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  1. Peter MacMahon

Sturgeon promises controversial 'childcare revolution'

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon acknowledges applause at SNP conference Credit: PA

The party faithful at the SNP conference gave Nicola Sturgeon the biggest cheer of the day when she promised there would be another independence referendum if the UK government does not allow Scotland to be part of the single market post-Brexit.

SNP activists, some 3,000 of them - an extraordinary number - loved it, though it is not clear whether they noticed that their leader was not specific on a timetable for what is known as #indyref2.

In my blog yesterday I discussed the First Minister's tactics on this.

But after her speech today I wonder if SNP activists, who pride themselves on being Left-of-centre, were listening carefully to other things Ms Sturgeon had to say on domestic policy?

And if they had been how happy would they be that their leader, their politics idol, was heavily hinting - in some cases more than hinting - at what might be called Blairite policies for Scotland.

For example, Ms Sturgeon announced that the Scottish government which she leads was going to embark on what she called a "childcare revolution".

At its heart that means parents choosing the non-school childcare provider of their choice - private or public - and local councils providing the funding.

As Ms Sturgeon put it: "In other words, the funding will follow the child, not the other way round."

It seems innocuous enough but two experienced policy hands I've just spoken to at the SNP conference - one a long-standing party loyalist - Glasgow describe this as "the privatisation of childcare".

Now, there is no doubt that the SNP Scottish government would reject that claim, and this is formally just a plan for consultation.

But if the First Minister announces something as a consultation in her speech we can be pretty sure it's going to happen.

Now these observers of government I've just spoken to - sadly off the record so I can't name them - say that this is the kind of policy that could have been announced by a new Labour politician or even, whisper it, a Tory.

The critics, and these two are critics, say that this is potentially a bad policy as it will create a market in child care, which will mean providers exploit it to increase the charges parents have to pay.

The answer, as they see it, is for there to be a low cost universal childcare service provided by councils as there is in Scandinavian countries.

Ms Sturgeon and the Scottish government, on the other hand, see it differently.

This is how the First Minister explained the idea to her conference today:

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon adresses the SNP conference Credit: PA

"Just now it is local authorities who decide what childcare places are offered to parents. Councils work hard to be flexible - but often the places offered to parents are not where and when they need them.​"

– First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

​And this initiative is part of a pattern of policy announcements ​which shift power away from bodies like councils and on to individuals.

New Labour true believers used to characterise this kind if policy as favouring "the consumers over the producer" interests.

​Already the SNP government is giving more power in schools to parents and headteachers and Ms Sturgeon emphasised that again in her speech, as did her Deputy First Minister and education secretary John Swinney.

It is also looking at the number of health boards in Scotland and how they relate to local councils.

It is likely that local authorities will see the childcare policy as part of a pattern - taking power away from them and diminishing their status in Scotland democratic setup.

SNP ministers like Ms Sturgeon and Mr Swinney will argue that these policies are a way to "empower" (to use the vogue word) citizens.

Mr Swinney argues that a party which favours independence should support greater 'independence' for Scots to choose the kind of services that they want.

It is also, they say, giving schools or headteachers to choose that example, more 'independence' of action.

T​here is no doubt that the big issue of the SNP conference was Brexit and a second independence referendum.

But when people look in detail at some of the rest of Ms Sturgeons' proposals they may find there is more to politics than Brexit.

And as the detail emerges we can expect there to be substantial opposition - not least from councils - to some of those policies.

If the Brexit debate is 'abnormal' politics, this is what you might now call 'normal' politics​. And there's nothing wrong with a bit of that.

What remains to be seen is whether these potentially controversial domestic policies are opposed or supported by the other parties at Holyrood.

It is likely that the child care and schools policy will be backed by the Tories, which might embarrass Ms Sturgeon and her party.

What will also be interesting is to see how SNP activists react when they read the parts of Ms Sturgeon's speech which did not relate to the issue what had them cheering their leader to the rafters on - a second independence referendum.

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