The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon unveiled the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government for the new parliamentary term under the theme, ‘Protecting Scotland’s Future’. With the SNP now in power for 12 years, this was the First Minister’s sixth Programme for Government statement and the fourth in the current session of the Parliament.
Given this long tenure, it would be a challenge to ensure that any legislative programme was fresh and ambitious. Overall, the Programme contained 14 new Bills and the main headline announcements dealt with climate change following the declaration of a ‘Climate Change Emergency’ in Scotland earlier this year. This included promises for a Scottish Green New Deal, to invest more than £500m to improve bus infrastructure across the country and plans to decarbonise Scotland’s railways by 2035.
Responding to Climate and Political Emergencies
The First Minister’s announcements were a little overshadowed by developments taking place elsewhere, or rather, the other ‘emergency’ facing the country – the “political and constitutional emergency engulfing the UK” and the prospect of a No-Deal Brexit.
She stated that the Scottish Government would take forward planning to mitigate the worst consequences of No-Deal and, once again, Scottish independence would be a means by which Scotland could escape the ongoing chaos at Westminster.
The Referendums (Scotland) Bill will go forward this year and the Scottish Government will ask, during the Bill’s passage, for the transfer of power from Westminster to hold a second Independence Referendum within this term of Parliament. However, it remains highly unlikely that the UK Government will transfer power via the necessary Section 30 Order.
New Bills for 2019-20
Returning to areas where the Scottish Government do have the power to act, the Scottish Government intend to introduce 14 new Bills in 2019-20. This covers everything from anti ticket touting measures in Glasgow, to civil partnerships for mixed-sex couples, and increased sentences for the most serious animal welfare offences.
Aside from the eye-catching climate change initiatives, two of the more interesting Bills deal with new taxes or levies. Following the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Environmental Charging and Other Measures, the Scottish Government’s Circular Economy Bill will centre on the re-use of products and resource waste and will allow for the introduction of a so-called ‘latte levy’ on single-use plastic coffee cups. In addition, with the longstanding debate in tourist hotspots like Edinburgh, the Transient Visitor Levy Bill will grant local authorities the power, should they wish to use it, to introduce a tourist levy on overnight stays in their area. This builds on their commitment to consult on a discretionary levy in the Budget earlier this year, following a deal with the Scottish Greens.
While not included in the list of new bills for 2019-20, the Scottish Government will continue to work to bring forward a Bill on Restricting Foods Promotions for introduction in next year’s programme, which disappointed some campaigners hoping for more immediate action.
Hair Raising Moments and Broken Records
What was the reaction at Holyrood from opposition parties to the new programme?
Following Ruth Davidson’s departure, Jackson Carlaw has once again stepped in as Interim Leader of the Scottish Conservatives. He highlighted a list of thirty promises from previous statements that had been broken or delayed by the SNP Government. The attempt to match the Scottish Government’s rhetoric with reality was somewhat undermined by an ill-judged quip about the First Minister’s hair.
Wearing a huge rose on his label, Scottish Labour’s Richard Leonard led on education, reminding the First Minister of her “overriding mission” to improve standards and attainment in Scotland, noting that the Higher exam pass rates had fallen this year. Leonard also quizzed the First Minister on mental health, a topic later raised by Scottish Lib Dem Leader Willie Rennie, who was joined in the chamber by a new MSP, Beatrice Wishart, following her impressive victory in holding off the SNP in the Shetland by-election.
While the Scottish Government’s commitment on climate change is meaningful, politics was also at play as the SNP have traditionally relied on the Scottish Greens to pass their Budget. Nonetheless, despite this focus, Scottish Green Co-Leader Patrick Harvie remained unimpressed, claiming that the Scottish Government’s measures “lacked the ambition, scale and courage” required.
The Changing Political Climate
One thing that does unite the SNP and Greens is their commitment to independence – and the latest opinion polling on voting intentions from YouGov demonstrates that there would be a pro-independence majority of 19 at Holyrood. Moreover, should an early UK General Election be held, the SNP could pick up as many as 51 seats at Westminster, enabling them to claim that the political climate on independence is shifting in their direction.
The Scottish Conservatives have their own political emergency to respond to as they look to replace the popular and effective Ruth Davidson. While they may hold onto second place at Holyrood, they may lose as many as 10 MPs in the Commons according to YouGov. With such a gloomy prognosis of Scottish Tory prospects, calls for the loosening of ties with their UK counterparts from some of the leadership contenders will grow stronger.
With all that, the political climate at Holyrood and Westminster is certainly heating up.