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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

The last Scottish Parliament set good ambitions - this one must deliver them

My last face-to-face work meeting before Covid-19 was back in February 2020, a few weeks before the pandemic hit Scotland. Looking back now, the idea of getting the train, going to Glasgow, meeting a dozen people face-to-face with no distancing, masks or hand sanitiser seems a very strange idea. But it was also memorable for other reasons.

It was a meeting about how to reshape Scotland’s economy to be fairer, and to build social, economic and climate justice. I was speaking about how increasing evidence tells us that building a fairer economy can deliver a stronger economy, that fairness and prosperity go hand in hand. But the much more important contributions came from the local campaigners that attended from across Glasgow and beyond, and across Scotland’s political and constitutional divide.

One campaigner was politely speaking, vaguely in support of the big ambitions agreed by the Scottish Parliament in recent years on tackling climate change, ending child poverty, delivering fair work and a wellbeing economy, when mid-sentence he banged the table and shouted, almost surprising himself: “Would they just gonnae f***ing do what they said they would?!”

This is what sticks in my mind. It captured the mood in the room, but also – I think – the view for many across Scotland. There is lots of support for the Scottish Parliament’s ambitions, but at the same time, patience is wearing thin with what feels like a lack of progress.

Without the horror of the last 15 months or so, this may have been the defining question of the election campaign just gone: how do we turn world-leading targets and promises into change that people can see and feel in their lives every day? As we hope to begin to leave the Covid crisis behind us, it’s likely to be a question that comes to dominate this next parliament. And one made all the more important by the experience of the last year.

The parties’ election pledges are promising. There’s lots in there that would deliver a stronger and fairer Scotland; indeed lots of things that IPPR Scotland – alongside many others – has called for. A doubling of the anti-poverty Scottish Child Payment to £20 per week. A new Minimum Income Guarantee to set an income floor beneath which no one in Scotland would fall. Council Tax abolition. New social homes and increased childcare. New legislation and new pledges of public funding. There’s undoubtedly lots of good intentions.

But the obvious question is: will the new parliament deliver it? Certainly, there are some question marks over how this can be afforded without either tax rises in Scotland or increases in the Scottish Parliament’s block grant.

But there’s probably a bigger question. Will these individual policies add up to meet the big ambitions Scotland has set itself? The trouble is that a piece of legislation here, or a few million pounds in the budget there, may not add up to the transformational change that many want to see.

So, what do we need to do?

Some of this might be about more money. But lots more of this is about changing behaviour. Changing behaviour across government to get better at improving peoples’ lives. Changing behaviour across businesses to encourage and support those doing the right thing and discourage others from doing the wrong thing. And changing behaviour among people, families and communities across Scotland to reduce climate emissions, deliver fair work and greater wellbeing. This will need much stronger action than we’ve seen.

To give some examples, isn’t it time we used Scotland’s tax system to reward and support companies that pay the living wage and offer living hours, paid for by those that don’t? Shouldn’t we begin to make the billions of pounds of public funding that goes to the private sector more conditional on delivering fair work? Shouldn’t we use local powers to tax carbon in a fair way to encourage emissions reductions? Given wealth increases through the pandemic, isn’t it time that we tax wealth in Scotland through new local taxes?

All of these would have their strong opponents and vocal critics. But to deliver transformational change you have to rock the boat at least some of the time. And when better to do that than in the first year of a five-year term?

The big lesson for me from working with campaigners across Scotland is that while it’s true to say the constitutional debate can dominate to the exclusion of other equally important issues, it’s false to say it has to. How the devolved powers are used lies right at the heart of the constitutional debate. They’re inseparable. And given the scale of the challenges we face following Brexit and Covid, it’s right to consider what powers the Scottish Parliament needs to respond to them.

The truth is, as summed up in that meeting over 15 months ago, delivery is something that should unite both sides of Scotland’s constitutional debate. For those that want to see devolution work, and for those that want to see independence, showing that Scotland can not only set big ambitions, but that we can achieve them will be absolutely crucial.

Good chat is fine but delivering change is better. The last parliament set some good ambitions for Scotland – this next parliament must be about meeting them.

Russell Gunson is Director of IPPR Scotland. He tweets @russellgunson.

This opinion piece was originally published in 1919 magazine.