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FMQs: Whatever you do, don't mention the 'I' word

Photo: PA

Something extraordinary happened at First Minister's questions at Holyrood today.

There was not one mention of the 'I' word. For the first time in a long, long time no-one raised independence or the constitution.

There was some Brexit badinage, which does qualify as a constitutional matter, but nothing on the issue of Scotland possibly leaving the United Kingdom.

Extraordinary given the recent history of Scottish politics, which is usually reflected in the exchanges at FMQs, as it's known.

Why? Well, because after suggesting there would need to be a second independence referendum after the Brexit vote, Nicola Sturgeon has had to retreat.

It turned out that her enthusiasm for Scotland leaving the UK to retain its links with the EU was not shared by the Scottish people, including many independence supporters who also backed Brexit.

Ms Sturgeon was also clearly stung by the constant claims by the opposition that she has spent the last several years concentrating on the constitution and not 'getting on with the day job'.

Tuesday's substantial Programme for Government (PfG) - with a range of policy promises on everything from education to justice to health - was a clear statement by the SNP government that the day job was being got on with.

There was one mention in PfG of coming back to indyref2, but that was all, and there was more emphasis on getting extra powers from Westminster to Holyrood.

What was also intriguing about the PfG was the clear suggestion from Ms Sturgeon that she wanted to look again at raising more money from the new income tax powers Holyrood has.

Those who've read previous blogs, and watched Representing Border, will know that when I asked senior minister Humza Yousaf on Tuesday to repeat the SNP manifesto pledge to freeze the basic rate of tax, he would not do so.

Under questions from Tory leader Ruth Davidson at FMQs today Ms Sturgeon likewise refused to repeat that promise, saying instead that with further 'Tory austerity' in prospect and Brexit Scotland needed a debate about what kind of country it wanted to be.

She's promised to end the 1% pubic sector pay freeze for example, to spend more on health and social care, to improve education. All of that, and more, needs to be paid for.

The First Minster also held out the offer to all the parties - even the Tories - of working with them on possible tax plans and the Scottish government will publish a paper fairly soon setting out options.

It's a significant moment for several reasons.

First, it's clever politics from Ms Sturgeon. She knows she is a minority government and has to get support from another party, or parties, for her budget.

But if there are some form of tax rises to come, if she gets that support it means that the responsibility will fall not just on the SNP but the other parties.

And it also helps the First Minister get away - for now at least - from the constitution and along with the rest of the PfG shows she is, well, 'getting on with the day job.

There is another aspect to this too in that this debate suits the other parties as well.

The 'Unionist' parties have long said they want to debate the issues for which Holyrood is responsible - the NHS, justice, schools and universities etc etc.

However, it also means that for the time being the debate in Scottish politics will begin to resemble the more conventional, or traditional, political division between Left and Right.

Which will particularly suit the Tories who are the only party on the centre-Right in Scottish politics, Labour having moved much further to the Left than it once was.

And having constantly used the 'get on with the day job, stop talking about independence' mantra, the Tories are taking their own advice.

Quite deliberately, there has been not one single mention of the 'I' word by the Conservatives this week in three days of debate on PfG.

Now, none of this is to suggest that the constitutional debate will not return at some point. It's hard to see Nicola Sturgeon not mentioning independence at her party conference in October.

And she has said she has promised to look again at indyref2 in this session of Holyrood.

But it looks likely that for a while at least we will be in the midst of substantial, and important, debate on Scottish domestic policy, the public services we need and how to pay for them.

Some might demur, but there are many who would argue that after years of constitutional dispute this is a very good thing.

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