In June, shortly after the Scottish National Party lost Westminster seats in its North-East heartlands, including that of the former leader Alex Salmond, the Scottish government brought back tail docking.
The SNP’s enthusiasm for cutting off puppy dogs’ tails suggested that when it came down to it, the party would secure its rural wing before tending to the needs of the recent converts from Labour. Then the party went into summer retreat, and a period of soul searching.
Nicola Sturgeon has now re-emerged to set out the Scottish government’s plan for government. It came days after the opening of a new road bridge across the Firth of Forth – promised in the SNP’s 2007 manifesto which kickstarted its decade in power. And the programme makes tail docking look like a moment of midsummer madness.
Eye-catching pledges include the phasing out of new petrol and diesel cars by 2032, scrapping the public sector pay cap and – crucially – the possibility of using Holyrood’s new tax-raising powers to hike income tax.
This is, at least in rhetorical terms, a victory for Scottish Labour, which under Kezia Dugdale repeatedly attacked the SNP for not using its powers effectively. In practice, though, this level of consensus from opposition parties makes it safer for Sturgeon. Voters angry at tax hikes (if they happen) will only have the Scottish Tories to defect to, and most have already made up their minds about that.
Sturgeon is aware, however, that no matter how much of the opposition benches the SNP MPs take up in Westminster, she is the leader of a party of government, and the biggest risk is running out of ideas. The Scottish government’s programme also reflects some of the thinking fostered in particular in the Green parties of both Scotland and England, as well as pro-Jeremy Corbyn events like The World Transformed.
These more radical policies include trials of universal basic income, advocated in Scotland by Patrick Harvie, the leader of the Scottish Greens, and a crucial ally for the SNP in Holyrood, a “financial health check” for low income families, and a plastic bottles deposit returned scheme.
In England, Jeremy Corbyn has managed to win back left-wing voters who defected to the Greens in frustration at Labour’s perceived condoning of austerity. In Scotland, he is now trying to do the same, as his recent trip to Scotland’s West Coast showed. There are, as I reported, many overlaps between urban SNP supporters and Corbyn’s agenda – namely the opposition to austerity, a distrust of the establishment, and a desire for radicalism. So far, Labour’s victories can be ascribed to SNP voters staying at home, but even SNP politicians recognise Corbyn has personal appeal.
The Scottish government’s programme suggests that the SNP, too, perceives urban Scotland as its biggest battleground – and one it will not give up without a fight.