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by Kirsteen Paterson
26 December 2023
2023: The Political Year in Review

Images: Alamy

2023: The Political Year in Review

Welcome to the end of 2023. Pat yourself on the back, you've made it through some extremely interesting times. 

Holyrood is using the term 'interesting', but we are sure you know what we mean. We mean 'different'. We mean ‘colourful’. We mean 'bonkers'. 

Because 2023 has been a year so 'interesting' for Scottish politics that it practically puts the riot that was 2022 to shame. 

There have been resignations, suspensions, elections and defections; laws made, messages mislaid and games played – and we don't just mean the football matches watched by Michael Matheson's sons in Morocco

Star turn 

It has been a year so jam-packed with firsts and 'wtf?' moments that Nigel Farage's foray into the I'm a Celebrity jungle went largely unwatched by a public which is frankly knackered with it all. 

The arch Brexiteer was paid a cool £1.5m for his stint on the ITV show and came in third. Viewing figures for the finale fell by 3.6m year-on-year and critics have question whether the show should now be over.

Say what you like, it's not a patch on its 2017 peak, when ex-Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale was its political star. 

Overshadowed 

Try as Farage might, his exploits couldn't overshadow the year's real drama, which was all about the SNP. 

Nicola Sturgeon set the tone for 2023 when she resigned as both FM and SNP leader in February in a Bute House press conference put together so quickly and quietly that it took even HQ staffers and, indeed, the parliament's SNP group by surprise. 

"Since my first moments in the job, I have believed that part of serving well would be to know almost instinctively when the time is right to make way for someone else, and when that time comes, to have the courage to do so," she said. "In my head and heart, I know that time is now." 

By the end of the year, her Welsh counterpart, Mark Drakeford of Labour, had done the same thing. 

Sturgeon’s announcement triggered what would be a 'spirited' battle for control of the SNP. 

Angus Robertson, John Swinney, Neil Gray – many names were mooted as possible contenders, but in the end it was a three-way fight between Ash Regan, Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf

Shout to the top 

The contest included televised debates in which Forbes attacked Yousaf's record and Regan – who would later defect to Alba – floated the idea of an independence readiness thermometer, to be installed in some civic space. 

Yousaf – who pledged during his campaign to decriminalise abortion, despite this not being a crime in Scotland – triumphed over second-placed Forbes to become the youngest and first Muslim FM

Operation Branchform 

Sturgeon wasn’t the only person to hand in her notice this year. Her husband Peter Murrell left his position as SNP chief executive and both were subsequently arrested and released without charge as part of Operation Branchform, the long-running Police Scotland investigation into the party’s finances. Former treasurer Colin Beattie was too and all three deny any wrongdoing. However, the row continues to hang over the party and is said to have affected the outcome of the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election

Margaret/Covid 

The seat swung back to Labour after incumbent Margaret Ferrier – once referred to by Sturgeon as “Margaret Covid” – was suspended from the House of Commons over her lockdown rule-breaking and, in a recall petition, constituents said they wanted to choose another MP, subsequently ushering Michael Shanks into parliament.

The year was also marked by the Scottish and UK Covid inquiries, in which key figures including Matt Hancock and Rishi Sunak gave evidence. Sadly, for Sunak – whose Eat Out to Help Out scheme coincided with a spike in Covid cases – he was unable to recall the answers to most of the questions he was asked while on the stand, while in Scotland there was a row over missing government WhatsApp messages. 

Legislative fankles 

It wasn’t the only issue in which ministers of both administrations had questions to answer. For Sunak, there was the much-criticised Rwanda deal, in which the only thing to leave the UK for the East African country is so far not asylum seekers, but millions in public money.  

2023 was a bumper year for legislative fankles. The Supreme Court deemed the Rwanda plan unlawful but said the Westminster veto to the Scottish Government’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill was not.  

The Section 35 rule was used for the first time to block that, while the SNP-Greens’ Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) fell without the striking of a gavel. It was the Internal Market Act that did for that one, but DRS will be recycled into a new form when the English scheme catches up. 

Green light 

Another key Scottish Government policy, highly-protected marine areas, was sunk after vocal and organised protest from fishers and members of coastal communities.  

But there were successes too on a number of fronts, including the green light for the establishment of a drug-consumption facility in Glasgow. It is expected to open by summer in a move supporters hope will reduce Scotland’s shameful drug deaths rate. 

The limited incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has been passed after a lengthy wait caused by a rewrite to keep things within devolved competence.  

And a number of public sector strikes were curtailed or avoided after new pay deals were reached with local government workers, medics and teachers. 

They weren’t the only ones to have something to celebrate this year – King Charles and Queen Camilla took the throne in a lavish ceremony. Which gives them some nice pics to look back on while dodging headlines about Harry and Meghan. 

Season of peace and goodwill 

As parliamentary business closes, all signs are that there is plenty of political drama ahead in 2024. 

The ramifications of the Scottish Budget are to be chewed over, and there’s a housing crisis to address. New UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron is spitting feathers over Yousaf’s unchaperoned Cop28 chats with foreign leaders in a row that does not bode well for the peer’s relationship with the devolved government. 

And the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body’s inquiry over Michael Matheson’s £11,000 data bill won’t deliver a result until after the New Year. 

Let’s enjoy recess while it lasts. 

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