SHE can’t mind her reputation as cautious, Nicola Sturgeon, because if she did, she’d have unveiled a different cabinet from the one presented to us this week.

As always, the latest lot gathered outside Bute House in Edinburgh for a group photo.

The picture was reminiscent of a Madame Tussaud’s tableau, thanks to the rictus smiles, wide spacing of the mannequins – sorry, ministers – and surreal juxtaposition of figures from different eras. There was Shona Robison, the one-time health secretary, and Keith Brown, and Angus Robertson too – wasn’t he big in the Noughties?

The lasting impression from this line up of long-servers is one of prudence on Ms Sturgeon’s part. She’s gone with the people she knows. There were no newbies, unless former junior minister Mairi Gougeon counts. Mr Robertson has never held a ministerial post but is well known as the former SNP leader at Westminster. Even among junior ministers, only three of 15 were new.

Was this just proof of a tired government, “not so much refreshed as recycled” as Willie Rennie suggested? Or was there calculation in it?

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Probably the latter, given that Nicola Sturgeon never acts without deliberation. Her cabinet choices reflect a desire to keep the ship steady during the recovery, certainly – now’s not the time to break in new ministers. But it sends a deeper message too about that cautious, canny nature of hers: that Nicola Sturgeon, advocate-in-chief for independence, does not believe in taking unnecessary risks that might not work out.

The image of this cabinet is perhaps intended to be one thing above all: reassuring. She seems to be saying: “I don’t gamble with the present and you can trust me not to gamble with your future. I have experience and sound judgment, and so have my ministers. How can independence be scary if we think it’s a good idea?”

The only sound route to independence for the SNP is by persuading people of its merits and then winning a legal referendum, contrary to what the untamed romantics in the Yes movement might believe. Trust in the messenger will be absolutely critical to that. Voters – those crucial ones wavering between Yes and No – need to be reassured that they won’t be handing the wheel to a wild driver if they opt to leave the UK.

But people also have to believe in the radicalism of the independence project – that Scotland can change fundamentally with the powers of independence – otherwise what on earth is the point?

So can you be cautious and radical at the same time?

When it comes to the SNP government, radicalism has not been the dominant theme, though it has been responsible for some important innovations. Its climate change targets are genuinely ambitious. So is its pledge to close the attainment gap between the children of poor and wealthy families. The Scottish Child Payment, currently worth £10 a week and slated to rise to £20 by the end of this parliament, is a strong policy and a sensible use of the Scottish Government’s new welfare powers.

But too often the problem has been with delivery. Scottish emissions reduction targets may be world-leading but they have been repeatedly missed. Progress on tackling the educational attainment gap has been glacial, and achievement in key subjects was slipping compared to other countries even before the pandemic.

HeraldScotland: Nicola SturgeonNicola Sturgeon

The NHS has had money thrown at it, in parallel with the English health service, but there has been no radical change in the way it’s run. When it comes to integrating health and social care – which everyone knows is critical if the NHS is to be affordable in future – two successive auditors-general have expressed their disappointment, and even their frustration, at the lack of progress. Coming from an auditor-general, that’s like throwing a telly through the window.

So great ideas but a history of trouble turning hopes and dreams into reality. Not ideal in the circumstances.

Ministers often mention how much more they’d be able to achieve with the full powers of independence. But if they want people to entrust them with those powers, then they need to convince us they can turn their big ideas into reality within the generous parameters of the devolution settlement they’ve already got.

Independence can’t make a success of itself. Whether a country thrives or struggles depends not just on where power lies but how power is used.

Governments are expected to get things done.

So that is the task of the First Minister. As well as holding the ship steady through choppy waters, she must show this time, more than any other, what she can do with the powers she already has. This parliament, for her and her team, is one long job interview. If Nicola Sturgeon aspires to be the First Minister of an independent Scotland then she needs to show us she not only has a vision but the drive, creativity and courage to bring it about. She needs to impress us.

To turbo-boost efforts to raise attainment, she could announce her support for a radical change to school starting age, from five to seven, with high quality, outdoors-based kindergarten education – funded by the government – from ages three to seven. That’s the model of Estonia and Finland, which top the OECD tables for reading, maths and science.

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She must certainly be able to show meaningful progress in closing the attainment gap by the end of this term, the issue she once said she wanted people to judge her on.

On top of everything else on his to-do list, Humza Yousaf must put a rocket under health and social care integration. That needs to be an achievement, not an aspiration, by the time of any referendum.

And surely the year of COP26 is the time to take the difficult decisions needed to meet those “world-beating” emissions targets. As well as pledging £1.6bn to decarbonise heating, this could be the moment to set an end date for new oil and gas extraction.

People need to believe in the sort of society possible under independence if they’re going to vote for it.

If ministers can’t deliver on their promises in the coming parliamentary term then people will start to wonder what the point is of giving them more powers.

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