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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

In Scotland, the future is all yellow

Though for the SNP, sharp and difficult choices lie in store, particularly on taxes and welfare reform, where trade-offs will have to be made.

To Aberdeen, city of granite and oil, for the SNP conference, the last of the season. Since the independence referendum, the fortunes of the SNP have risen as sharply as the oil price has fallen. Membership has swollen to an astonishing 114,000, the Westminster constituency map has been washed yellow, and polls point to another thumping majority in next year’s Holyrood elections. In Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP has the most impressive and popular party leader of her generation, installed after the most successful leadership transition in modern British political history. At this juncture, the SNP’s dominance is total.

Curious, then, that the SNP should be proceeding with caution. Sturgeon used her opening speech to settle the Indyref 2 question, so that she could move on to the Holyrood 3 agenda, as SNP insiders put it. She handed the timing over to the pollsters: when polls show that a majority would vote for independence, another referendum will be held. Scots can safely vote for the SNP in May next year without triggering a referendum – only Brexit would do that.

Yet we’ve heard little of the radicalism that might animate a Holyrood 3 agenda. Sturgeon made a big commitment to 50,000 new affordable homes in the next parliament, and she has used her early months as first minister to push on schools reform. But the SNP appears still to be catching up with itself on much policy development, contesting the next tranche of devolution with the Scottish Office but still uncertain as to what to offer Scottish voters next year.

It has proved itself competent, and it has governed with a seriousness of purpose, but it is in danger of wasting its opportunity to pursue bold reforms – whether on council tax, social security and welfare-to-work, or public service reform. This may store up political problems for the future: why vote for independence if the Scottish government has not already used its devolved powers to chart a radically different course from that of rUK?

To be sure, sharp and difficult choices lie in store, particularly on taxes and welfare reform. The SNP leadership is playing down expectations that it can use its new powers to reverse the chancellor’s tax credit and public spending cuts. The bill would be large, and insofar as tax credits are concerned, the Scottish government will not possess all the powers it needs simultaneously to undo the damage to work incentives and family living standards that the impending cuts will cause (as this excellent blog by Gavin Kelly sets out). But it will soon have to grapple with how to reform the suite of benefits it has been given, and it will be harder to hold its coalition of support together when resource trade-offs have to be made. Its politics are given passion and energy by younger voters, but the referendum was lost to older voters, precisely those who currently receive the benefits – winter fuel allowance, attendance allowance, carer’s allowance and so on – that have been transferred from Westminster.

Few would bet against the SNP, however. Crass class reductionists on the Corbynite left assume that the cross-class SNP alliance cannot hold, and that when Labour asserts its anti-austerity, anti-Trident credentials then working-class voters will return to the fold. But there is no sign of that happening, and the old bastions of Labour Scotland have long since crumbled anyway. For Scottish Labour, the road back to contention is likely to be long, and it will take all of Kezia Dugdale’s youth, energy and imagination to clear a path forward. For now, the future’s still yellow.