I’m sure the First Minister’s speech on his government’s business/legislative programme is polished, rehearsed and finished. I’m sure too that if he was looking for advice on what to say in the Scottish Parliament today, I’d be unlikely to feature on his phone-a-friend list.
But since when has that ever stopped this burd having her say?
When Alex Salmond rises to his feet, I’d like him to set out the Scottish Government’s objectives and what it is they want to achieve. I’d also like him to outline how each bill, strategy and policy development will contribute to these objectives and desired outcomes, and how they will go about measuring progress.
And I do hope you are sitting down while reading this, for I know what I am about to say next might come as a bit of a surprise, but what the First Minister should not talk about in this speech is independence. Not even mention the “i” word once.
Why? Because independence does not need to be talked about right now. Everyone knows that everything this SNP Government does between now and the referendum is in effect shadow play and aims to set the right mood music for achieving a yes vote. The latest poll for the Herald giving the narrowest of majorities for independence suggests it is all coming together nicely. And rather than indulge in a few throwaway lines to spice up a set-piece speech, the SNP has so much allotted parliamentary time and dominant sway over parliamentary business, that it should be looking to set full business sessions for discussing and debating the vision and the detail of independence. A kind of open all hours and doors approach to hearing ideas and views on what independence could deliver and in particular, could do differently. These sessions could involve MSPs and others from civic society, the public and private sectors – it has been done before – and such an approach would draw the focus away from sterile and immature party political diatribes.
This inclusive approach, which would of course extend across the benches, would be much more fitting and give independence – and the other constitutional options – their place in our parliamentary firmament, which is as it should be. People want the debate, not the same old spat.
Instead, this speech should focus utterly on the business at hand, that of demonstrating the competence in government that people voted for in May. That is the mandate the electorate gave to the SNP – with the prospect of trouble ahead, the SNP was the party people trusted to get us through.
Certainly, the First Minister should mention the purpose of the Scotland bill committee and outline – briefly – what having these additional powers might deliver in terms of the difference that could be made to people’s, families’ and communities’ lives. But the focus has to be on using the powers we currently have. Wishlists are all very well but there is a balancing act to getting the politics of grievance right. To date, the SNP Government has managed this very well but that is largely because the populace has had very little to be aggrieved about with them. This is about to change, with limited signs of economic recovery, job insecurity in every sector and public services on the verge of rapid shrinkage.
Thus, a key objective for this second term administration must be to say how it will do different with less. How can Scotland “be better” when there is going to be much less money around – in the Scottish government’s pockets, as well as our own – with which to deliver? Most of the legislative and policy commitments in the SNP’s manifesto can be articulated in such terms but it takes a strong will to carry the narrative from the election – that the electorate liked – into the realpolitik of government.
There is also a need to temper expectations. Hope might well triumph over fear, but boundless hope, unrooted in reality, is dangerous to this Government’s ambitions, especially when that reality is going to be very harsh indeed in the next few years. Moreover, the First Minister needs to conduct the momentum like a maestro. Getting the tempo right in the run up to the referendum is crucial and reaching a crescendo at the appropriate moment will require all of Alex Salmond’s political acumen. Fortunately, he is up to the task.
In the meantime, we need a workmanlike performance. The First Minister must roll up his sleeves and put his Government to work, to demonstrate what a competent administration can achieve for its people. He should also challenge the opposition parties to work with him and Ministers in getting Scotland through the hard times, not agin them. To talk about independence in this speech will simply play into their hands – they are more obsessed with the constitution than the SNP is.
And if I cannot appeal to the First Minister’s better nature, allow me to reach out to baser instincts. Not mentioning independence in this speech will wrongfoot the opposition and flummox everyone. The First Minister will be expected o reference everything in the context of taking Scotland on the SNP’s desired journey to independence. Saying nothing about it might even render them speechless, and sometimes, there is as much pleasure to be gained from winning the guerilla skirmishes, as winning the bigger tactical battles.