Taking Scotland forward

In the first session of “proper business”, the First Minister will set out his Government’s programme for the coming year in the Scottish Parliament tomorrow.  The title indicates what we can expect to hear:  it’s all about Taking Scotland Forward.

Unusually, the rest of the day will be given over to debating the content of this statement.  That’s a lot of hours to fill but it marks a welcome shift from parliamentary sessions past, where debates were shoehorned in and not enough voices were heard on the big picture stuff.  Expect more than a few MSPs to be making their maiden speeches tomorrow.

So what might we expect to unfold tomorrow?  You might be surprised, given that at various points, the burd has wittered on about the absence of independence from our political discourse but it is with a heavy heart that I predict it will dominate tomorrow’s proceedings.  I truly hope to be proved wrong.

The First Minister will no doubt restate his Government’s bids for additional powers over the Crown Estates, broadcasting, corporation tax, Europe etc in the Scotland bill.  He will also restate his Government’s intention to hold a referendum on some kind of further constitutional settlement for Scotland towards the end of his term in office.  This will be the cue for righteous indignation from the opposition benches.

First, it will be interesting to see how the First Minister terms the purpose and content of the referendum, given how freely the language has shifted in the past few weeks.   Expect sovereignty, without that being defined, being mentioned and possibly too, independence.  That will allow others to question what that actually means.

Moreover, we are likely to be treated to the bizarre spectacle of some calling for an early referendum, folk who in previous Parliaments would have run a mile from such a suggestion, and who as recently as the election campaign, were complaining of the SNP being obsessed with independence and likely to be distracted from the job at hand of running the country.

If that transpires, expect Alex Salmond to beam like the Cheshire cat:  his work is done if it is his opponents making all the running on this issue and dancing to his and his party’s tune.

If there is to be mention of independence and the referendum, allow it to be passing as one of many of this Government’s ambitions.  It would be refreshing too to have it acknowledged as such by opposition MSPs who then allow themselves to focus on the work at hand.

Which is running the country in a time of unprecedented squeeze on the public sector, of economic uncertainty and continuing, huge social problems.   We have to get used to doing more – and better – with less.  That should be everyone’s mantra tomorrow.

The burd agrees with yesterday’s guest blogger, we must start talking about poverty and social justice again; focusing on what we will do to address key groups in and at risk of poverty  but also imagining ways of empowering communities and individuals.

Anyone watching BBC Scotland’s The Scheme will have witnessed one family’s struggle to have a council-owned community facility re-opened.  Instead of supporting the local community, the local authority has put obstacles in its way.  Instead of facilitating their ambitions and working with the community to realise them, the council instead appears content to trample all over them.  The family and community’s resilience is remarkable:  no matter what is being put in their way they come up with another solution.   The stand-off over this community’s aspirations and the intransigence of a public sector agency that knows best is replicated daily all over the country.  How do we create a different dance, where the community is not expected to follow the lead of the public sector but where the two move in perfect harmony?

The SNP’s manifesto articulated such an approach (see Stephen Noon on his thoughts on government priorities).  But there are some key threats to the ambitions of community empowerment and localism.

First, the SNP’s – and others – continuing belief that of all our public sector bodies, the NHS is the talisman and represents our best chance of change.  Yet, of all our public sector agencies, none is more monolithic, statist and absolutely predicated on a model in which people can be made better by others and that the professionals know best.  There is a huge cultural mind shift required in the NHS – and in other parts of the public sector – if some of the SNP’s more radical manifesto commitments are to be made real.

Second, money is going to be tight and if power is to be transferred to communities, that requires resources shifting too.  Largely, that means money.  If public sector agencies – and departments within those agencies – were guilty of gatekeeping and taking a silo approach to budgetary control during the good times, it will get very much worse as the purse strings tighten.  It is, after all, a natural response, for the loss of budget makes current set-ups and jobs unsustainable.

Finally, a dichotomy exists between the SNP Government’s ambition to win hearts and minds in all that it does and the need to sometimes make things happen.  There was a real shift in this manifesto with some legislative sticks appearing where before there was simply a commitment to engage and take people with them.

The SNP has learned many lessons in its first term of government;  a key one is that no matter how nicely you ask, how much you prepare the ground, there are some things people cannot or will not do unless made to.  Expect to see some real legislative bite in the First Minister’s statement tomorrow, resulting largely from Ministers’ frustration at the pace and attitude to change in the last four years.

It is easy to see how such activity might threaten the SNP’s and the First Minister’s big ambition for Scotland, to take Scotland – willingly and confidently – forward.