Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, is seemingly going from strength to strength amid the COVID crisis. Never has the policy division between home nations been so visible as it has through the pandemic and the no-nonsense approach of the Scottish National Party leader has, for the most part, proved popular.
Last week Scotland unveiled its Programme for Government, the legislative line-up for the coming year. Indyref 2 – the second attempt at breaking free from the UK Government after the failed 2014 poll – was the show-stopper, grabbing the headlines and promising the questions, terms and timing of a second independence vote within months.
A lot has happened since the last vote – Brexit, a shift to the right in the Westminster Government, a global pandemic and its accompanying economic crisis. While it remains to be seen if the current polling of 54% in favour of independence would hold up at the ballot box, it seems that the break-up of the Union is more likely than ever. Last time the Scots went to the polls the referendum – alongside the Brexit vote – reverberated round the whole UK, kicking off the latest round of English devolution. Will the consequences of a second vote force Westminster’s hand further, or will the centre just pull more powers from its dwindling base?
Ms Sturgeon’s speech offered more than just a referendum. For a party often branded the ‘Tartan Tories’, the SNP has put forward a programme with a raft of measures to tackle inequality. As one Scottish insider told The MJ: ‘They have managed to out-labour Labour.’
The big priority for the First Minister remains, unsurprisingly, COVID – but there is a package of measures for inward investment, job creation, building a ‘green recovery’ and a smattering of social justice.
Addressing the Scottish Parliament, Ms Sturgeon vowed to be ambitious and claimed her programme set out plans for ‘a stronger, more resilient, more sustainable economy – with a laser focus on creating new, good, green jobs’.
She told her fellow MSPs: ‘It guarantees opportunities for our young people...It strengthens and reforms public services, including our National Health Service. And it takes the first step on the road to a National Care Service.
‘It promotes equality and wellbeing, with decisive action on child poverty. At the heart of this programme is a new, game-changing Scottish Child Payment,’ she said.
Highlights of the plan include a range of measures to protect jobs.
A Scottish Youth Guarantee partners with employers – with a £60m investment – to offer everyone aged 16-24 years old a job or a place in education or training. An Inward Investment plan is expected to create 100,000 jobs, and a further £100m Green Jobs Fund has been established.
There are measures to move Scotland to a low carbon economy, and funding to bring digital connectivity to more people. From February, low income families will receive an extra £10 a week for each child under the age of six under the Scottish Child Payment, and a £10 Tenant Hardship Fund will protect people from homelessness with interest free loans for those struggling to pay rent.
But for local government across the UK, all eyes will be on Ms Sturgeon’s plan to radically overhaul the social care system, setting up an independent review which will consider the move to a National Care Service.
Chaired by Derek Feeley, former director general of Health and Social Care in the Scottish Government, it will report back at breakneck speed by January 2021.
Despite media reports that the Johnson Government was considering the move for England, there is no real indication of concrete plans to take social care out of the hands of English local authorities.
If the Scots opt for a National Care service it would be a further divergence between the two countries – Scotland is already far further down the line on health and social care integration, and offers its citizens elderly care free at the point of use in line with the NHS.
A care service could be seen as diminishing the role of local government, or as an answer to their financial woes. As yet, the sector seems undecided on its views, with both the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) and Solace Scotland declining to comment for now, but COSLA’s ongoing programme for social care reform will form part of the evidence for the review.
With the Scottish elections due in 2021, Ms Sturgeon’s Programme for Government delivers on the first priority for the SNP – moving further towards independence.
While the Scottish Conservatives offer voters the chance to remain in the UK, tackling inequality may be the final nail in the coffin of Labour north of the border for now – but there is still a long way to go until the elections in May.
It just remains to be see just how much Ms Sturgeon can afford.