Why the next stage of government will be tough for the SNP

The party's response to Covid-19 has been popular, but now there are difficult decisions to be made.

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Tony Blair sometimes reflects that he was at his best as Prime Minister when he finally stopped trying to be popular. “The irony of the journey of government is you start at your most popular and least capable and you end at your most capable and least popular,” he has said. “By the time I got into year nine I really got the hang of the thing."

The SNP are into year 13 of government, but when it comes to the capability/popularity balance one might argue they still haven’t “really got the hang of the thing”. Throughout the party’s span in office - first under Alex Salmond, now under Nicola Sturgeon - they have shown a disinclination to burn through their substantial political capital.

The common charge is that this capital is being hoarded, like a dragon and its gold, for a second referendum on independence. To win, the Nationalists will need professional and civic Scotland on board, which means avoiding conflict with the unions, professional bodies and other vested interests. This has consequences for governance: the reformable remains largely unreformed; the producer continues to be favoured over the consumer; public service metrics remain underwhelming. But hey, have you seen the SNP’s polling figures?

There’s more to it than this, of course. In a small nation like Scotland, Sturgeon believes consensus should trump might. Neither a Thatcherite nor a Blairite be – change is co-operative rather than coercive, harmony over handbag, there’s no need for scars on anyone’s back round here. An admirable sentiment, perhaps, except that progress often seems glacial at best. 

This is why the next stage of government is likely to prove so painful for Sturgeon and her colleagues. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis there has been a welcome unity in Scottish society, a willingness to let Sturgeon lead, a broad belief that she is trying to do the right things for the right reasons in horrendous circumstances.

There was a moment at First Minister’s Questions this week when, defending her performance from opposition leaders, she looked both upset and haunted, as well as completely knackered. Whatever future enquiries find in relation to sensitive issues such as care homes and PPE (and these have been problems not just in Scotland, but across the whole UK), Sturgeon has undoubtedly risen in the moment to provide humane, committed, comforting leadership. It’s no surprise that a new poll has found that two thirds trust Sturgeon’s leadership. 

But the unity that comes with national emergency is now starting to fracture. The questions in parliament, as noted, are becoming more hostile. Business, raising its head from furlough, is looking both for an escape plan and a rescue plan. Parents are wondering when their kids will restart their education. 

And everyone is wondering how the hell we can afford all this. The truth, of course, is that we can’t. The government cannot for long be a guarantor of the private sector, a generous funder of the public sector, and a cross between a nanny and a scold for the rest of society – neither financially nor ethically. Things need to kick on, and fairly soon. That means the SNP will have to make some hard choices, and with hard choices come the unchosen, losers and enemies.

There is a lot of talk about the restructuring of society along more egalitarian lines as we emerge from this crisis – about recognising low-paid workers are often key workers, of higher taxes on the wealthy to fund a fairer shake for everyone else, of maintaining the current accelerated rate of public service modernisation.

But if the economy is going to shrink by something like a third, with soaring job losses, businesses going to the wall, reduced tax revenues, soaring debt levels, and general international retrenchment, governments will have to place some bets as they look to recovery. At Westminster, Treasury sources are hinting at a public-sector pay freeze – would Sturgeon dare entertain something similar? If not, where does the money come from? And how would it look when perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in the private sector are actually losing their jobs?

With large parts of the economy suppressed for what might be a prolonged period, how does the Scottish government bring back growth and begin to plug the fiscal holes left by coronavirus? Could it even be seen to consider tax cuts for business, to encourage innovators and entrepreneurs and to protect jobs, when its substantial left-wing support regards the private sector with something close to loathing and views economic growth as a vice not a virtue?

As state support for business is gradually withdrawn, which companies will ministers allow to go to the wall? If you can’t save everyone, what are the calculations behind the choices that you make? What about closures in ministers’ own constituencies – how do they avoid special treatment?

Given the scale of public-service reform that has taken place in recent weeks – of the kind that had previously been resisted for years – is there appetite to drive on with this modernisation? Will we fully embrace the digital opportunity in healthcare and education, more remote consultations and greater use of home-monitoring technology, increased gamification and use of after-school apps, perhaps disrupting the working practices of NHS staff and teachers, who don’t tend to accept change quietly?

Can the SNP really crack on with its pet projects when money is so tight? For example, should the plan to expand early learning and childcare to 30 hours per week for all three and four-year-olds, and for two-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds, be put on the back burner? Will ministers have the guts to give up some economic power to local authorities to enable them more effectively to tackle the specific problems in their own areas? Will they do more than talk warmly about, say, universal basic income? Will they seize the moment to seize the nettle of Scotland’s ineffective university funding structure?

None of what is to come will be easy, but posterity waits to make its judgement. The word “radical” is thrown around cheaply in Scotland, but what does it mean in practice? “Like every crisis, this one comes with opportunities,” says one former senior Labour politician, not unsympathetic to Sturgeon’s plight. “You genuinely can get things done at moment like this. But do the SNP have the bottle for it? I’m not convinced. I hope they prove me wrong.”

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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