Ten key policies the SNP should pursue (but don’t hold your breath)
By Graham Grant
A YEAR ago, Nicola Sturgeon promised a ‘controversial’ legislative agenda that was ‘fresh’, ‘ bold’ and ‘ambitious’.
In fact its centrepiece was a bombshell for the middle classes that left more than a million Scots paying the highest taxes in the UK.
Today she will set out her programme for the coming year – likely to consist largely of proposals that were first outlined last year.
This cut-and-paste action plan for 2018–19 will underline the relative inertia of a government whose flagship policies have crumbled under scrutiny.
These include moves to ban sectarian chanting at football matches – since rescinded – and Named Person, which was decreed largely unlawful in a Supreme Court judgment.
Meanwhile the Education Bill, which was supposed to be the defining reform of Miss Sturgeon’s tenure, was put on hold amid fears that it would fail to win parliamentary backing.
Allegations of sexual misconduct against her predecessor mean Miss Sturgeon’s Holyrood announcement will be overshadowed by a scandal that has opened up deep fault-lines across the Nationalist movement.
The First Minister must also declare whether or not she intends to press ahead with a second independence referendum, having committed to a decision this autumn once the shape of the Brexit deal is known.
Here are ten key policies the SNP should prioritise after more than a decade of public sector mismanagement – and government by procrastination:
RULE OUT ‘INDYREF 2’
In March last year, Miss Sturgeon launched an abortive bid for a second independence plebiscite – only to be slapped down by Theresa May.
Since then, she has retreated from the commitment to ‘indyref2’, but remains under mounting pressure from her activist powerbase to push for a fresh referendum.
The lingering threat of yet more constitutional chaos as the uncertainty over Brexit continues is the single biggest barrier to Scotland’s economic revival.
Tax rises are the bluntest tool available to increase cash flowing into government coffers, but they are also a huge obstacle to kick-starting the economy.
Business rates, the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax and council tax hikes have combined with the raid on income tax – and the rise in interest rates – to produce massive strain on household finances.
New-start firms and established businesses need urgent reassurance that government is backing them – and lower taxes would help to promote entrepreneurialism and ease personal debt.
STOP THE TRIBALISM – AND FIX OUR SCHOOLS
Miss Sturgeon came to office staking her personal reputation on turning around the tanker of educational failure.
But unions warn her central reform – a £120million Pupil Equity Fund – is simply cash that is ‘shoring up what had been lost’ in budget cuts.
An Education Bill, which aimed to challenge the dead hand of council jurisdiction, was put in the deep freeze because of fears it would fail to win parliamentary support – but the Tories have offered to back the proposals.
The SNP should put the need for reform ahead of tribalism and accept Ruth Davidson’s offer, keeping the Bill alive.
ROOT OUT THE NHS FAT CATS
The NHS is another public service on the critical list under the SNP’s ham-fisted stewardship.
Waiting times for hospital operations have worsened, while the number of patients facing delays for key diagnostic tests has almost quadrupled in just two years.
Ministers should root out the NHS fat cats earning between £120,000 and £150,000 to free up cash for more medics.
But the SNP should also set aside its hostility to privatisation – and instigate a wider review of NHS funding to probe moves such as charging for GP visits.
SCRAP THE POLICE WATCHDOG
Scotland’s most dysfunctional quango, the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), has shown itself incapable of keeping the chaotic single force under control.
Extravagant golden goodbyes, a chairman forced to quit amid a bullying and secrecy row, and a chief executive rewarded with a bumper early retirement package despite criticism of his ‘shortcomings’ mean the SPA is no longer a viable organisation.
Last week its board members failed to quiz Scotland’s new Chief Constable, Iain Livingstone, about rising violent and sexual crime, both of which have increased by more than 7 per cent in the last year.
It’s time for a tougher watchdog prepared to challenge the hierarchy of the country’s single force – which has been mired in controversy and leadership turmoil for much of its five-year existence.
DITCH NAMED PERSON
The ultimate zombie policy, the plan for mass state surveillance of under-18s survived a devastating Supreme Court judgment in 2016.
Papers that were only released after a freedom of information (FOI) appeal show officials are considering a Plan B, formulating ‘contingency’ plans to introduce a watered-down version of the scheme, bypassing the Scottish parliament and the Supreme Court, if necessary.
It is time to accept that Named Person has become the ‘SNP’s poll tax’ – as it was dubbed by the party’s former deputy leader Jim Sillars – and drop the entire project.
RE-BUILD OUR ROADS
Some of the Scottish Government’s £450million underspend should be ploughed into roads that resemble the aftermath of First World War tank-battles.
The repairs backlog is estimated at £500million, but back in May we revealed that Scottish councils are spending less on repairing potholes than five years ago.
And Michael Matheson – whose low profile when he was Justice Secretary is arguably even lower now that he is in charge of transport – should come out of hiding to hold ScotRail to account for its myriad failings.
JUSTICE FOR VICTIMS
New Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf has signalled changes to the secretive parole system after Tory calls for reform.
But Home Detention Curfews (HDCs), which allow prisoners to be freed early on electronic tags after serving a fraction of their jail terms, should be stopped.
The system was fiercely criticised earlier this year when thug James Wright was jailed for murdering a young father after breaching his HDC, and remaining at large for nearly six months.
Miss Sturgeon was accused of ‘misleading’ parliament earlier this year after announcing a ban on fracking that was later exposed as being untrue by the Scottish Government’s own lawyers.
Now that the courts have established the ban is mythical, Scotland should be at the forefront of a fracking revolution – generating billions of pounds and thousands of jobs for the Scottish economy.
END SECRET SCOTLAND
The Mail has challenged the culture of secrecy now endemic across swathes of the public sector.
There must now be concerted action to ensure special advisers – political appointees – are barred from censoring Scottish Government FOI replies.
The Scottish Information Commissioner has proved effective, but his powers should be bolstered to put government and quangos on notice that taxpayers will no longer tolerate redaction, censorship and obfuscation.
*This column was published in the Scottish Daily Mail on September 4, 2018.