New Times,
New Thinking.

It’s time to talk policy in the SNP leadership race

So far, constitutional matters have dominated the debate over key issues like the climate and child poverty.

By Philip Whyte

In the immediate aftermath of Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation, much talk across the UK focused on two issues: how the race to succeed her as leader of the SNP and First Minister of Scotland will affect the likelihood of Scottish independence, and how it might impact the result of a future general election.

As important as constitutional and political questions may be, there is far more in this race worth paying attention to and many more policy issues that every candidate should be speaking about.

Among those are the defining issues of tackling climate change and child poverty: two areas where Scotland – in spite of often justifiable claims that our “more progressive nature” is seen through rose-tinted glasses – can lay claim to having taken a more distinctive and ambitious approach than the rest of the UK. Sturgeon will leave office having overseen two significant acts of parliament: the introduction of legally binding targets to reduce child poverty by 2030, in response to the UK government scrapping its own targets, and to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, five years ahead of the rest of the UK.

That brings potential for an enduring legacy, but it’s not guaranteed. At present we’re way off the trajectory for meeting those targets. In some cases we’re even going in the wrong direction. Following steady decreases over the 1990s and 2000s, child poverty in Scotland reached a low of 21 per cent across 2010-13 before creeping back up. Today more than one in four children live in poverty in Scotland. Meanwhile, where Scotland once held a lead over the rest of the UK on its decarbonisation efforts, progress has stalled. Scotland missed seven of its last 11 legal targets.

Getting back on track and fulfilling the ambition of a fairer, greener Scotland requires a bold policy agenda. It will need the SNP leadership candidates to articulate a well-rounded programme that encompasses the daily, foundational aspects of policy that affect people on the ground. But so far we’ve only seen snippets of policy ideas – and what we’ve seen so far indicates candidates must be both bolder and focused.

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[See also: The undoing of Nicola Sturgeon]

Despite Scotland’s stalled progress, both Kate Forbes and Ash Regan have hinted at slowing down our green transition and resisting any acceleration to net zero. Both should recognise that a green transition, when designed with justice at its core, is in the interests of both workers and the planet – it’s not an either/or.

Meanwhile, Humza Yousaf has sought to throw his weight behind environmental and social measures, including promises of a “well-being economy” – in contrast to times when candidates have falsely pitted economic and social prosperity against each other. But even the best ambitions need a solid plan for implementation, and substantial detail has thus far been lacking.

Indeed, it is in implementing policies that the Scottish government all too often falls short, and while Sturgeon has set the right targets her successor must now meet them. So, what needs to be done?

Much of it comes down to changing behaviour. Across government there needs to be less focus on empty policies and more on initiatives with tangible results for people. And across the private sector there needs to be an effort to incentivise progressive change. Some of it will undoubtedly be about money. If everything’s a priority, then nothing is, and that will show in levels of investment. Despite having a more progressive tax system than the rest of the UK, investment has often come in piecemeal fashion and is still not achieving results at the scale required. Now is the time to use Scotland’s tax system to reward and support companies that promote fair work and inclusive growth, paid for by those that don’t. We could utilise untouched powers to tax wealth and emissions in Scotland through new local taxes.

[See also: Will the SNP leadership candidates ever talk about anything other than independence?]

But more than anything, it’s about eradicating the short-termism that has become a common feature of government on both sides of the border. Every candidate should recognise the massive gains that stand to be won from accelerating progress towards the lofty ambitions that have been set.

Investing in new, green jobs can bring prosperity to forgotten communities across the country, grow Scotland’s tax base, and speed up the transition to net zero. That can help drive up living standards and tackle poverty, rooted in fair work sitting alongside radical reform to the social safety net – like in the Scottish government’s commitment to a Minimum Income Guarantee. And that can turn the tide on our long-standing health inequalities and reduce pressures on the health service. Constitutional questions might be a part of those efforts – they might even be inseparable – but they shouldn’t dominate to the total exclusion of bread-and-butter politics in the here and now.

These will not be immediate victories. There might be strong opposition. For many, independence is seen as the solution to all Scotland’s problems and should be prioritised above all else. But to achieve transformational change you have to be bold and face down challenges. Anything less would be to waste an opportunity.

[See also: Scotland needs its own Rishi Sunak]

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