This afternoon’s statement by the First Minister on her Programme for Government for the year ahead was an attempt to reshape the terms of the debate over Scotland’s future – for the short term at least.
In the past charges have been levelled, mainly from voices in the business community, that Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t ‘get’ the economy. Her comfort zone, so this logic tells us, is in areas like health and social care, which occupied so much of her long ministerial career under Alex Salmond. Meanwhile her own government’s handling of issues like business rates, LBTT and the new Scottish rate of income tax, attracted nervous glances from those worried that Scotland was being set apart as a less competitive region in which to invest and grow a business.
So today seemed to be about addressing that perception problem, with headline announcements on significant transport and broadband infrastructure investment the creation (at last) of a National Investment Bank and a new non-domestic rates bill, to name just a handful. There was support for companies to export overseas, a new South of Scotland enterprise agency and lots of commitments on green travel and climate change to signal that Scotland can put the sustainable into sustainable economic growth.
What will the instant judgement be? By in large business groups will say the devil is in the detail but they’ll be generally quite pleased that the Scottish Government is putting productivity and growth first. The FM’s statement might have announced a range of “radical” measures but there was little here that business will see as out-and-out negatively disruptive. If there had been, with Brexit round the corner promising its own unique economic anxieties, company owners might have been forgiven for complaining.
That said, all of this emphasis on boosting the economy carried more than a gentle echo of the SNP’s recent Growth Commission template for independence. That document attempted to answer difficult questions on how an independent Scotland might seek to close its notional spending deficit through the adoption of policies that could turbocharge growth. Today’s statement gave a response of sorts: invest, invest, invest, it said, and just imagine what more could be done if Scotland could do so from a position of full independence.
The Programme for Government contained much else besides economic investment. More money for mental health services, action on banning plastic waste, progress on social security support for families in deprived communities. Some 12 new bills and a rounded package that will have left the government benches quietly confident that they have lots to look forward to in the long parliamentary period ahead.
The usual question remains: can the government deliver? In her response to the statement, Ruth Davidson almost was in danger of bursting the First Minister’s bubble with a swift reminder that much had been promised by Ms Sturgeon in previous years of radical aspiration – most notably in the area of education reform – that have since became bogged down. The NHS hasn’t been looking too rosy of late either and these are the totemic policy issues on which the government will be judged.
All in all though, today’s statement was a welcome return to real issues following a summer recess of shadow boxing over Brexit and the will-they won’t-they Indyref dance we’ve become used to. The moment may not last long, so let’s enjoy it while it does.
Head of Public Affairs