Manifestos 2021: The Scottish National Party
In the second part of this series, we examine the manifesto that is the likely programme of government for Scotland. All of the policies referred to in this article can be found here.
It is a truth universally unacknowledged that a party which consistently receives between 45-50% of the vote must be popular for a reason. Commentators either take the SNP’s success for granted or, worse, resort to unionist bromides about ethnic nationalism.
The SNP are successful because of their messaging. When Nicola Sturgeon tells us to “work as if we are indeed living in the early days of a better nation” it is hard for readers of a blog named after an Alasdair Gray character not to get excited. Most voters will be delighted that 100,000 new homes will be built and that a National Care service will be established.
Wrap around childcare that is free for the least well-off and an increased Scottish Child Payment will do a great deal to ameliorate child poverty, especially in single parent households. Even more important, in a country in which the foodbank queues grow daily, is a policy to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all children in primary and special schools. One of the most morally repugnant things the Tories have done to this country is to inure us to tales of hungry children in our classrooms. For huge numbers of Scots, the SNP are worth voting for because ‘they’ll stop the Tories’. That does not just mean stopping the Tories from winning seats: it means stopping them from starving children.
However, as fourteen years of SNP government have taught us, the disappointment is often in the detail. An increase of 25% in mental health spending sounds promising but is only a sticking plaster when no health board is even close to reliably getting patients an appointment with a psychologist. £33 billion on infrastructure sounds great, but will it simply continue the Scottish Government’s love affair with polluting forms of travel? Citizens’ assemblies sound promising, until you read that they will be used to discuss the council tax (hint: you pledged to abolish this 14 years ago).
The SNP seem to love a consultation for the purposes of procrastination. A commitment to consult on “the process by which a trans person can obtain legal recognition” can only make trans people and their allies sigh at the thought of repeating themselves again without being heard. The SNP tolerated, and still do tolerate, transphobes in their ranks. While it is nice to hear that they are “committed to tackling transphobia”, transgender people and their allies could be forgiven for judging the party on its actions rather than its platitudes.
Nicola Sturgeon asked us to judge her on her education record. Six years later and the record is dismal. The attainment gap is still very much with us. The pledge to recruit 3,500 educators needs to be understood in context. In 2007, there were 55,089 teachers in Scotland. Today there are 53,400 . And note, the promise is for 3,500 teachers and classroom assistants. It is not even, necessarily, an advance on the Tories’ plan to recruit 2,000 more teachers. The pledge to give every child a device is interesting and overdue. It allows us to catch up with Estonia. However, it is not remotely as important as reducing class sizes and dealing with the serially incompetent Scottish Qualifications Authority. Finally, what good are bikes for all children of school age when the road budget dwarfs the active travel budget and there is no safe cycling infrastructure?
The SNP has form for talking a good game. Sometimes that is better than doing nothing good at all (see Westminster) but it can be disappointing. Nicola Sturgeon has discussed the well-being economy but her government’s policies remain entrenched in the ideology that Jason Hickel calls Growthism. The manifesto mentions a Minimum Income Guarantee and a four day week. Please put more weight on the verbs than the nouns – the commitments are to “begin” and “explore” these policies. Basically, don’t expect either to happen any time soon.
Still, credit needs to be given where credit is due. A funding increase for the NHS of 20%, even over five years, would represent the biggest cash injection the service has seen since the 2008 financial crisis. Abolishing dental charges will encourage a lot of hard-up people to see a dentist when previously that would have been a scary prospect. It continues the universalism in the SNP’s approach to public services: scrapping dental charges works for the same reasons that scrapping prescription charges works.
This manifesto is sincere in its attempts to tackle poverty. Best Start grants ranging from £600 for a new born baby to £250 at the start of school and nursery will help the poorest Scots to cope in ways that are not available in the rest of the UK. Grants for young carers and a 13% increase in the carer’s allowance will ease the challenges for those with the most challenging family circumstances.
Amongst the many ridiculous claims that Douglas Ross has made, is one that the Scottish Government has been “very central belt-centric”. In reality, the SNP are first or second in every Holyrood constituency. The manifesto demonstrates why this is with a section that allows every voter to see what the party will do for their region. The offer of an Islands Bond – £50k to young people and families in order to stay on or move to an island community – will be the most tangible measure to address population decline in the islands in the history of the Scottish Parliament.
Pledges on rail and decarbonising homes feel like a watered-down version of the Greens’ policies in these areas. In fact, we might suspect that is the point.
There are many similarities with the Greens including a commitment to double the Scottish Child payment; to decarbonise homes; to decarbonise rail; to introduce free breakfasts and lunches for primary school pupils; to improve pay and introduce nationwide collective bargaining in the social care sector; to introduce land-based education in rural areas; to promote crofting; to close fox hunting ban loopholes; to ban the sale of peat-based garden products; to provide free bus travel for all Scots under 22 years of age. It does not matter which party came up with these ideas: they are good ideas. It is interesting that no Green candidate has ruled out coalition.
The commitment to hold an independence referendum once the pandemic is over makes for sensible and mature politics. I look forward to the insensible and immature response of the Alba Party. Independence remains front and centre for the SNP – and it will be important to clarify that when some, inevitably, attempt to claim that the Scottish people did not vote for a second referendum after the SNP win this election. The manifesto is clear in its opposition to Trident – something that has always made the SNP preferable to the Labour Party.
The manifesto represents the SNP’s last fourteen years in government: better than others but could be bettered by others. The messaging might be good: that does not mean the reality will be.
Best Policy: Let’s cheat and say “universalism”. The SNP’s greatest achievement in fourteen years has been to consistently remove means testing from Scottish people’s lives. The party understands that services are best provided as economies of scale from general taxation. Do not underestimate how much providing two free meals per school day and abolishing dental charges will improve the lives of Scotland’s poorest families. If you don’t believe me, ask Marcus Rashford.
Worst Policy: Freezing income tax and bands. While no party (so far) has promised to increase income tax, ruling it out – especially ruling out changing bands – will disproportionately benefit the highest earners. It will also limit what Kate Forbes, or any future Finance Minister, could do in the event of unforeseen economic circumstances in 2024 or 2025.
Weirdest Policy: “A joint UK and Ireland bid for the 2030 World Cup”. You have to wonder what the thinking was behind this one. Let’s support independence by delivering a unionist’s wet dream? Where will the final be held? I’ll give you a clue: it won’t be in Belfast, Glasgow, Dublin or Cardiff.