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13 March 2023

Downing Street blocking Scotland’s bottle scheme will provoke a fresh crisis for the SNP

In the midst of the party’s leadership election, Westminster overturning a second key policy could cause further fractures.

By Rachel Wearmouth

The UK’s Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, is preparing to block a second measure that’s been put forward by the SNP-led Scottish government – the controversial bottle-return scheme – according to a report in the Guardian. The recycling policy forms a major part of Holyrood’s environment agenda and was pushed through as part of the SNP’s power-sharing agreement with the Scottish Greens.

Due to start in August, the scheme would see Scottish retailers add 20p to the price of single-use bottles and cans, which consumers could reclaim by returning them to be recycled – but to work, it is likely to require an exemption from UK-wide regulations.

[See also: It’s time to talk policy in the SNP leadership race]

Jack, who wants to convince the cabinet to block the plans, has previously criticised the measure as inflationary, and it has already provoked a backlash among businesses, which argue it would add numerous costs. The interesting political question, as voting opens in the SNP leadership contest today, is: what impact would another major intervention from the UK government have on the race to replace Nicola Sturgeon?

The two frontrunners, continuity candidate Humza Yousaf and the centrist Kate Forbes, have been opposed over several issues, including the bottle scheme. Yousaf believes it should target large corporations and Holyrood should compromise by offering smaller retailers an exemption, whereas Forbes thinks it should be paused completely. Similarly, Yousaf believes the cooperation agreement Sturgeon brokered with the Greens is essential, while Forbes is more sceptical. Ash Regan, the third candidate, has said she would scrap the bottle-return plan.

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[See also: The SNP machine is in a state of panic over Kate Forbes]

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The Tories’ latest stab at muscular unionism could, of course, serve to unite Scotland’s pro-independence forces. But with the SNP leadership race having exposed deep divisions within the SNP, that seems unlikely; instead, a move from No 10 to block the scheme will put the next first minister in a difficult position. If Forbes beats the SNP machine’s favoured candidate, and is seen to back the UK government, she will be accused of disloyalty and trashing Sturgeon’s record. Yousaf, meanwhile, who has also vowed to take on Downing Street over its derailing of gender-recognition reforms in Scotland, could be plunged into a fresh constitutional battle on his first day in Bute House.

In addition, the eco-scheme is vitally important to the Greens – so rows between the SNP and their coalition partners look inevitable. The next Scottish Parliament elections are not due to take place until 2026, but the journey towards what would be a record-breaking fifth win for the SNP looks treacherous.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Scotland needs its own Rishi Sunak]

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