A new First Minister’s in-tray…

Robin McAlpine

In a few weeks we will have a new First Minister in Scotland. Many have noted that that person will inherit a government not lacking in problems to deal with. Whomever wins the SNP’s leadership contest may have their tenure defined by how they deal with those tricky issues in the early days.

So what are the ones that pose the greatest problems and how might they be tackled? I’m not going to try and solve all these here (I’ve written in more detail about how to do that for some of them previously). This is about how the stance that a new leader takes may change how they are perceived – and how that in turn can make finding real solutions easier or harder.


A new FM needs to begin with the assumption that the NHS acts like a proxy for public services as a whole. The NHS is perhaps the most visible and most widely used of all public services and certainly it is the one which, in crisis, people most want to perform well. If people see the NHS struggling, they read that across government more widely.

That is why a new FM should want above all to be seen to be getting on top of problems in the health service. But that’s a lot easier said than done, given the number of problems that have amassed and the way that they create downward spirals by impacting on each other.

So what is the solution to this? The fundamental problem in the NHS is capacity – too much demand, not enough ability to meet it. But that isn’t something a new FM can turn around overnight. There is however a strong argument that the biggest problem in the NHS right now isn’t actually capacity, it’s staff morale. The lack of capacity has imposed enormous strains on staff and it’s having a very negative affect on them.

It is much, much easier to fix problems if those on the frontline of doing the fixing are feeling positive and respected. The Scottish Government typically addresses a problem by setting a target, which is just a way of increasing the pressure on staff and making things worse.

Somehow a new FM needs to persuade NHS staff that they are actually being listened to and respected and that they’re involved in finding solutions, not just waiting for the highly-paid managers in the system to push down further pressures on them. If a new FM can form a government that can win over NHS staff, that would be a massive hurdle crossed in sorting the NHS.

National Care Service

The NCS proposals will be a running sore for any government which tries to push them through in anything like their current form. The plans were ill-thought-through, poorly designed and simply not fit for purpose. They absolutely will fail if a pig-headed approach is taken.

Thankfully this one is easy to fix – just listen to basically everyone, scrap the proposals as they are and start again, building a plan with those who will deliver it. That two candidates have already taken this approach shows that this one is a no-brainer.


Ferries became the albatross of the previous FM, having commissioned and personally ‘launched’ them before everything went significantly wrong. This is a difficult one for an incoming FM to deal with. There are very real concerns that the confidence with which the Scottish Government has been promising things are on course is overstated.

It is almost certain that there is a string of bad news stories still to come and so a new FM may have to make a decision between ‘stay the course’ and ‘stop throwing good money after bad’. That isn’t going to be an easy decision. 

There is also a question of how much pain a new regime wants to take for actions of the old regime – but it’s a tricky path between throwing them under a bus for you and throwing yourself under a bus for them. Neither of these two decisions are ones I would relish having to make, whichever decision is settled on.


The first thing a new FM should do is don’t panic. There are real problems in the schools system but the opposition parties overplay their hand when they suggest that there has actually been any substantial drop-off in the quality of outcomes from schools. There hasn’t, and the pandemic accounts for much of what there has been.

But that doesn’t mean anyone gets to breathe a sigh of relief. Schools are still under substantial pressure and here, like the NHS, one of the biggest issues is staff morale. Somehow resolving the pay dispute would be a big step forward but probably the best first step would be to start some active listening, to pay more attention to what teachers are saying about their working conditions and how that helps or hinders them from supporting the children they are teaching.

Local government

Scotland now has little in the way of local government correspondents and so little is really reported about the state of local government across Scotland. That hides a problem that grew substantially under the last FM – relationships between central and local government are strained.

The last administration was highly centralising and seemed instinctively suspicious of local government. The powers of local government have been under continual attrition, the burdens on them increased at random without funding to match and funding has been steadily cut.

If I were an incoming FM I would worry deeply about this. Declining local government services are one of the most visible signs of problems for many voters. You might miss headlines about ferry scandals in the Herald, but you will not miss it if the furniture in your local park starts to fall apart or your library closes or local bus services start disappearing.

There is no immediate, easy solution to the funding difficulties but if an incoming FM has any sense at all they would immediately halt the antagonistic stance towards local government. This is a very good example of an occasion in which being nice costs nothing. It won’t make the problems go away, but they’ll be more easily solved if hostilities are parked.

The whole damned planet

It remains quite remarkable to me that the outgoing FM gets credit for setting targets that were not met, they are not even nearly on track to be met at any point ever based on what is happening now. So climate change becomes something of a headache for the incomer.

They are cornered by ‘the most ambitious targets in the world’ (not actually true, but among them), an absence of the powers needed to make the systemic change needed, the urgency of the issue and the fact this is never going to go away. 

If you want to get a sense of the complications of tackling this under devolution, look to Patrick Harvie. This week he proposes as a solution to this issue which is supposed to have dominated his life was that if 100,000 Air Source Heat Pumps are fitted a year then the Scottish Government could still meet its targets. That’s 275 sourced and installed a day 365 days a year at an annual cost north of £2 billion – every year for 20 years.

A new FM may need to call in everyone in government who has been working on climate change and demand that the sophistry is stopped and a full, credible options paper is placed on their desk with urgency. What is contained in that may be key to their chance of getting out of that corner.

And some bits and pieces

The Deposit Return Scheme may or may not be on track. But this is either a tricky one or an easy one to deal with depending on how a new FM looks at it. It is tied up with whether the Greens stay in coalition because this is a Green owned-and-delivered policy. It means that a new FM can intervene without internal party blowback – but it also means that delicacy might be required if the FM wants to keep the Greens on board.

The dualling of the A9 is another one where it is easier to talk about it than to fix it. This is unavoidable because of its implications for much of the north of Scotland. Road building is not cheap and few will have seen the web of legal contracts which have been signed so far. Legal constraints and lack of cash may make this a tough nut to crack. But it won’t go away so serious thought will be required

And of course there’s the Gender Recognition issue over which I doubt anyone is licking their lips going ‘great, can’t wait to get fired into that again’. The only thing I think I can state with confidence is that pursuing a judicial review of Westminster’s Section 35 Order would be a terrible mistake. But so is doing nothing, and so is leaving no-one happy with the outcome. This issue is now just about the definition of poisoned chalice.

So all in all a change in tone in government, some carefully-selected u-turns, some heads getting knocked together, a little judicious use of ‘blame the last guy’ and a lot more seriousness could give a new First Minister a fighting chance of having a fighting chance of getting government under control. But no-one ought to pretend this is going to be easy…

2 thoughts on “A new First Minister’s in-tray…”

  1. florian albert

    Robin McAlpine’s comments above on schooling are disheartening.
    Before the 2014 referendum, Common Weal produced an overview of education by Professor Brian Boyd. It was upbeat describing Scottish primary education as among the best in the world.
    Few people bought into this. The problem of under-achievement among children from deprived backgrounds was plain as a pikestaff then.
    The term ‘educational apartheid’ has since become common place and the scale of the problem has been conceded by Nicola Sturgeon.
    There is no hint of this in what is written above.
    It is particularly disappointing that this article has been written in the week where Professor Joseph Priestley has concluded a three year study of Curriculum for Excellence in secondary schools. His criticisms are damning, particularly emphasizing the way in which C for E has failed pupils from deprived backgrounds. The media – especially the ‘progressive’ left – has been much more exercised by Kate Forbes’ religious views.
    It is notable that Ash Regan uses private education for her family. That last point says it all.

  2. Roland Chaplain

    Climate change targets are nowhere near being met. Worse still, all our current trajectories make these targets appear more and more impossible to meet if global systemic change doesn’t happen. That is why it is so important that the new First Minister recognises that how Scotland positions itself in relation to “Loss and Damage” is so important. Superficially it would appear that if Government can’t afford to pay NHS staff, teachers and other public sector workers a wage that even keeps up with inflation, how on earth can we make a “net positive” informed contribution to “Loss and Damage” restorative climate justice ?
    We urgently need the new First Minister to enable the delivering of Scotland’s own promised “Loss and Damage” Commission. Its remit must not be controlled by Government and civil servants but rather by such as the Royal Meteorological Society, Commonweal, WEAll, faith organisations (Xian Aid, SCIAF, Muslim Women’s organisations,…), the existing “Loss and Damage” Collaborative, etc.
    Better understanding of what “Loss and Damage” is all about is vital if Scotland’s response to this particular challenge is BOTH to become a major building block for a Scotland that is recognised internationally as a nation in our own right AND which acknowledges and quantifies the poverty in our own country as being part of the global, indigenous people’s rights to restorative climate justice.
    A “Loss and Damage” commission’s most difficult task would be to try and quantify Scotland’s historic and present contribution to the climate crisis and balance this with where the poor and deprived communities in our own country should also be the beneficiaries of “Loss and Damage” redistribution of the vast wealth accumulated by the corporate extractors of every nation’s “Natural Capital”.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top