Here’s how Humza Yousaf can deliver a fairer, greener Scotland
After 16 years in power, the SNP is stagnating. With these 16 policies, the new first minister can change that, argues Adam Ramsay. More suggestions are welcome in the Comments.
Scotland’s new first minister, Humza Yousaf, is the first Muslim leader of a Western democracy. He is the millennial son of immigrants from Pakistan. He is a politician who joined the SNP in the wake of its opposition to the Iraq War.
He is also the first person in the role who wasn’t elected to the then-new Scottish parliament in 1999: now 37, he was only 14 at the time. His arrival marks a generational handover – far more so than when Nicola Sturgeon replaced Alex Salmond in 2014 – with the children of devolution taking over.
That sense is accentuated not just by Sturgeon’s departure to the back benches, but also by her long-term deputy John Swinney easing towards early retirement. The leaders of all three opposition parties are also relatively young.
Yousaf was elected on promises to tax the rich, tackle child poverty, defend trans rights, protect his party’s alliance with the Scottish Greens, and lead Scotland to independence.
Speaking to the Daily Record before voting closed on Monday, he described himself as a “socialist” (though social democrat is probably more accurate) – if anything, his message was a move to step beyond Sturgeon’s shadow, transforming himself from the continuity candidate to the left candidate. And it worked. Just.
The problem the SNP faces is not that this left-wing approach is unpopular or unsuccessful. It’s the sense of stagnation – after 16 years in power, it feels like the party is running out of ideas.
Here are 16 ways Yousaf could fix that.
Tax wealth to tackle poverty
Let’s start with the idea Yousaf floated on Monday: increasing wealth taxes to fund ways of lifting people out of poverty.
While most taxes tend to pertain to income, huge amounts of wealth are stored in assets, and some countries do tax the net wealth of (in particular, but not necessarily exclusively) hyper-rich individuals.
These methods tend to require people with a net worth of a certain amount – it could be £5m, £50m or £500m – to self-declare the total value of everything they own, property, cars, pension pots, expensive art, jewellery and so on, and pay a small portion of their value. As with self-declared income tax, there is the occasional audit, to keep everyone honest.
Such systems already exist in France, Norway, Spain and Switzerland, and there are proposals to introduce them in the US.
Increase worker control
Those on the right often argue that tax rate increases would lead to capital flight. Tax the rich too hard, they say, and they’ll take their money elsewhere. The solution to this risk is to help workers take ownership of the businesses they help to build, so they aren’t subsidising wealthy bosses who can threaten to bugger off abroad. There are various potential ways to do this.
For nearly 20 years, Scottish communities have had the right to buy the land they live on when it comes up for sale, and can apply for government support to do so. This has often been hugely successful in rural settings – for example, 75% of people in the Outer Hebrides live on land owned and managed by their community. Businesses such as Isle of Harris Gin and numerous local renewable projects have sprung from this well of community collaboration.
The same principle could be extended to capital, too, so that when a business comes up for sale, workers have the right – and support from the Scottish National Investment Bank – to buy it. The Scottish government should prioritise such worker co-ops in procurement, and also consider handing some of its own power to workers.
As transport secretary, Yousaf was right to nationalise Scotland’s train company, ScotRail, in 2022. He should now let railway workers own a share of it. Likewise, Ferguson Marine, home of the ferry fiasco, could do with a dose of worker control.
‘Unclear’ the Highlands
The Scottish Highlands still suffer from the consequences of the Clearances around 200 years ago. While high-speed internet access and the revolution in working from home since the pandemic make living there more attractive, a shortage of housing and public infrastructure – especially public transport – means that for many it remains an impossible dream.
Meanwhile, a new generation of architects has designed a wave of beautiful, low-energy housing across the Highlands and Islands – for those who can afford it. What’s needed now is a real investment in attractive, affordable, zero-carbon rural social housing with publicly owned bus connections. Again, this could be funded through an expansion of the National Investment Bank.
Increase land reform
Nearly a quarter of a century after devolution, Scotland still has the most centralised land-ownership pattern in Europe. It is estimated that fewer than 500 people own more than half of the privately owned land in the country. These vast estates, often in the hands of absentee landlords, are used as play parks for the world’s mega-rich or as speculative purchases in some rapidly traded financial product.
While the SNP has talked a good game on land reform, progress has been slow. In 2015, the party set a target that a million acres of land would be in community ownership by 2020 – it’s just above half a million.
As with many SNP policies, the problem seems to be that the party wants nice things, but doesn’t want to have to take on powerful interests to get them. But that’s not how the world works: owners of vast estates like being owners of vast estates, and if we want land to be redistributed, the government will have to find more proactive ways to make it happen.
Bring wolves back to the Cairngorms
Scotland, like the rest of the UK, is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Our hills aren’t bare because they are too high for trees, but because they are overgrazed, by the sheep that people were cleared off the land for and the deer herds that the owners of those vast estates keep overpopulated so they can stalk the biggest males.
When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the US in the 1990s, their presence utterly transformed the landscape – as George Monbiot explained in a popular video – allowing trees to flourish, other species to multiply and even changing the rivers, boosting fish numbers.
Wolves have now returned to much of continental Europe, bringing ecological advantages with them. It’s time they came back here, too, to the Cairngorms, which is larger than most national parks in the EU. Wolves will help reduce red deer numbers, but we also need lynx to deal with our overabundance of roe deer.
Driven grouse shooting – perhaps the world’s most destructive sport – should also be banned. As should the hugely destructive burning of grouse moors; in an age of climate breakdown, it should obviously be a criminal offence to set whole hillsides on fire. Robert Burns’ most beautiful song, ‘Now Westlin’ Winds’, was a protest against the “slaughtering guns” of game hunters. It’s time we listened to it.
Support a truly ‘just transition’ from oil
There has been positive chat about Scotland’s ‘just transition’ away from oil for years, but too often this has focused on magical thinking non-solutions, such as unproven carbon-capture technology.
But research this month from Friends of the Earth Scotland shows that most oil workers would support a much more genuine transition away from oil and into renewables. Their proposals include a permanent energy excess profits tax, a sovereign wealth fund, public ownership, rig decommissioning costs to be paid for by polluting companies, and a minimum wage for migrant workers.
Set up a commission on new economic commons
Much of the next decade will be shaped by how we use resources we didn’t even really think about as resources 15 years ago.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is data. As Peter McColl from the Royal Society of Edinburgh has pointed out, everyone who wears a smart watch is having their heart rate monitored. This means, in theory, that their watch could warn them hours before they have a heart attack. Collectively, this could be an astonishing pool of data for medical research, potentially helping us make major medical breakthroughs.
Instead, if you turn on this potentially life-saving function, you risk your data being sold to life assurance companies, which may charge you more as a result.
Similarly, rural Scotland is increasingly being captured by markets in carbon and biodiversity credits, with global corporations handing cash to landowners to grow trees.
In both cases, there are huge benefits and enormous risks. And in both cases, we need a real emphasis on understanding that things like the atmosphere’s ability to absorb carbon, or the data about us, are best managed democratically, as commons.
And we need to think hard about what that means and how to do it well. Should, as McColl has suggested, the Scottish government be setting up a data cooperative, where we decide together how information about us can be used? Where we can ensure the positives of the data revolution are borne out, but don’t allow the wealth to be captured by surveillance capitalism? These questions need serious thought.
Complete curriculum reform, education for the 21st century
Twenty-one years ago, the then Labour/Lib Dem Scottish Executive held a ‘National Debate on Education’ and published The Curriculum for Excellence, which said the purpose of education up to the age of 18 is to produce “successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors”.
When the SNP took over in 2007, they continued to roll out this new approach. Until children are around 14, their education focuses less on rote learning – which has become increasingly pointless with the internet – and more on developing genuinely useful skills. They are taught to think critically, creatively, and for themselves.
As they hit S4, though, the fourth year of high school, this all evaporates. Exams arrive and pupils who have never been expected to cram temporary knowledge into their minds as part of an intellectual meat factory are suddenly expected to do just that.
As the Edinburgh School Students’ Union has said: “We need a complete overhaul of Scottish exams and their replacement with a qualification system fit for purpose. This means moving away from final exams based only on memorising facts.”
Doing so would be scary – international league tables put much store by useless fact-cramming and moving beyond it would mean slipping down the rankings. But sticking with a 20th-century system in a 21st-century world, where all the facts known to humanity are sitting in your pocket, means failing our children.
Revolutionise early-years learning, build a multilingual Scotland
There is also change needed at the other end of the age range. In the autumn, SNP members backed a policy to raise the school age in Scotland to six.
In his leadership campaign, Yousaf also focused on expanding preschool childcare – a vital investment in economic infrastructure.
Together, these policies would produce a sort-of kindergarten phase, similar to that in much of the rest of northern Europe, for children aged 3-6, in which learning is led by play.
This is the period in which children are best at learning languages – something Scotland, like England, has historically been very poor at. Scotland, though, should know better: we are constitutionally polyglot, with three national languages of our own, and a notion of ourselves as an internationally facing, European society.
Over the next five years, I hope the work can be done to invest in my daughter’s generation, supporting them in their early years to begin to learn other languages – ideally one Scottish (normally Gaelic or Scots), one European, and one from outside Europe – so that, as is common in much of the rest of the world, the next generation of Scots grow up with the neural pathways needed to learn to communicate in an increasingly global world.
Introduce Sure Start for Scotland
To truly tackle persistent problems such as child poverty requires a joined-up local approach. One of the best things the last Labour government did in England was to roll out Sure Start centres, which put different services for children and their parents under one roof.
If you bring together midwives, GPs, breastfeeding support, storytime classes, social work and many of the other various interfaces new families have with the state, staff can start to identify parents who are struggling and might need additional support.
Ultimately, this sort of approach saves money because prevention is always cheaper than cure. And it saves families, because families who get the support they need are much less likely to go into crisis.
Start a public transport revolution
There is something deeply depressing about looking at a map of the Scottish railway network at its peak a century ago. Any Scottish government that’s serious about the climate crisis, rural regeneration or employment should at the very least restore our railway infrastructure to its past glory.
The Scottish government has given local authorities the right to set up their own bus companies – such as Edinburgh’s Lothian Buses, which consistently wins prizes as the UK’s best bus operator – but it needs to do more to help councils do this, by (for example) making it easier for them to raise capital.
Give power to the people
In fact, the Scottish government could do much more to boost the power of local government. Perhaps most importantly, it could replace council tax with new localised systems that would make it more viable for councils to raise funds to pay for their activities. The problem is that it’s not possible to change a tax system without there being losers as well as winners – and the SNP must be willing to face the politics associated with that.
Some of our local authority areas are vast – the Highland Council covers an area of more than 25,000 square kilometres, bigger than some European countries – and there is a need to push power downwards.
Participatory budgeting – in which a council’s budget is set by local people who come together and debate priorities for their area – is one option. Launched in Brazil in the 1980s and replicated successfully across the world, it has been shown to be a better way to allocate funds than having finance officers. Perhaps just as significantly, these processes significantly change the people who take part in them, making them more solidaristic, community-minded and compassionate.
Create a people’s energy company
It is encouraging that Yousaf has already said that the Scottish government should have an equity stake in all new offshore wind farms so that it also profits alongside private energy companies.
Why not go a step further, and create a publicly backed renewable energy company? The countries that have really profited from their oil reserves, such as Norway and Saudi Arabia, did so through nationalised industries. There is no reason Scotland couldn’t do the same with wind – something Yousaf said he supported on the campaign trail, though he did not elaborate further.
Transform the civil service
The Scottish government is served by a civil service that is still attached to Whitehall and is part of the British state.
For decades now, British state apparatchiks have been noted for their incompetence. Why, for example, has HS2 been such a fiasco while the governments of France, Spain or Japan (to give just a few examples) are perfectly capable of building railways? Why are we endlessly outsourcing civil service functions to the Big Four accountancy firms – Deloitte, EY, PwC and KPMG – at extortionate costs to the taxpayer?
A lot of British ineptness can be put down to the daft ideas of New Public Management Theory, though broader assumptions about the generalism of the ruling class that sits at the heart of the civil service model are also relevant.
With a candidate with a questionable track record on abortion rights coming close to winning the SNP leadership, the party has work to do reassuring Scotland’s pro-choice majority that it will stand up for women’s right to choose.
There are various ways it could do this – decriminalising abortion, supporting buffer zones against anti-abortion protesters and expanding abortion services.
In fact, Scotland’s women’s sector has published an excellent list of policies the new first minister should adopt.
The Scottish parliament has gained many new powers since it was reconvened in 1999, meaning there is more legislation to review, more ministerial powers to hold to account, more work for committees to do.
With a unicameral system, there is no second chamber to scrutinise all of this. About a fifth of MSPs are ministers, and so bound by government collective responsibility, compared with less than 10% of MPs or Lords at Westminster. As a result, there is less accountability, less scrutiny, less democratic flare.
It’s not a popular opinion, but Holyrood probably does need more MSPs. With its current electoral system, that could be achieved reasonably easily by adding one to each regional list – which would also make it more proportional.
We are three years from the next Holyrood election and there are obviously lots of other things that need to be done in that time. The Scottish NHS still hasn’t recovered from Covid, with the £1bn funding boost set aside for the health service in the recent budget yet to work its way through. There is work to be done on the educational attainment gap and drug addiction rates.
If Yousaf listens to the many sirens of Scottish politics, he will fast find himself sinking into quicksand. But if he arrives into office at a sprint and sets about transforming the country, he will revitalise the SNP and Scottish politics. And he will lead Scotland to independence.