Assessing the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government 2017/18

Fresh, bold and ambitious”, were the words with which First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, launched her Programme for Government for the year 2017/18 on Tuesday. With this phrase, and all the implications that go with it, Ms Sturgeon and her administration announced a plan of 16 bills to be brought before Holyrood which would cover a full range of devolved issues with some notable, headline-grabbing, plans for the country. The question for many observers, as the debate over the document entitled “A Nation with Ambition” continues, is just how fresh, bold, and ambitious are the Scottish Government’s plans?

In content terms, “A Nation with Ambition” is a fairly full and robust programme for the next 12 months of government in Scotland. As far as headline policies are concerned, Scotland can expect the establishment of a national investment bank, policies aimed at tackling obesity and plastic bottle waste, moves to prevent the handing down of sentences of less than a year, and the opening up of a debate on the Scottish Parliament’s income tax varying powers.

From what the First Minister said in her speech, which was delivered with the determination of someone answering charges of not “getting on with the day job”, her commitment is to education as her priority. With more powers to be given to headteachers, free feminine hygiene products in educational institutions, and a £100million fund aimed at reaching the Scottish Government’s target of 30,000 apprenticeships, it would be hard to deny that education has been treated as a priority in the Programme for Government.

Once the FM had finished her speech and the document itself was available for public viewing, the reactions began to pour in. As is normal on such occasions, social media was starkly divided between Ms Sturgeon’s supporters and her detractors with commentators lauding aspects such as the National Investment Bank and free provision of women’s sanitary products, while those who voiced opposition tended to focus more on the looming prospect of higher taxes and bemoaning the future loss of their petrol and diesel vehicles, scheduled for 2032.

The leaders of the other political parties also gave their thoughts on the Programme for Government to the chamber. The leader of the opposition and of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, opened in what has become her trademark witty and irreverent tone, in particular praising the Scottish Government’s commitment to ‘Frank’s Law’ on personal care before launching into a series of stern criticisms with a particular focus on justice. Labour’s Alex Rowley then weighed in on education, housing, and skills while the Lib Dem’s Willie Rennie stressed the importance of the European context and the Greens claimed that their influence had had a positive impact on the programme. In short, the discussion of the programme was indicative of the difficult, stringent, and tense debate ahead for “A Nation with Ambition.”

However, it’s not just the difficult debate ahead or Nicola Sturgeon’s position as First Minister of a minority SNP government that will pose a problem for the programme; there’s also the issue of the other items in the government’s in tray.

A total of 11 bills remain outstanding from the Scottish government’s previous programme, meaning that a total of 26 proposed bills need attended to. While the Scottish Government is, by its own attestation, “ambitious”, aiming to deal with that much work in the life of a parliamentary session is ambitious to the point of unrealistic – one of the real tests for Nicola Sturgeon and her team will be to prioritise what they want, while also keeping in mind what the other parties will require to give assent to the bills. There will need to be a programme for the programme for government, which will require much thought.

To return to the original question; is “A Nation with Ambition” the “fresh, bold and ambitious” programme for government that the First Minister believes it to be? In terms of freshness and ambition, it very much depends on how you look at it, some in Labour and Green Party circles have even suggested that the “fresh” claim is invalidated by the Scottish Government lifting policies from other parties and sources, although presumably Nicola Sturgeon’s team rejects this.

However, in terms of ‘boldness’, very much a matter of style, tone, and clarity, there can be very little doubt that “A Nation with Ambition” is not left wanting. The programme presented to Scotland this week varies starkly from those proposed by other parts of the UK’s legislative framework. The ideas are different and unmistakably clear. To its credit, the Scottish Government has made it very clear what it wants to do through the boldness of the programme it has put forward; now all that remains is to see whether or not it has the skill and ability to achieve it. Over the next Parliament, we’ll find out.