Peter MacMahon: Real power but real problems for Nicola Sturgeon's new cabinet

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon alongside her newly formed Cabinet. Credit: PA

Put yourself in the position of one of the SNP MSPs appointed this morning to Nicola Sturgeon's new cabinet.

After years as an activist, seeking selection as a candidate, trying for election and perhaps losing a time or two, being a backbench MSP, then a junior minister - now, finally, real power.

There will be a mixture of elation, pride and exhilaration for the new ministers, and so there should be. Politics is a hard slog. Many try but few succeed in getting to the top, or near the top.

And yet by the time you read this blog these new ministers will already be weighed down by reams and reams of briefing papers from their new civil servants.

Their teams may present the briefings as 'challenges' to the minister, hoping to break them in gently, but that is a "Yes, minister' style euphemism. 

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Bute House. Credit: PA

For challenges read problems, or even what academics call 'wicked problems', those policy dilemmas which are very, very hard to fix.

As they wade through the piles or paper, or perhaps many hundreds of emails, the new ministers might find elation is replaced almost immediately by trepidation, possibly even fear. 

Even those who have already been in government might be taken aback by the presentations about what lies ahead they will have been given by their civil servants.

Some might be tempted to blame their officials for being too negative and pessimistic - always an easy thing for ministers to do. They should avoid that.

It's the job of the civil service to present ministers with the 'challenges' while of course offering options which might help overcome them.

So, what are the main issues facing the First Minister's new team? All of the senior positions are important, but let's look at a few in particular.

The new cabinet secretary for education Shirley-Anne Somerville will have to immediately get on top of the growing concerns from pupils, parents and academics over this year's exams.

Many feel that the new system of assessing pupils' progress, and which are not supposed to be formal tests, are 'exams by another name'.

Ms Somerville will also have to find a way of narrowing the poverty-related attainment gap in Scottish education, which the spending watchdog says remains "wide".Ms Sturgeon promised to close the gap when she became First Minister more than five years ago and the hard evidence is that achieving that is a long way off.

New Cabinet Secretary for health Humza Yousaf Credit: PA

New Cabinet Secretary for health Humza Yousaf will be responsible for trying to steer the NHS  back to some kind of normality when,it is hoped, COVID is no longer a threat.

We know there will be huge backlogs of patients with medical conditions which have not been dealt with and Mr Yousaf will be held responsible for trying to reduce waiting times. A very tall order.

On top of that he will be charged with creating a National Care Service, another key SNP manifesto promise, though that is more of a long term project.

Michael Matheson is the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero. Taking Scotland to net zero carbon emissions, or well along the road to that, is a daunting task. It's in his official title, which makes it hard to hide if things falter along the way.

Mairi Gougeon as Cabinet Secretary for rural affairs. Credit: PA

Mairi Gougeon as Cabinet Secretary for rural affairs will have to look at the new funding for post-Brexit funding for agriculture - more 'subsidies' for farmers, or moving towards rewarding environmentally friendly stewardship of the land?

Then there is the constitution, which has been handed to former MP, and former SNP Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, who has never been a minister.

That means preparations for a second independence referendum - though that is likely initially at least to be on the back burner given the First Minister's pledge that COVID recovery is her priority.

And Robertson also takes charge of relations with the UK government which have been chilly, to say the least, over the last few years. Achieving warmth may be impossible, and it may even be both sides do not wish relations to thaw.

It's perhaps unfair to exclude other ministers, who also have plenty of challenges ahead, but this gives a flavour of the task ahead for the new ministerial lineup.

Angus Robertson, Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture. Credit: PA

And it is also worth noting that, unlike her predecessor Alex Salmond, Ms Sturgeon along with her teams of political advisers, keep a very close eye on ministers' work.

There will not be much scope for bold new initiatives which do not have the First Ministerial seal of approval. 

That style of government has it's upside, in that there tend to be fewer instances of ministers disagreeing or doing contradictory things.

But the downside is that decision-making can be painfully slow, and the process is very centralised. However, it also means that the buck stops - always - with the First Minister.One final thought. The SNP has always presented itself as a progressive, centre-left party, in contrast to the Tories at Westminster.

In a recent interview with me Prof James Mitchell of Edinburgh University said the Scottish government had "talked the talk" on progressive policies, but not "walked the walk".

James Mitchell taught at least one of the new cabinet members - Ms Somerville - and it will be interesting to see if she (and indeed the new ministerial team) agree with her former lecturer or not.  I suspect she (and they) will not. 

But the Professor of public policy, one of the foremost experts on the SNP and broader home rule movement, has laid down the biggest challenge of all to Ms Sturgeons' new ministers.

They will, remember, have been in power for close to two decades by the end of this parliament. 

At the end of that time will those 'wicked' problems have been solved and will Scotland be the fairer, more profgressive place Nicola Sturgeon says she and her new team aim to forge?