a ruling party in Scotland ever have suffered a more anguished summer recess than the one recently endured by the SNP? That – by the way – is a rhetorical question because the answer is a blindingly obvious and resounding “no”.
Of course, the allegations of sexual harassment made against Alex Salmond were responsible for much of that anguish. As was his colossally insensitive “crowd-funding” appeal to fund the legal action he is taking against the Scottish Government.
In contrast to Mr Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon has reacted to this most unfortunate turn of events with a great deal of dignity and professionalism. But that cannot mask the challenges she faces to hold her party together amid talk of SNP splits as Ms Sturgeon is pitted against her predecessor and mentor.
Despite his bullish response to the allegations against him and his work for a Kremlin-sponsored broadcaster, Mr Salmond still seems to hold considerable sway within the party.
But there is also a big wide world beyond the internal difficulties of the SNP and the personal troubles of Mr Salmond.
This is the real world where most people live and it is where the First Minister and her team face a whole host of other problems which require urgent attention.
These were apparent during the recess before all political controversies were drowned out by the revelation that two women had made complaints against Mr Salmond. Before the allegations against Salmond broke, education was the dominant theme of the recess with John Swinney under fire over controversial national tests for primary one pupils.
And thrown into that unhappy mix was the controversy over the 700 teaching posts unfilled before the start of term, a decline in pupils taking foreign languages and a narrowing subject choice under Curriculum for Excellence. No wonder that a picture is being painted of low morale in the classroom, a state of affairs that was graphically illustrated when Mr Swinney was accosted by angry teachers on the radio.
A litany of complaints were directed at the Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary including workload, low pay and shortages of specialists to deal with children with learning difficulties.
With parliament back from its summer break this week, these concerns are being reprised with EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan warning that it would take decades to change the culture of Scottish education.
But Ms Sturgeon’s challenges are not confined to education.
When faced with an NHS plagued by bed-blocking, missed waiting targets and doctor shortages, Ms Sturgeon does not have her troubles to seek when it comes to Scotland’s public services.
This week, the First Minister was preparing to announce her legislative programme for the next 12 months when the above point was made via a Scottish Government survey, illustrating rising dissatisfaction with public services.
Therefore it would have reasonable to expect the First Minister to come out fighting on the return to parliament with a legislative programme to get her administration back on to the front foot.
The need to seize the initiative is further underlined when it comes to the economy.
Today a report by the much-respected David Hume Institute warns that Scottish productivity has all but stalled for the last 15 years and immediate action is required to turn things about.
But when the country needing a Government on the front foot, Ms Sturgeon and her ministers spent the summer devising a back-foot Programme for Government. Consisting of a dozen bills, there were aspects that were commendable – notably the commitment to put mental health counsellors in schools and the announcement to bring forward benefit payments to low-income mothers.
But there was precious little else and certainly nothing to drive the sort of radical reform required to sort out Scotland’s public services.
In fact much of the discussion when Ms Sturgeon unveiled her proposals at Holyrood on Tuesday was the previous year’s Programme for Government.
At the heart of last year’s Programme was Mr Swinney’s much vaunted Education Bill.
That was the legislation which was supposed to be the “centrepiece” of Ms Sturgeon’s 2017 plan, offering the “biggest and most radical” change to how schools are run in the lifetime of devolution. It was to be the vehicle to deliver more powers to headteachers – the key to Mr Swinney’s reforms.
Since then – as Tory leader Ruth Davidson was only too keen to point out – the Bill has been shelved. Mr Swinney has argued that the changes can be better delivered without legislation, but his climbdown has contributed to the impression of a drifting government. Tuesday’s programme was an opportunity to arrest that sense of drift. Alas it was a missed opportunity.
As the controversies over Alex Salmond linger prominently, one seasoned observer in the Holyrood canteen remarked that there was nothing in the legislative programme to grip the politcal narrative over the coming months.
Unless the narrative is to be one of a Scottish Government that has run out of steam.