Tom Gordon: Sturgeon’s five-year plan is inherently impossible

IT is, as billed, bold and ambitious. The 120-page Programme for Government presented to Holyrood on Tuesday by Nicola Sturgeon wasn’t just her legislative slate for the year ahead (perhaps just as well, as many of the dozen new bills are decidedly underwhelming).

It was also a statement of intent for the whole of the parliamentary session.

The headline is that the First Minister has a vision for Scotland being a fairer, greener country by 2026, and an independent one to boot.

It is packed with a daunting number of commitments and spending lines.

Some projects are massive, such as creating a National Care Service to oversee the local delivery of community health and social care, ensure high standards and improve the working conditions of care workers.

The PfG document predicted it would bring “momentous change”.

Ms Sturgeon hailed it as “arguably the most significant public service reform since the creation of the National Health Service” in 1948.

Other changes are also teeming with political risk, notably taking ScotRail into public hands next spring.

Running a railway – inevitably dubbed NatRail – is something the Government had better get right or every commuter, business and holidaymaker will curse them for it.

As Ms Sturgeon told the chamber, “bold and ambitious” stuff. Very bold. You could almost hear her officials having a panic attack in the wings.

Delivering it all will be no easy task and the First Minister clearly knows it.

For, as with the recent NHS recovery plan, there was a handy caveat tucked away in the back of the PfG.

“Gaps in the workforce will limit our ability to deliver this plan,” the NHS plan admitted in the small print.

With the PfG, it’s money and, naturally, Westminster.

“The positive proposals set out in this Programme for Government demonstrate the value of making decisions close to the people they impact,” it says. “The pace of implementation will, however, be determined by available resources, especially those made available through the UK Spending Review.”

So how sceptical about the PfG should we be? Healthily, I’d say.

SNP ministers have form when it comes to the bold going cold.

As my colleague David Bol reports today, the Government has sidled away from its past PfG plan to create a publicly-owned energy company with the aim of cutting household bills.

Ms Sturgeon made it the centre-piece of her 2017 SNP conference speech, saying she was “delighted” to announce the not-for-profit enterprise would be up and running by 2021.

After making consultants £500,000 richer, the idea ran into the sand long before Covid, and ministers finally buried it under cover of the pandemic, when work on it was “halted”.

Not suspended, mind you, halted. The Government says it will now focus its efforts on a “new dedicated national public energy agency” in another “transformative national project”.

So quietly has the SNP tried to move on from this farce that, absurdly, its own members have tabled a motion for this weekend’s party conference demanding the creation of a Scottish National Energy Company.

Its advocates say it could prioritise the “delivery of affordable energy to consumers of limited means”, not unlike the ghost project of 2017.

It’s as if the party is stuck in a loop.

Ms Sturgeon also name-checked her Government’s £600m R100 programme in her PfG speech.

“Our Reaching 100 per cent programme will help make superfast broadband available to every business and household in Scotland,” she told MSPs without blushing.

Students of the rural broadband scheme will have had a hollow laugh at that. An earlier PfG said it would all be done and dusted by 2021.

The new PfG says connecting the most remote places will now take until between 2023 and 2027, depending on where you live or work.

So healthy scepticism of the latest pledges is recommended. Of course, every government has a habit of over-promising and under-delivering.

But there is a more profound reason for being wary of this particular PfG, as it comes with a glaring internal contradiction that means it cannot conceivably deliver all it contains.

Because if, somehow, Ms Sturgeon was to secure an independence referendum on her preferred timescale, other parts of her programme would be pushed aside by the campaign, which would be six to nine months.

And if she was to win a Yes vote in that referendum, the PfG would go out the window for the next two years.

There would not be the time, focus, energy or personnel in Government to negotiate the terms of independence and also put the rest of that bold and ambitious agenda into effect.

Does Ms Sturgeon really think “the most significant public service reform” for 70 years would dovetail with the greatest constitutional reform for 300?

Or that the “national mission to end child poverty” set out in the PfG would keep its spot on her priority list?

Something – many things – would have to give. It just doesn’t add up.

Her critics in the Yes movement may well wonder why, if she truly expects to hold and win Indyref2, she has loaded her in-tray with so much else, including those big legacy projects.

When her Unionist opponents demand she spends more on a certain policy, Ms Sturgeon invariably asks them to say where they would like to cut the budget in order to pay for it.

With this PfG, they have the chance to turn that old trick against her.

If the First Minister wants and expects independence, which parts of her programme is she going to dump?

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992