So that was summer. Just a few typical “silly season” stories this year… the UK vote to quit the EU, the renewed prospect of Scotland reconsidering independence, the Chilcot report, a sudden bout of Tory backstabbing before a new Prime Minister took office, economic turmoil, ever-more urgent climate warning signs, open civil war in the Labour Party with the prospect of splits to come, devastating acts of violence in Europe and the middle east, and of course continuation of the bewildering delusional nonsense from the Cult of Trump.
It has been nothing if not eventful. Now however MSPs are returning to Holyrood as the committees begin planning their work and the parties set out their plans. Both government and opposition parties must prepare for the unpredictable, as we face political and economic uncertainty both at home as well as from the UK, the EU and the wider world.
The Brexit debate will affect everything. Theresa May’s recent backtracking (quelle surprise!) from her commitment to fully involve all the nations of the UK in agreeing the negotiating position signals the UK’s intention to ignore Scotland’s strong Remain vote. If Article 50 is indeed invoked early in the new year, it will define the window of opportunity available to us if we want either a ‘bespoke’ solution for Scotland or a new case for independence.
But Brexit won’t stop many other critical issues from coming up in the meantime. From new tax and welfare powers to the complex challenge of constructing a budget for Scotland in uncertain economic times, Parliament will need to show the boldness that’s necessary and avoid repeating the mistakes the UK has made. We can’t let the tax debate become dominated by a right-leaning emphasis on raising the bare minimum for public services, and assuming that giveaway for big business will trickle down to benefit everyone. Tax policy must also be about closing the wealth gap and building a more equal society.
That will need to be done at local level as well as nationally. The SNP will want to win parliamentary support for their tweaks to the unfair Council Tax, which is so badly in need of wholesale replacement. Let’s be clear – tinkering with an unfair tax is simply not good enough, and undermining local democracy has to end. They will also be proposing tax breaks for aviation, unless their transport policies are re-written to finally fit within environmental limits. Greens will bring a much-needed challenge on both these issues.
Devolution of welfare will remain limited, but we’ve already shown how the control over employment programmes that’s due next year will allow us to give people some protection against the punitive and counterproductive UK sanctions regime. Like all countries we also need to rise to the challenge of building a social security system which can meet the needs of the growing ‘precariat’, whose working patterns and incomes are not just low, but intermittent and insecure.
Environment policy also faces big challenges. The recent spate of global climate records isn’t unexpected, but serves as a reminder of just how ambitious the goals of the Paris Agreement were. If Scotland is going to continue to show leadership in this area, it won’t be enough to hear promises from an Environment Minister – we’ll need to see joined up policy from ministers on transport, energy, the economy, housing and more. Whether you agree or disagree with the case for yet more consultation before a final decision on fracking and other new fossil fuel industries, it can’t drag on forever. That decision must be made, once and for all, to protect Scotland’s communities and the global climate.
Scottish Labour are setting out their stall too, desperate not to lose momentum (if you’ll forgive the choice of word) after falling back to third place at Holyrood. While some of their proposals are just reheated press releases or anti-SNP opportunism, on other issues they have more of a point. Bus services are one good example. We won’t get decent public transport in Scotland while buses are seen as a purely commercial business, and I’m well aware that many people in the SNP have long wanted their leadership to return to the longstanding policy of better regulation.
The Tories meanwhile will remain in high spirits, but it’s still completely unclear where they really go after “Ruth Davidson for strong opposition”; that rather one dimensional personality-driven message will get very boring very quickly, especially if they continue to abandon the voters who voted Remain in June.
The Greens argued this year that a better Scotland needs a bolder Holyrood. That’s still my belief, and I’m convinced that this more balanced Parliament can unlock some of the creativity that’s needed.
This article first appeared in the National