THERE will be plenty of references to independence when Nicola Sturgeon addresses the SNP conference. Delegates expect no less and it happens at every such gathering of the faithful. However, the real interest will be on the plans she lays out as the focus rightly moves from the constitution to governance.

The ill-judged rush for a second referendum cost the party dear and other than in extreme circumstances can’t happen until there’s greater clarity on Brexit. No matter what some activists think, the party can no more will Scots to support independence than the Tartan Army can wish the ball into the opposition net. The groundwork needs laid in constructing the platform of a competent Government and addressing the fears that people have on currency, trade or the economy.

So, it’s back to the day job, an unfair jibe but one that hit home. Things are far from calamitous in Scotland, even if another World Cup has passed us by. But perception matters as much as reality and there are growing concerns.

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Tackling the problems in public services is therefore essential. Simply saying how much better they are than down south or in Wales doesn’t suffice. Someone in Cumbernauld doesn’t care that the service isn’t as slow as Cardiff or it’s better than Chester.

Having said that, it does provide a stronger platform to build on. The NHS and other public services are all in a far healthier position in Scotland than south of the Border. It still won’t be easy, with continued austerity imposed from Westminster and the overdue ending of the public service pay cap increasing the pressure.

So far, the strategy has been to spread the butter thinner but it’s hard to see how that can be maintained without increasing frustration. A tactical retreat from some areas of expenditure may well be needed to provide for sufficient sustenance for the rest. It’s the right time in the government cycle to do so – it’s far enough away for memories to fade and allowing sufficient time for core areas to be performing well by the time an election comes about. If they don’t then there’ll be further decline across the board. Pay rises are needed but if the cost is a reduction in service, the Government will pay the electoral price. Hard choices need to be made and soon.

Education has been chosen as the key battleground by the First Minister. Strange in some ways, as so many determinants and levers are out with national government control. Recruitment is by local authorities and while bursaries are a welcome initiative, persuading people into the profession is an issue across many jurisdictions far beyond Scotland. Likewise, poverty and austerity are critical in the attainment gap, yet many levers and drivers remain with London. However, having set the test herself she’s obliged to pass it and resources will need to be poured in to ensure that she does.

A new vision also needs to be laid out. Fresh ideas, whether on a National Investment Bank, or prison sentencing have been espoused and are to be welcomed. But much more is required. It’s difficult for ministers when they take over a new portfolio as they’ve to maintain current services before they have a chance to decide what changes they might wish to make. However, it’s approaching three years since the new cabinet was formed and a policy update is now needed. They need to lead, not just manage the administration.

New powers offer opportunities as, though money is tight, a social security system not based on institutionalised cruelty can be constructed. However, some old areas remain critical. The economy and infrastructure badly need to be refreshed. The Salmond/Swinney axis is gone and there’s been a consequent loss in economic credibility.

That needs to be restored, though it won’t be easy, as individuals with standing are few in Parliament. The reduction in air passenger duty always seemed a sop and more work on policy and engagement with industry is badly required. The economy is fragile but as ever remains the key.

Likewise, Borders Rail has been completed and the Queensferry Crossing opened, but what’s next? Flagship projects to create jobs and boost the economy are needed, and provide a vision of the land they seek. Housing’s critical and the SNP has a good record to date, but building more social housing is essential, as is regulating private lets.

Action needs taken to engage and deliver, as it’s a better Scotland now not a promised land that’s wanted by most folk. It doesn’t mean forswearing independence ,just a realisation that it won’t come about without a credible base. That also allows time for answers to questions upon which the last referendum fell, and haven’t yet been forthcoming.

Talking about independence doesn’t deliver it, but a credible and competent government is a prerequisite for it.