Comment: The next election will be the most important in Scotland’s history
We are living through the strangest and most difficult of times. The world as we know it has changed, and with it many of the assumptions about how we go about our lives individually and collectively.
The last few months have been, without question, the most testing, difficult and emotionally draining times of my political life. And I know that goes for so many other people in all walks of life, in this country and around the world. We mourn the loss of life the pandemic has brought here in Scotland, across the UK and beyond. And my heart goes out to all those families who have been bereaved and affected in so many other ways.
As I have frequently observed over the course of the last few months, we will have made mistakes in the course of our response to the pandemic, as all governments will have. There will come a time when we can reflect properly on the choices and decisions made, but for the time being the priority is to remain vigilant in the face of the virus.
COVID-19 remains a real and present threat to life, amid the dangers not just of a second wave but of a continuation or resurgence of the first wave, as we are seeing in some other countries.
However, while the coronavirus pandemic has brought a necessary pause to life as it was, it also provides a moment, perhaps a unique and unprecedented one, to reimagine our world and the possibilities it offers.
Soon, hopefully, we will be able to return to normality, or something as close as possible to that. But that does not mean that we can or should necessarily revert to doing everything as we used to, even if is possible.
The huge challenges presented by climate change and by the many economic and social inequalities we face, here at home and internationally, have not gone away. They remain as real and potent as they were before the pandemic struck.
The challenge for policy makers now is to chart a response which addresses these issues as effectively or more effectively than before while also continuing to tackle the COVID threat for the foreseeable future.
Here in Scotland the chance to reimagine our future is one that I relish as we look forward to the parliamentary year at Holyrood. We will shortly outline our Programme for Government, the final one before next year’s election and one which will clearly be dominated by the immediate need for economic recovery.
The scale of the downturn precipitated by the pandemic is unprecedented. And an unprecedented crisis demands a commensurate response, so our Programme for Government will, with the powers the Scottish Parliament currently has at its disposal, do as much as possible to both mitigate the immediate economic, employment and social impacts of the crisis – and to chart a way forward for a sustainable long-term recovery.
It will be a national mission to create new employment, including green jobs, supporting our businesses and giving people the skills that they need to succeed. It will promote lifelong health and wellbeing; and it will continue to tackle inequality and help our young people to make the very most of their potential.
And overarching all of that will be our ambition to see Scotland as a net zero country, underpinned by a focus on localism and enhanced digital capabilities.
But it is a simple statement of fact that Holyrood still does not have anything like the full range of economic powers at its disposal. That means we cannot take the same action that other nations are taking, and which are needed to deal with the huge scale of the crisis we face.
The UK Government acted at the start of lockdown to protect jobs through the furlough programme which was put in place, and they deserve credit for doing so. There was, in truth, little option for them given the utterly catastrophic consequences of not acting, as governments large and small around the world instigated similar schemes, but it would be churlish not to acknowledge that they moved promptly to do the right thing.
However, we are now looking at the end of furlough this autumn, leaving countless thousands of workers here in Scotland and across the rest of the UK desperately worried about their future.
That is not the basis for the recovery we need. The prospect of support being withdrawn precipitately in October totally undermines and threatens any fragile recovery – especially if it is followed at the end of this year by the utter folly of a no-deal, or bad deal Brexit.
Scotland dos not currently have the borrowing powers to hand to provide the kind of support offered by the furlough scheme. Far from making the case against greater powers for Holyrood, as some of the more facile arguments of our political opponents have tried to suggest in recent weeks, that dramatically underlines and reinforces the case for those powers to come here.
Quite simply, the furlough debate shows how the powers of devolution are clearly not sufficient to protect Scotland or to provide us with the platform we need for sustained economic recovery.
That of course is a political argument, the likes of which has been mostly absent from public discourse in recent times. But I relish the chance to return to politics as normal once circumstances allow, especially as we look ahead to next year’s election.
That election will be, in my view without question, the most important in Scotland’s history.
Not only will it provide a stark choice between the progressive policy platform offered by the SNP and the utterly regressive agenda of the Conservatives, it will be an election which is, at its heart, about democracy.
We are privileged to live in a democracy. But if that is to mean anything it must mean accepting the results of free and fair democratic elections.
I have already made clear that the SNP’s manifesto for next year will include a commitment to an independence referendum. And in the event of another election win for the SNP, it would be utterly untenable and unsustainable for the Conservatives to stand in the way of the democratic will of the people of Scotland.
Such an election result would sweep away any last fig leaf of an excuse the Tories imagine they may have to deny democracy. And it seems that wiser heads at Westminster are perhaps beginning to realise and accept that – especially as it gets clearer with every month that passes that independence is becoming the settled will of the people of Scotland.
Elections are not won by opinion polls however, and we remain far from complacent, however encouraging recent polls may have been for the SNP.
We know we have to work hard every day between now and next year’s election in order to keep the trust we have gained. People know they will always get commitment and endeavour from an SNP Government. When we get things wrong – as we did with the recent exam results – we are prepared to acknowledge it, to say sorry and to fix the problem.
And if we keep doing right by the people of Scotland, as we have done, then I believe they will place their trust in us to chart a way through the present crisis and to deliver a better independent future for the nation.