Scott Macnab: SNP seeks to tackle decade fatigue

After more than ten years in power, Nicola Sturgeon aims to refocus her government's mission, writes Scott Macnab

A shiny new vision for Scotland will capture the publics imagination, or so Nicola Sturgeon is hoping. Picture: PA
A shiny new vision for Scotland will capture the publics imagination, or so Nicola Sturgeon is hoping. Picture: PA

Nicola Sturgeon had promised an ambitious and sweeping vision to “refresh” her drifting government after more than a decade in power.

What emerged as she set out her Programme for Government at Holyrood yesterday was a sprawling blueprint. If the First Minister was looking to dazzle Scots with the sheer volume of ideas, she made a fair fist of it.

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The prospect of tax rises to offset austerity was unveiled, along with a ban on gas guzzling vehicles from traffic hotspots in cities, a rush towards electric cars, the possibility of a ban on smacking children and a ban on jail sentences of fewer than 12 months.

This was real big picture stuff which Ms Sturgeon was hoping would have as much impact on shoring up the SNP’s sliding credibility as it would in equipping Scotland for the new century ahead.

The measure that no-one saw coming was the prospect of tax hikes to which Ms Sturgeon opened the door ahead of her budget later this year.

The SNP manifesto rules out a rise in the basic rate – favoured by Labour and the Liberal Democrats – and Ms Sturgeon appeared to hold firm on this yesterday as she rejected any move to transfer the burden of austerity to those “who can least afford”.

It points towards a rise in the top 45p top rate of income tax, perhaps to 50p, which the SNP has previously supported on a UK-wide basis.

The problem with doing this in Scotland alone is that high earners may simply shift their tax affairs south of the Border. This would mean Holyrood loses out on their taxes completely – a group which accounts for almost 40 per cent of all income tax raised in Scotland. Ms Sturgeon herself has already highlighted this concern when she ruled out such a move last year.

The solution may lie somewhere in the middle, with the opportunity to create new tax bands likely to be among the proposals which will be in the discussion paper being drawn up by ministers, allowing a more moderate approach to taxing those earning more.

It remains to be seen what Scotland’s business community will make of such a move after previous warnings from industry chiefs that higher tax rates north of the Border could prompt firms to leave.

The First Minister’s shift on this is down to the success of Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist agenda during the election. This was also behind the move to end the public sector pay cap which Scotland could have done this year.

Nationalist strategists know Corbyn’s Labour attracted Yes voters away from the SNP and back to Labour in the election in June. SNP support slumped to about 37 per cent from about 50 per cent just two years previously. Similarly, the move to return Scotland’s railways into public hands with a pledge to make a public sector bid when the current franchise is up should also shore up the party’s left-wing credentials. Just how transport minister Humza Yousaf’s working relationship with current operator Abellio – the Dutch national carrier – survives, now that he is committed to getting rid of them, remains to be seen.

The bold measures were all on the environmental and transport areas. A transport revolution is envisaged, with ambitions for battery-powered cars being introduced on roads across Scotland within 15 years as a national network of electric charging points is implemented.

It’s grand stuff, but I can remember a similar vision being outlined by Gordon Brown when he was Prime Minister the best part of a decade ago. On that occasion he was seeking to address the dominance of the Middle East oil producing nations as petrol prices spiralled. The oil price may have crashed in the meantime, but still there is no sign of a comprehensive network of electric charging stations in Britain’s streets. The creation of low emission zones in Scotland’s four main cities banning trucks, lorries and four-by-fours will mark another transformational shift.

It was all part of a drive to transform Scotland into a high tech, modern economy equipped for the post-oil and gas world where sectors like life sciences, biotech, aerospace, renewables and financial services and technology (Fintech) play a more central role.

This was a First Minister determined to show that she is now firmly focussed on the domestic agenda.

It came in a week which saw the official opening of the Queensferry Crossing which has seen the Scottish Government, quite rightly, keen to foster a grand sense of renewal and achievement – a sense that Scots can aspire to excellence in the changing world.

A cynic might suggest that the sheer breadth of new initiatives unveiled by Ms Sturgeon almost smacked of desperation. To what extent any of this is going to register with voters out there in the real world is another matter.

As Scotland’s education system slides down international league tables measuring performance, and the NHS continues to fall short of official government targets, the SNP administration has been battling a sense of drift in recent months and particularly since the election setback.

A real eye-opener during that campaign was the hard time the First Minister suffered when she was confronted by the Scottish public in the live TV arena. Never has the SNP leader faced such obvious discomfort in front of the cameras as she did when a nurse tore into her over low pay in the NHS and complained of being driven to use foodbanks.

A separate debate saw Ms Sturgeon even told she ought to resign over her record in running Scotland’s schools.

It’s something that must have registered, especially as her own personal rating began to plummet.

Her decision to call a second referendum after Brexit was generally seen to reek of hubris, while the bread and butter issues in Scotland were falling into decline. It surprised no-one that plans for a second independence referendum were barely mentioned during her 40-minute address to MSPs yesterday.

The First Minister is banking on her shiny new vision for Scotland to revive that sense of anticipation which the incoming SNP government was able to generate in 2007 and again during the referendum campaign of 2014.

Time will tell if voters feel the same way.