Political Déjà Vu: The Scottish Government’s Programme for Government, 2021-22

Déjà vu (noun) – the strange feeling that in some way you have already experienced what is happening now.

Observers of Scottish politics will have sensed that while watching the First Minister launching her (delayed) Programme for Government for the year ahead. A lot of it was already trailed in previous announcements, including her speech last week outlining the Cooperation Agreement between the SNP Scottish Government and the Scottish Greens, and in her priorities for government statement following the SNP’s win back in May.

Indeed, that’s before we return to the perennial question of Scottish independence with the First Minister reaffirming the Scottish Government’s intention to hold a second independence referendum before 2023 (subject to the pandemic). Sturgeon revealed that officials were now working on a “detailed prospectus” for separation.

Naturally, this led the Scottish Conservatives to accuse the nationalist administration of putting independence before jobs and economic recovery. Scottish Labour criticised the paucity of ambition in the government’s plans, with Anas Sarwar describing it as “a tired and rehashed programme”, while Lib Dem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said there was “little in the way of new hope. Scotland may have a new SNP-Green administration – described as “historic” by its supporters – but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

What’s in the Programme for Government?

Nicola Sturgeon has been present in the Scottish Government through both minority and majority SNP administrations, but this was the first time she has presented a Programme for Government as part of a ‘coalition’.

The Scottish Government will take forward 12 new Bills – including the annual Budget Bill – in the current parliamentary year, in addition to the three already introduced since May’s election. While the likes of the Fox Control Bill or the Fireworks and Pyrotechnics Bill may not sound terribly important, the National Care Service Bill has the potential to be one of the most profound reforms ever introduced at Holyrood.

Moreover, there were also significant pledges to introduce free wraparound childcare for low-income families and an extensive programme of house building, showing that amidst the attention on the constitution, there are some ambitious plans on the domestic agenda. Of course, the challenge will be in delivery – earlier this week, the Auditor General warned of a “major implementation gap”.

Influence of the Scottish Greens

The Programme for Government was a first for containing a Green agenda in the UK. Evidence of their influence is clear, particularly in relation to matters such as improving tenants’ rights and a national rent control system, as well as additional spend for cycling and walking.

There’s also a strong focus on the environment throughout the document, with a raft of spending pledges and initiatives to support Scotland becoming a net zero nation and securing a ‘just transition’, as Glasgow looks ahead to hosting COP26 in November.

What’s in it for Business?

Well, in terms of anything new, not a lot. There appeared to be a real change in emphasis from the Scottish Government, with health and social care, inequalities, and the environment being the centrepiece of the plans, with the economy sliding further down the list of priorities. Most of the economic focus was on reskilling in preparation for new green jobs on the horizon and the businesses will have to wait in tense anticipation for details of Kate Forbes’ 10-year economic transformation strategy.

The SNP are vulnerable to attacks from the Scottish Conservatives that the malign influence of the Scottish Greens is harmful for jobs and the country’s recovery. CBI Scotland felt there ought to have been a greater emphasis on economic growth to drive pandemic recovery – but the SNP are now in a coalition with a party with a distaste for such conventional economic wisdom. The Scottish Government must be careful not to alienate the business community. After all, the private sector generates the prosperity needed for public spending.

“A brighter and fairer future” and developments elsewhere

With so much being previously announced, it felt that political attention was centred at Westminster, with the UK Government unveiling plans for social care paid for through increasing national insurance contributions. This was a controversial step as it breaks a Tory manifesto commitment and is regressive in nature. The SNP’s Westminster Leader Ian Blackford described the move as a “poll tax on Scotland” for English social care, while the UK Government point out that the Scottish NHS will receive £1.1bn per year as a consequence.

On such matters, the devil will be in the detail. The UK Government plans state “there will be a legal requirement to allocate the Levy revenues for spending on health and social care”. Needless to say, the Scottish Government will not appreciate being blindsided by Westminster, creating the potential for a political row between both governments.

Such debates go to the heart of the constitutional debate in Scotland – who controls what and why – or as Sturgeon put it, “which Parliament – Westminster or Holyrood – should make these choices?” For the Scottish Government, “a brighter and fairer future” lies in independence, whereas for unionist Scotland, the pooling and sharing of resources brings benefits for all.

It’s the same old, same old in Scottish politics.