Kenny MacAskill: Nicola Sturgeon must stop hogging limelight

Nicola Sturgeon placed her own stamp on the Scottish Cabinet when she succeeded Alex Salmond back in November 2014, largely through gender balance and a more presidential style, as most of the membership remained the same.

Now though, the Sturgeon revolution is complete as she finally selects her own team. It’s the end of an era for those who were involved in the internal battles in the 1980s to create the modern SNP and thereafter to make it into an electoral machine with the arrival of devolution. The changes signify the arrival of a generation for whom the SNP has always been a major political force and indeed in power.

There are some such as Roseanna Cunningham and Fergus Ewing who go back a long way but this is still very much the arrival of the new generation and even party technocrats, with former staffers like Aileen Campbell and Shirley-Anne Sommerville now in office.

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Even more so among the new ministers with most having grown up with Holyrood and even SNP Governments. As with New Labour before it, the New SNP has become the major political force in the land.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and  her deputy, John Swinney, with Jeane Freeman and Humza Yousaf (Picture: PA)First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and  her deputy, John Swinney, with Jeane Freeman and Humza Yousaf (Picture: PA)
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her deputy, John Swinney, with Jeane Freeman and Humza Yousaf (Picture: PA)

Reference to technocracy isn’t a criticism of any individuals, as it’s simply a mark of modern politics and the fact that the SNP has been in Government for over a decade now. All parties, given the nature of the job and the work available, are seeing an internal career structure develop. It does though have to be limited as there’s public antipathy towards career politicians, though to bring in young talent may often require it and having a Cabinet that isn’t just middle-aged professionals is also a good thing. Moreover, others such as Michael Russell and Jeanne Freeman have substantial hinterlands outwith politics to offset that.

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But, the administration is likely to be largely rather managerial in style as opposed to visionary in policy delivery, fitting both the First Minister’s preference and the political situation in the land, not just the decade in power but the post-Brexit landscape.

Nicola Sturgeon has called the shots much more than her predecessor who restricted his involvement in the main to the constitution, as well as energy and the economy where he had not just an interest but an expertise. Other than that, Cabinet Secretaries just took responsibility for their own portfolios and got on with the job.

The new regime though has seen a far greater involvement by the First Minister in almost every department and she has taken the lead on many policies. That has restricted the profile of the individual and their opportunity to develop policy. There are areas of Government policy that are critical and it’s right that the leader should announce it. The nine per cent pay deal for the NHS over three years is an example of that, just as Alex Salmond championed the abolition of tuition fees. Such issue are symbolic of the administration and therefore it’s right that the First Minister champions it.

However, there have been far too many other announcements on policy areas where she has simply stolen the thunder of her Cabinet Secretary and limited their media exposure. That hampers the ability of the individual to become publicly known, which in turn undermines the Cabinet itself. Limiting her involvement would benefit them and equally make her own forays more important when they happen, not just a daily ritual before the cameras.

It also has an effect on status. I recall meeting with a very senior individual in a major public-sector body and asking him how he found the difference between the two administrations. The reply was that previously you could engage with a Cabinet Secretary and strike a deal, now you met them but needed to have agreement from either the First Minister or her Deputy. Whether that was correct I don’t know, but it was certainly the perception this senior individual had and they weren’t alone.

Policy still has to be made by the Cabinet she convenes and allowing members the dignity of office wouldn’t be undermined by that. Giving her new appointees their head would increase their stature, diminished by her previous actions.

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Coming into office midterm – as opposed to when first elected – is also harder in many ways. When forming an administration, you’ve usually got a team that’s been preparing in opposition and who are immersed in the policy area. When you enter into office in a reshuffle, it can be entirely foreign and the pressure is on just to keep the wheels of government turning. It can take time to get a grasp of the issues and to forge a view of what needs done. That can both increase the influence of officials and limit the scope for policy change.

However, given the challenges of Brexit, hard or soft, it’s likely that immediate and significant structural or policy change will be limited as both officialdom and parliamentary process will be struggling just to cope with the demands of replicating existing EU legislation. It’ll therefore be more managerial, at least initially, as much through necessity as design.

The First Minister’s tenure has been dominated by Brexit and Indyref 2 and that will continue given the political context. It has though resulted in little significant policy change other than in gender and sexual politics. To be fair, schemes such as the Baby Box are worthy and the budget was cunning but major changes were few. But, it won’t be enough.

Shona Robison was hounded mercilessly yet she administered policy that she largely inherited from predecessors, including the First Minister. Structural change there was none and the chickens came home to roost from previous failures to accept clinical advice and financial constraints on the likes of A&E departments. The withdrawal of the Education Bill also undermines a flagship change that had been planned for some time.

Managing the country’s affairs isn’t going to be sufficient and policy development there must be. The First Minister needs to let the new team develop both their own profile and policies.