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by Jenni Davidson
17 August 2020
The year that everything changed: a look back at the parliamentary year 2019-20

Overview of the year 2020 - Image credit: Holyrood

The year that everything changed: a look back at the parliamentary year 2019-20

How unbelievable it would have seemed a year ago to think that by now we would have spent months isolating in the house, that schools would have been shut, that we now wear face masks in shops and on transport, and that a Tory government would have spent billions bailing out business to keep the economy afloat.

It's strange now to look back on a year where the topic that is at the forefront of everyone’s minds is something that 12 months ago no one had even heard of.

This time last year the biggest shake up was expected to come from Brexit and key events were two high-profile court cases, one in which MPs try to prevent the UK Government suspending parliament to push through a no-deal Brexit and the other where the former first minister of Scotland would face criminal charges of attempted rape, sexual assault, indecent assault and breach of the peace.

The former began last August after a cross-party group of over 70 MPs announced in July that they were mounting a legal challenge in a bid to prevent Boris Johnson proroguing parliament in the run up to what was expected to be the date the UK left the EU on 31 October.

The case, which was supported by SNP, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru, Green and independent MPs including SNP MP Joanna Cherry, then Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson and Labour MP Ian Murray, took place in the Court of Session, while a separate challenge was launched in the High Court of England and Wales by campaigner Gina Miller.

Although the courts in both Edinburgh and London initially ruled that prorogation of parliament was not justiciable, that it was a political decision rather than a legal one, and therefore lawful, an appeal in the Court of Session overturned the initial Scottish ruling to declare that it was unlawful.

This was then backed by a unanimous decision of the Supreme Court, which considered appeals from both the Scottish and English cases, with Lady Hale ruling on 24 September that prorogation had had an “extreme effect” on the fundamentals of democracy.

She said: “The court is bound to conclude, therefore, that the decision to advise Her Majesty to prorogue parliament was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification.”

The court ruling went further, and the justices ruled that prorogation had not happened at all. Lady Hale said that since the advice to the Queen was “unlawful, void and of no effect”, the order made as a consequence was also “unlawful, void and of no effect” and so the prorogation too was “void and of no effect”, meaning parliament had never been prorogued. Parliament began sitting again the following day.

With Johnson unable to get support for his proposed deal in October, he was forced to ask the EU for another extension to the UK’s membership until 31 January 2020 due to the Benn act, which was passed by MPs in September and required him to request an extension on 19 October unless he had got backing for a deal or parliament had agreed to a no-deal Brexit.

Johnson complied only technically, sending an unsigned letter requesting an extension and a signed one saying he didn’t really want one, but the EU granted it anyway.

What had been a small majority with DUP support at the start of the 2017 parliament dropped to a significant minority of -45 during September and October after 21 Tory MPs, including former chancellor Philip Hammond and father of the house Ken Clarke, had the whip withdrawn on 3 September for voting against the government, with work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd resigning from both her cabinet role and the party whip two days later in protest.

Johnson was increasingly unable to get any legislation through. On 22 October he managed to get stage two of the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill passed in the House of Commons but failed to get backing from MPs for his timetable for the bill. However, after two failed attempts, he did get support from opposition parties for an early general election on 12 December.

This proved to be a turning point. Johnson returned from the election with a substantial majority of 80 seats after significant Labour losses, particularly in the north of England and Scotland. Backed by the largest Conservative majority since 1987, Johnson was able to move forward as he wished and the UK left the EU on 31 January, with the end of the transition period set for 31 December.

The election also shook up opposition parties. While the SNP made gains in seats it had lost in 2017, taking 48 of the 59 Scottish seats, Labour lost all but one of its seats in Scotland, the Conservatives dropped to six and the Lib Dems maintained four but lost their leader.

Jeremy Corbyn announced after the election that he would resign the Labour leadership and his former Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, took over the leadership in April.

The Liberal Democrats, however, are only now about to appoint a new leader, eight months after Jo Swinson stood down.

The other major court case was the criminal trial of former first minister Alex Salmond on 14 charges, one of which was dropped during the trial, shortly before lockdown began in March.

Salmond was acquitted of all 13 charges on 23 March after around six hours of deliberations by the jury. Speaking outside the court following the trial, Salmond said he had great faith in the court system in Scotland and thanked the jury and court staff, but he also said there was evidence he would have liked to have seen included in the trial that wasn’t, information he said would “see the light of day” at some point.

But any further political fallout from the Salmond trial was put on hold due to coronavirus. Reports had been circulating since early in the year of a new and potentially fatal virus that had broken out in the city of Wuhan in China.

It then spread, initially to nearby countries and then further afield, with Italy the first European country to be seriously affected.

As time went on it became increasingly clear that it was only a matter of time before it reached Scotland too.

The first confirmed case in Scotland was on 1 March and the first confirmed death followed on 13 March, two days after the World Health Organization had declared the outbreak a pandemic.

Since then there have been 4,213 deaths where COVID is mentioned on the death certificate, nearly half of which were in care homes.

On Monday 16 March the Scottish Government began advising people to stay at home as much as possible and limit social contact, with the First Minister predicting that the virus would “change life as we know it”.

Pubs, restaurants and gyms were told to close on Friday 20 March. Schools in Scotland also closed from 20 March, with the warning at that point that they might not reopen before the summer holidays.

On Monday 23 March Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon announced a national lockdown.

The lockdown was backed by an unexpected and unprecedented level of financial support from the UK Government.

On 17 March Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced £330m of grants and loans for businesses affected by coronavirus, on 20 March this was followed by the furlough scheme and on 26 March he pledged similar support for the self-employed.

To date Scottish businesses have received more than £2.3bn of coronavirus support and almost 30 per cent of employees have been furloughed.

While early on the responses to coronavirus saw remarkable unity across the UK, as lockdown easing began, the four nations began to diverge, as did the approval ratings for Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon.

While little differed initially in action, Sturgeon’s clearer communication at the daily briefings and obvious empathy for those who had lost loved ones made her seem more competent than Johnson.

Backing for the Scottish Government even survived the resignation of former chief medical officer Catherine Calderwood, who broke lockdown rules to visit her holiday house in Fife.

It increased after Johnson’s closest adviser, Dominic Cummings, broke lockdown rules to travel the length of the country while possibly infected with coronavirus, and then neither resigned nor was fired for his behaviour, which attracted widespread fury, including within the Tory party.

When lockdown began to lift, the divergence became stronger as the Prime Minister first changed the ‘stay at home’ catchphrase to the meaningless ‘stay alert’ and then began giving garbled advice about return to work and public transport, often failing to make clear that advice applied to England only.

Scotland, in contrast, along with Wales and Northern Ireland, took a markedly more cautious approach, waiting a week or two, sometimes several weeks, to enact the same level of easing.

But the Scottish Government was certainly not without its failings in response to the crisis. Mistakes, serious mistakes, were made.

An outbreak of coronavirus linked to a Nike coronavirus at a hotel in Edinburgh on 26 and 27 February at which 70 people, eight from Scotland, were infected with the virus was not made public until the BBC revealed it in a documentary in May.

It then emerged that people who had close contact with the group, including others staying the hotel, a tour guide and kilt fitters were not contacted by contact tracers and some had later shown symptoms of coronavirus.

Other failings included the early abandonment of both test and trace and testing of all suspected cases, PPE shortages in both healthcare settings and social care, and a lack of regular testing of NHS and care home staff.

But worst of all was the release of over 900 elderly people from hospital into care homes at the start of the pandemic without testing for the virus, which is thought to have contributed to the high number of care home deaths and will be part of a future public inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of the crisis.

It has now emerged that in some cases people who had tested positive for the virus were released into care homes.

But despite this, opinion polls show the Scottish Government has strong backing for its approach. In an Ipsos MORI poll for BBC Scotland in May, 82 per cent of those polled thought Sturgeon had handled the crisis ‘fairly well’ or ‘very well’, compared to 30 per cent who said the same of Johnson, while a Panelbase poll for The Sunday Times in July had Sturgeon on a +60 approval rating and Johnson on -39.

The same Panelbase poll put support for independence on 54 per cent with 46 per cent against, as did a previous Panelbase poll for Business for Scotland in June.

The same Sunday Times poll put the SNP on 55 per cent in the constituency vote for Holyrood seats and 50 per cent in the list seats, with the Conservatives well behind on 20 per cent for constituency and 18 per cent for list seats and Labour on 15 per cent in both.

This has clearly worried the Conservatives, as seen by visits to the north-east of Scotland by the Prime Minister and Michael Gove at the end of July and the Chancellor earlier this month to highlight the economic support Scotland has received from the UK Government.

July also saw the surprise resignation of Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw after only six months in the job.

Carlaw said: “Over the summer I have had the chance to think hard about my role as leader of the Scottish Conservatives.

“Nothing is more important to me than making the case for Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom.

“I believe the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party is the most important voice in Scotland for setting out that positive argument. I am clear that nothing must get in the way of doing so.

“In the last few weeks, I have reached a simple if painful conclusion – that I am not, in the present circumstances, the person best placed to lead that case over these next vital months in Scottish politics prior to the Holyrood elections.”

Less than a week later Douglas Ross was appointed unopposed as the new leader, with former leader Ruth Davidson to stand in for him at FMQs until he can get a place at Holyrood, a convenient arrangement that allows Davidson to be visible front and centre fighting next year’s election without having to backtrack on her decision to stand down as leader and as an MSP.

But there is no room for complacency for the SNP.

With the three inquiries relating to the Alex Salmond investigation starting up now the court case and the worst of the coronavirus crisis are over, the question of whether the First Minister broke the ministerial code over meetings and phone calls she had with Salmond about the investigation has the potential to do damage, particularly after an additional meeting with Salmond’s chief of staff that had not previously been mentioned emerged in court.

Rifts within the SNP over reform of the Gender Recognition Act and new rules making it difficult for MPs to stand for Holyrood are also not helping.

But that is nothing to the impact of the disastrous handling of this year’s exam results by the SQA and the Scottish Government.

While party feuds may not cut through to the electorate, and even mistakes in handling coronavirus may be forgiven, teenagers having their hopes torn apart by being awarded marks that bear no resemblance to what they had expected is a different story, particularly as the worst affected being those from more deprived backgrounds, a group the SNP had specifically pledged to help.

A belated U-turn a week later to announce that downgraded marks would revert to the teacher-estimated grade seemed to come only in the face of pupil protests and a vote of no-confidence in John Swinney that the Scottish Government would lose unless the Greens agreed to back him.

Surprisingly, this does not seem to have dented public support, with a YouGov poll for The Times last week putting approval for the First Minister at 72 per cent, 57 per cent of voters planning to vote SNP in the Holyrood election and support for independence on 53 per cent, the highest support ever recorded by YouGov.

But, as ever, there are no guarantees. As Scottish politics transitions from the soft opposition of a health crisis into the campaigning of an election year, there is a lot to play for.

Read the most recent article written by Jenni Davidson - The Holyrood baby: More likely to live in poverty now than the day she was born

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