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by Staff reporter
03 May 2021
Planning ahead: Q&A with the party leaders

Holyrood speaks to party leaders ahead of the election

Planning ahead: Q&A with the party leaders

Heading into the final stretch of the Scottish Parliament election campaign, Holyrood asks the party leaders what their plans will be for the next session

The atmosphere in the parliament as the fifth session closed was described as ‘toxic’. What one word would you hope to use to describe the sixth session and how would you contribute to it getting there?

Michelle Ballantyne (Reform): Honest. I would contribute by not being afraid to say what I believe to be right even if it is uncomfortable to say and hear. 

Jamie Blackett (Alliance for Unity): Constructive. The last session of parliament was embarrassing to observe and has led to the rise in the number of people who simply want to close Holyrood down. I hope that the appearance of a new party that is cross-party will stop ideological game playing and help to focus the parliament on helping to improve Scottish lives.

Willie Rennie (Lib Dems): I want the sixth session to be the “recovery” parliament. Our lives have been turned upside down over the twelve months, more than 10,000 Scots have died, hundreds of thousands of operations have been cancelled, children have missed out on in-person teaching. We need to make sure that the country bounces back and we heal the divides that have torn us apart. I will be a ceaseless advocate for education, mental health and investing in green jobs to tackle the climate emergency. A laser-like focus on these key issues can help heal the constitutional divides and make the sixth session a more productive parliament.

Douglas Ross (Conservatives): Focused. We still have to get through the health emergency with COVID-19 and then deal with the economic fallout. That will take all our attention and focus.

Alex Salmond (Alba): Historic. By laying a motion in week one instructing the Scottish Government to open independence negotiations with London.

Anas Sarwar (Labour): Recovery. And to ensure that we need a better government and a better opposition.

Lorna Slater (Greens): Transformational. It needs to be. We need to be investing directly in securing our survival by decarbonising our economy and creating thousands of jobs. Our future depends on it.

I don’t agree that the fifth session was entirely toxic though. There was a lot of cross-party working going on to improve legislation and tackle the pandemic emergency, some incredible members’ bills like John Finnie’s equal protection and Monica Lennon’s period poverty bill.

Sadly, I think the Conservatives soured the tone at the end with an attempt to discredit the whole parliament, but in the long run people will look back and say that was the parliamentary session that made income tax fairer, that gave young people free bus travel, and that had to work together against a deadly pandemic that threatened us all.

Nicola Sturgeon (SNP): Transformative. By leading, if re-elected as first minister, a government with the most ambitious policy programme ever taken forward in Scotland, delivering better housing, health and education, improving the life chances of our young people and reinforcing Scotland’s credentials as a world leader in tackling climate change as we work to achieve a just transition towards a post-carbon future.

Name the three top priorities you will have going into the sixth session of the parliament.

Ballantyne: To return all our freedoms and ensure that the coronavirus regulations are all repealed. To argue for an economy that grasps the opportunities of leaving the EU, drives wealth creation and encourages growth through lower taxes. If we don’t do this, our public services will not be sustainable. To challenge the decline in education for the sake of our children and Scotland’s future. I will argue for Curriculum for Excellence to be abolished with the focus moved to standards and outcomes. 

Blackett: To pressurise government to pass a Canada-style Clarity Act that ends the neverendum and allows us to get back to fixing Scotland’s public services. To clean up public life by shining a bright light on corrupt practices, ‘opening the books’ and calling out cronyism and restoring truthfulness and honesty. To put an end to post-modernist identity politics and re-establish Scottish Enlightenment values of truth, reason and tolerance.

Rennie: I want to deliver world-leading mental health services, a bounce back plan for education and investment in green jobs.

Ross: Recovering from COVID-19, rebuilding Scotland after the pandemic and providing opportunities for the next generation.

Salmond: Independence, economic recovery, public health provision.

Sarwar: A £1.2bn jobs recovery plan, prioritisation of cancer services and mental health, and an economic stimulus package to grow the economy.

Slater: Firstly, we need to get take real action on the climate crisis. With only nine years left to keep ourselves to our Paris Agreement commitments we need to rapidly decarbonise the Scottish economy, driving emissions to zero as quickly as possible. Fortunately, the investment we need for this, to build more efficient homes, upgrade our railways and generate more energy from renewables, will create a lot of jobs, over 100,000 by our calculations.

We need to make sure that our recovery from the pandemic changes the direction of our economy from one where the rich get ever richer and life gets ever harder for the people who are already struggling. We need a recovery that leaves no-one behind. This means transformation policies that will leave a positive legacy for future generations, such as a National Care Service, real living wages for all workers and free bus travel for everyone 26 and under.

Thirdly, I’d like to see a positive independence referendum campaign that sets out our vision for the kind of Scotland we’d like to see. An ordinary, independent European country with social justice build into the fabric of our society. A welcoming country with a thriving economy based on renewable energy, tourism, the arts and so much more. I want to live in a country that has access to every economic lever that we need to implement this, including our own currency and I look forward to getting into the details of how we build this.

Sturgeon: Guiding Scotland safely through the rest of the pandemic; taking forward the work of rebuilding that is necessary for a sustainable and fair recovery; and giving people a choice on the country’s future.

The pandemic has changed us all. How has it changed you and how will that translate into how you do your politics?

Ballantyne: The pandemic has made me realise just how vulnerable our society has become. Strong bureaucratic leadership has subdued the population with the use of fear. I was ready to retire and focus on my own life and family but as people have sought help, I found it more difficult to ignore the concerns for the future. I value personal freedom and the pandemic has highlighted how fragile that freedom is. I will never again take it for granted.

Blackett: It has made me realise just how vulnerable many people in Scotland are, particularly the young and the elderly. Mental health will be a top priority that cuts across health, education and job creation.

Rennie: While I have been in elected politics for 15 years through many major changes, I have rarely worked harder than I have in the past twelve months. So many constituents have come to me worried about their health, concerned for relatives in care homes or panicking about their jobs.

Over the last year one of the more pleasant developments has been the willingness of ministers to listen, to explain and to help with solutions. At times I have had to push them hard in public and in private but in general – and I think in line with what the public would expect – the pandemic has often forced closer and more productive working than we have had in recent years. I hope that this more collaborative spirit persists and we are not sucked back into divisions over the constitution.

More broadly, I think I have taken inspiration from the hard work of community activists and the willingness of so many people to look out for their neighbours. Particularly in the first lockdown, I was amazed by how quickly mutual aid groups were set up and support for the vulnerable was delivered. The human spirit is a wonderful thing.

Ross: It’s shown that there is a lot we can do together when we are facing a threat such as a global pandemic. It’s one of the few positives from the last year – people looking out for each other and helping friends and neighbours. I’d like to see that continue long after this pandemic.

Salmond: A new world should, indeed must, emerge from the pandemic, changed economically, socially, environmentally. An independent Scotland needs to be part of that change. Every single one of us should have reassessed what matters in life and what is nonsense. 

Sarwar: I’ve aged! But I’ve got a new job and I’ve got a new energy to deliver a different type of politics.

Slater: I was very careful during the lockdown which meant I rarely got out, which is very unlike me. I used to be a very active person, a sociable person, but that feels like a very long time ago. It’s been a real struggle with mental and physical health, which I’m sure a lot of people can identify with.

But in terms of my politics, I’ve actually met more people from other parties in the last few weeks than the last couple of years put together. At so many online hustings I’ve been pleased at the cross-party consensus on things like a National Care Service, stopping violence against women, ending racism and ensuring fair pay for workers and opportunities for young people. It’s made me look forward to working together on these things, if I’m elected.

Sturgeon: I have much less time for the knockabout and the ‘who’s up, who’s down’ of day-to-day politics or those that obsess about it. The pandemic has taught us all the things that are really important.

How would you describe your style of leadership?

Ballantyne: My leadership style is predominantly democratic with a touch of transformational style. I believe you are only as good as your team and they must be allowed to develop and contribute.

Blackett: Self-critical.

Rennie: I have always sought to be a leader that people recognise as standing up for the issues they believe in. I am deadly serious about issues like the recovery from the pandemic, mental health and education, but I think it’s important too that politicians show their human side.

Ross: Quite direct, but I am always willing to learn and seek to improve.

Salmond: One based on record, team, and vision. 

Sarwar: I’m naturally someone who wants to bring people together, and I want the next parliament to focus on that as well. Let’s focus on what unites us, not what divides us.

Slater: I’ve described my leadership style on CVs before as ‘boots on the ground’. I feel that you can’t support others until you’ve attempted to walk in their shoes. I’ve volunteered behind the scenes for the Scottish Greens for many years: I’ve chaired meetings, put leaflets through doors, reviewed budgets. Through this work I’ve seen that the party is brimming with talent and new ideas and I think it is my job as leader to nurture those as the party grows. I’m looking forward to handing over to the next generation of Greens. Honestly, they’re going to blow your mind.

Sturgeon: Empathetic, energised and engaged.

Holyrood magazine did a very unscientific poll of what the favourite meal was among MSPs from the parliament canteen and macaroni cheese was a clear winner. What dish would you like to see on the menu?

Ballantyne: As someone who never ate macaroni before joining the parliament, I was a bit of a convert! They also did a lovely sweet chilli salmon for a while.

Blackett: Humble pie.

Rennie: Cheese with chilli jam toasties. 

Ross: I’ll always take French onion soup if it’s on the menu.

Salmond: Haggis and baked beans.

Sarwar: More halal options! But making the scampi and chips more regular would be very welcome.

Slater: I do love macaroni cheese, but I also love a spicy three-bean chilli. There’s nothing like a hot lunch to keep you going on a cold day.

Sturgeon: I often don’t have too much time for lunch when I’m in parliament, so as long as the salad bar has plenty of variety and healthy options I’ll be happy. 

Read the most recent article written by Staff reporter - Holyrood picks up four gongs and a highly commended at annual magazine awards

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