Scotland has become accustomed to significant political events in recent times. Both the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the 2015 general election have already fundamentally reshaped Scotland’s political landscape, albeit in different ways. Now the forthcoming Holyrood election, which is less than a month away, presents a third significant political event in the space of three years. True, the outcome of the election is a near certainty, with an SNP majority government widely predicted in the latest polls. Furthermore, such is the strength of the SNP’s iron grip on Scottish politics that the pertinent question for many commentators is just how big will the SNP majority be.
Yet the dominance of the SNP should not lead us to conclude that the upcoming election is unimportant. In fact, the election presents many intriguing questions.
The immediate and future implications of the recently enacted Scotland Act 2016 loom large over the election. Among the new powers handed to the Scottish Parliament are control over abortion law, air passenger duty, and benefits. Yet it is the further devolution of tax, and in particular income tax, that has dominated much of the debate among the parties. The upcoming election is to be the first in which a government will be responsible for raising and spending money. True, the Scottish Parliament already has the power to vary the basic rate of income tax up or down by three pence in the pound. However, by this time next year, the Scottish Parliament will have the additional powers to determine its own income tax rates and bands. This new control over income tax, as well as the other aforementioned powers, is significant because it represents a substantial increase in the overall power and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, the growing importance of the Scottish Parliament as the principal or sole decision maker for Scottish affairs is likely to become a key debate among the political parties. How political parties respond to this development will be crucial.
A recent debate among the main political parties over income tax suggests that they are fundamentally cautious about the Scottish Parliament’s new powers. This is evidently a reflection of the fact that the Scottish Parliament is entering uncharted waters for a devolved assembly. With the exception of the Scottish Greens, who intend to split the basic rate into two bands and increase the top rate of tax to 60p, no other party has outlined plans to suggest a radical overhaul of Scotland’s tax system. For the Conservatives, the main priority is ensuring that Scotland and England pay the same income tax. The Liberal Democrats and Labour both favour a 1p increase in all rates of income tax, with the latter also keen to raise the top rate of income tax to 50p. Finally, the SNP stress that they do not discount a future 50p tax band, and they also say they won’t follow the UK government’s lead by increasing the threshold of the 40p tax rate. Although these may not be explicitly radical proposals, it is noticeable that the electorate is being presented with a quite clear set of choices. It will be interesting to see to what extent the parties pursue divergent policies in the other familiar policy areas, such as health and education.
One would be naïve, however, to believe that policy is the only important facet to this election. There are more significant themes that are already shaping the campaign narrative. The battle for second place between Labour and the Conservatives is one such theme. For Labour, the reality is that this election is ultimately about survival; the popularity and support of the Party have been on a steep downward trajectory, especially since the 2014 independence election. If the latest polls are to be believed, Labour remains a couple of points ahead of the Conservatives, but the race is too close to say that Labour is certain to finish second. In reality, the relative closeness between the parties can mostly be attributed to a collapse in support for Labour, rather than a rise in support for the Conservatives. This, however, is still uncomfortable news for both parties. It will be an intriguing battle to see which party ultimately finishes second.
Yet it is the action, or indeed inaction, of the SNP that presents the most interesting theme of this election. Virtually assured of another majority government, the SNP will be in a strong position to pursue their programme for government. Yet one particular topic presents the party with a quandary: independence. Although a second independence referendum is an ultimate goal for the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon has endeavoured to ensure that the election campaign does not become overshadowed by this topic. Why? The simple answer is that the SNP know they still need time to reframe the debate surrounding independence. Crucially, a second defeat in an independence referendum would likely settle the constitutional issue for a generation. The SNP will only commit when they believe they have the best possible chance of success. The forthcoming European Union referendum may well change the parameters of the independence debate to the SNP’s advantage, especially if Brexit occurs. Yet at the moment, the key question is: how do the SNP address independence in their Holyrood manifesto? They certainly cannot ignore it completely – the other main political parties are unlikely to let them anyway – so will the election ultimately be the SNP’s launch pad for independence “mark two”?
With less than a month to go until the Holyrood election, the outcome of an SNP majority government may well be a foregone conclusion. Yet looking beyond this near certainty, there is fundamental importance to the election. The devolution of further powers to the Scottish Parliament, especially income tax, means that there is real power at stake. How the political parties react to the Scottish Parliament’s new powers, and more widely, its increased primacy in matters relating to Scottish affairs, is crucial to Scotland’s future. Beyond policy announcements, there are also significant narratives developing. Whether the political parties like it or not, Scottish Labour’s fight for political relevance and the spectre of independence “mark two” loom over the election, and they may well yet overshadow everything else. This is no ordinary Holyrood election; there is plenty at stake for the main political parties.