It has become one of those journalistic clichés to talk about 'firing the starting gun' in politics. There has been some debate among the hacks at Holyrood as to whether or not Nicola Sturgeon has already 'fired the starting gun' on the next Scottish independence referendum campaign. So, to do justice to that cliché (and to mangle it completely), I suggest something like this: today the First Minister reached for the key to the cabinet holding the starting gun, which would launch a second Scottish independence campaign. She hasn’t yet opened the cabinet but she has the key in her hand, should she decide to place it in the lock and turn.
What I mean is this: today was one more small step towards indyref2 but Sturgeon still has plenty of time to retreat, if she needs to. Today was the SNP’s 'Programme for Government'. Sturgeon announced 14 bills but only a small number of them really matter. So let’s put the majority of those bills to one side and deal with the really controversial stuff.
In April, SNP ministers will be able to set income tax levels anywhere they want. We already know that Sturgeon intends to use this opportunity to refuse to implement George Osborne’s planned tax cut for higher income earners. This is significant because it will mean that for the first time since the 18th century, Scots will be taxed more than their counterparts in England who are doing exactly the same job for the same wages. Yet this was waved away in a single sentence by Sturgeon who merely acknowledged that there would be a budget bill some time this year.
Then there is social security. Over the next few years, the Scottish government will get the ability to change some benefits, to adjust payments and scrap changes they don’t like. Sturgeon did spend longer on this issue, promising yet again to axe the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ and championing a Scottish social security system which would treat people with 'dignity' but the significance of this change should not be ignored either. That is because, when these policies are implemented, Scots will enjoy more generous benefit payments than their counterparts in the rest of the UK – for the first time since the welfare state was created.
Those two big changes take us back to the starting gun again and that age-old constitutional issue of Scottish independence. The First Minister mentioned towards the end of her speech that a bill authorising a second independence referendum had been drafted and would be put out to consultation soon. This process will allow the Scottish government to introduce it immediately, if it feels it needs to. But it is the overall effect of these three measures that is so instructive. The Scottish government is going to introduce policies which pull Scotland and the rest of the UK apart, both in tax and benefits. As a result, two of the cast-iron links which used to bind all of us together – that we all paid the same taxes and received the same benefits – will be broken.
At the same time, the Scottish government will finish the legislation paving the way for a second independence referendum, giving Sturgeon the ability to call it if the polls start shifting her way. It is a canny approach and one built on cautious and well-prepared foundations – very different from the impetuous and instinctive way Alex Salmond used to approach matters. (He would have taken the starting gun and fired it off in every direction by now).
Indeed, Sturgeon’s approach moves Scotland down the road towards independence, testing the bonds between Scotland and the rest to breaking point while, at the same time, giving the First Minister the chance to back out if she feels she might not win. Sturgeon did use her 'Programme for Government' speech to stress the importance of other bills her government will introduce. Some bore her fingerprints very clearly: the bill to establish gender balance in board rooms was one example.
Over everything, though, Sturgeon stressed that her determination to close the educational attainment gap between the rich and the poor in Scotland. She promised money and reforms in an effort to effect change in the one area which she has asked her administration to be judged on.
That sounds great but she knows – and her ministers know – that, ultimately, she will not be judged on whether there are more kids from deprived backgrounds going to university. She will be judged in exactly the same way as Salmond was: on whether she manages to secure independence for Scotland. And, despite all the words and promises about the economy about education and about health, this 'Programme for Government' was yet another small – if slightly subtle and distinctly cautious – step in that direction.