Nicola Sturgeon's speech proves the SNP has finally taken on the role of the establishment in Scotland

The Scottish people would, on balance, like their politicians to stop banging on about independence, and to get on with fixing Scotland’s schools, which have shown an alarming slide in basic standards

Tuesday 05 September 2017 19:00 BST
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Nicola Sturgeon addressed the Scottish parliament today
Nicola Sturgeon addressed the Scottish parliament today (PA)

With rather less ermine, no gilded carriages and no sign of silver-stick-in-waiting around the place, the Scottish government has unveiled the equivalent of the Queen’s Speech at Westminster. As with Nicola Sturgeon’s style generally, it is a brisk, businesslike affair, concentrating on what even she has conceded is her “day job”.

This time round, pushed back by the uncertainty of the Brexit talks and, more definitively, a disappointing result in the UK general election earlier this year, there is little talk about indyref2, and less about Scotland trying to stay in the single market when (or if) the UK leaves the European Union. The focus has shifted.

This is as it should be. Ms Sturgeon, though she seems unwilling to be entirely candid on the point, has heard what the Scottish people have had to say about another great painful national argument about seceding from the UK. They would, on balance, like their politicians to stop banging on about independence, and to get on with fixing Scotland’s schools, which have shown an alarming slide in basic standards in recent years, on the Scottish National Party’s watch.

She is to reform, on surprisingly Blairite lines, the governance of Scottish secondary education, devolving more power to headteachers. She has placed in charge of her reforms a man considered (at any rate) to be one of her most able lieutenants, John Swinney. That is a token of the importance the Scottish First Minister attaches to this particular task. Besides, she has always been passionate about securing the best possible future for Scotland’s children and young people – and has come to realise that her administration has failed to deliver it. To see the Scot Michael Gove pushing exam standards up across the border might have been doubly galling. At any rate, Ms Sturgeon seems to be on a better track than she was before.

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There are other initiatives which show how devolution can spur innovation, especially in social reform, making changes, as before, in the nations and regions that will no doubt be adopted nationally in due course (though one can never rely on Northern Ireland, even when it did have its own government).

The “Alan Turing law”, by which gay men convicted of sexual offences in the dark ages of intolerance and persecution will be pardoned, is a prime example of that moral and political leadership. While Whitehall has dithered, content with making a few token gestures to high-profile cases, there has been less interest in the many thousands of prosecutions for acts that were considered, even by many in their time, as harmless matters of private sexual mores. Some, as we know now, were the product of police entrapment. Scotland was no less brutal at that time than England in the 1950s, say, but it is now leading the way towards comprehensive equality. It will be something for Scotland to be especially proud of.

It may be that lifting the cap on public sector pay increases in Scotland helps drive the Treasury to a wider relaxation of austerity across the country, but in both cases the conundrum remains about funding, or lack of it. Brexit is never far away from most issues of public policy, and the Chancellor knows that the UK's public finances have to be as steady as they can be as a chaotic Brexit looms ever larger. The potential shock to the UK economy is real and would be severe; even a soft Brexit with a leisurely transition period would hit investment, as it has already.

Ms Sturgeon, like Mr Hammond, has the option of moving expenditure from elsewhere or to raise taxes to pay for the rise, but, unlike her, he can also borrow. So far she has proved remarkably unwilling to use the new financial powers to raise taxes that have been granted to her.

Ten years into the SNP’s rule in Scotland, more or less in control of the Scottish parliament for the whole decade, the SNP is taking on the mantle and role of the establishment, where it was once an insurgent. Nowadays the protest votes go to Labour, or the Scottish Conservatives even. As problems in schools, in the Scottish NHS, and in the public finances build up, Ms Sturgeon can no longer fling the blame south, or at least she can do so with less conviction than in the days when Labour ran everything. She knows that getting the “day job” right is essential if she wants to then push on for another try at independence. That is why she is concentrating on it with especially sharp attention: it is a means to an end she still has her gimlet eyes on.

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