Old Politics in the New Normal: The 2020-21 Programme for Government

The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out her final legislative programme ahead of the 2021 Scottish Parliamentary Elections. Given the impact of Covid-19, this was not a normal Programme for Government, and the main thrust of the measures focused on addressing the economic and health challenges resulting from the virus.

However, one announcement was more akin to the pre-Covid days and threatened to completely overshadow events – that there would be a draft Bill, before the end of this parliament, setting out the proposed timing and terms of a second independence referendum. But just as you thought Scottish politics might have returned to normality by bickering over the constitution, a few hours after her speech in the chamber, the First Minister declared that Glasgow and surrounding areas would be subject to some partial coronavirus-related restrictions.

While this was not a normal Programme for Government, the politics of old have not gone away even amidst a global pandemic.

A Programme for Covid-19

In the recent past, previous Programme for Governments have seen the First Minister state that education was her ‘defining mission’. Others have led on the environment and promised ‘bold’ and ‘ambitious’ policy packages. This September was all about navigating Scotland out of the pandemic and building a better future, generating a strong economic recovery through green jobs, and improving the life chances for young people.

With that in mind, there will be a £60m investment for a Scottish Youth Guarantee. A National Transition Training Fund will provide support to 10,000 people facing redundancy and unemployment. £100m will go towards a Green Jobs Fund. There’s £1.6bn to decarbonise the heating of homes and buildings. £500 million has been set aside for ‘transformational infrastructure’ and active travel.

An independent review of adult social care was another noticeable commitment from the Scottish Government and provides a flavour to voters of what another SNP Government would do if re-elected. The First Minister evoked the passion of the post-war generation who built the National Health Service and the promise of a National Care Service, for a group most hit by coronavirus, is certainly eye-catching.

What new Bills will the Scottish Government Introduce?

As there will not be a full parliamentary year, only three new Bills will be introduced (four if you count the yearly Budget Bill), the lowest in the devolution era. This includes: the Domestic Abuse Bill, the UNCRC (Incorporation) Bill and the University of St. Andrews (Degrees in Medicine and Dentistry) Bill.

The Scottish Government will also progress 11 Bills that have already been introduced, including the contentious Hate Crime and Public Order Bill that has generated significant opposition, and one that threatens to go the way of the ill-fated Named Persons or the Offensive Behaviour at Football legislation in its current form.

However, in the run up to May’s election, the Scottish Government will continue to prioritise the coronavirus regulations in terms of parliamentary time. It will be a considerable challenge to get things over the line – indeed, several Bills were already side-lined due to the pandemic – not to mention squeezing in a raft of consultations and policy statements across different departments.

Ahead to 2021: Is an SNP Majority on the Cards?

While this Programme for Government was tailored to respond to the unique set of challenges posed by coronavirus, the SNP will also be mindful of the upcoming elections where they will aim to secure a remarkable fourth term in office. The latest opinion polls suggest that they are well on course to achieving just that, despite a whole host of domestic policy setbacks, U-turns and embarrassing failures.

The Scottish Government have suffered many of the same problems as their Westminster counterparts in responding to Covid-19 but there remains a widespread perception that Nicola Sturgeon and her government have handled events well. Indeed, the public often credit the SNP Government for measures that were introduced by the UK Government. New Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross MP, who recently set out his own priorities for Scotland, certainly has his work cut out ahead of the election in May.

Judging by the latest opinion polls, it would appear certain that the SNP will emerge as the largest party – the question remains whether they will obtain an outright majority (as from 2011), if they will govern again with the cooperation of the Scottish Greens, or if the unionist parties can prevent a pro-independence majority. The first two options will help set the scene for any renewed push to secure another independence referendum, returning Scotland back to old politics in the new normal.