How will we judge the 2021 Holyrood elections? More of the same or a critical juncture?
Manifestos are a good starting point in answering this question. They come in different forms and do not always give a clear guide as to what a governing party will do in office.
The 1945 Labour manifesto was a relatively short document. It had an eloquence absent from modern manifestos. Objectives were set out boldly and broadly with few specifics and certainly no costings. The focus was on outcomes rather than the processes or institutions that would lead to improved outcomes. There were three short paragraphs under ‘Health of the nation and its children’ and only two sentences on establishing a National Health Service. There was no Institute for Fiscal Studies to check the fiscal viability of the programme. Of course, much of the detail had already been outlined but much still remained unclear. But the manifesto did convey a sense of the ‘New Jerusalem’. Modern manifestos tend to be longer, more detailed but lack the sense of a broader overview.
Manifestos can never foretell all that a government will do. Contrary to popular belief, Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 manifesto made no mention of privatisation. The policy that became the hallmark of her time in government evolved from a means to raise much needed revenue – initially used for this purpose by the previous Labour Government – and given an ideological gloss to become Thatcherism’s flagship. Unexpected opportunities as well as crises come along.
Positively a watershed?
So, will this election be looked back on as a watershed election? The answer depends on whether an independence referendum is held. If so, then it will indeed prove historic regardless of the referendum’s outcome and the rest of the 2021 manifesto will be viewed by its contribution to that outcome. And there is little doubt that the manifesto was written with that in mind.
The SNP never knowingly undersells itself and it put its record in office behind it in this election, aided by the pandemic. Superlatives are sprinkled throughout the manifesto on our future prospects. Change is promised though transformation is often preferred in this ‘transformational policy programme’, ‘economic transformation’, an ‘Energy Transformation Fund’, ‘transformation of chemical industries’. Positive, upbeat optimistic messages have been the hallmark of SNP campaigns since 2007 but it has surpassed itself in 2021. Positive campaigning, the SNP has shown, delivers votes.
Positivity has infected Scottish Government assumptions. The Scottish Government Medium Term Financial Strategy anticipates that funding will increase by £4.9bn between 2021-22 and 2025-26. That is widely viewed as optimistic but may be achievable if there is a post-pandemic economic bounce back. But optimism alone will not generate revenues and the many commitments in the manifesto will eat into and beyond anticipated funding. Tax increases or additional money in Treasury grants will be needed to close that gap. As the SNP promises to freeze income tax rates and bands and increase thresholds by a maximum of inflation this makes economic growth of paramount importance. But, of course, the SNP has a card to play on that.
NCS and its NHS parent
All parties are committed to establishing a National Care Service (NCS). The term deliberately evokes comparisons with the NHS. Few institutions inspire as much admiration as the NHS and envious politicians seek to be associated with an equivalent. But translating the NCS into a well-functioning public service will be challenging with competing models and interests vying to put flesh on the bones of the idea though that too had been true with the establishment of the NHS.
Debates inside the Attlee Cabinet pitted municipalisation versus central control. We can anticipate something similar with the NCS and much else besides. But, perhaps, the NCS will gain the status of the NHS though it is difficult to see a Nye Bevan in the ranks of Holyrood. There are clear differences of view on the role of private, voluntary and public provision of services, regulations, commissioning, procurement and, of course, funding.
In his report recommending changes to adult social care commissioned by the Scottish Government, former head of NHS Scotland Derek Feeley described the current arrangements as like a ‘guddle’ rather than a system and noted that good experiences often came down to luck. Transforming adult social care – creating a paradigm shift in Feeley’s terms – will require massive investment of time, energy and effort. It will also require difficult choices to be made that may upset various interests. If successful, then it would be a great achievement but to date the SNP has shown little appetite for the kind of bold policy initiatives required.
A shopping list of policies
The manifesto does not lack short-term commitments, a list that will no doubt be checked against delivery by the party and its opponents over the next five years. Whether it coheres as a package is another matter and its impact on citizens and communities is uncertain. In many cases, the pots of funds designed to attract votes are symbolic, signifiers rather than geared to outcomes.
It is not difficult to work out how this package came about and it is not unique to incumbent parties facing an election. The SNP manifesto reads as if written by a committee of diverse interest groups. Such groups bring specialist knowledge, fresh ideas and commitment that are welcomed by parties. They also bring biases and preferences. It is the role of a political party to aggregate these interests and provide coherence. This coherent aggregation is absent in the SNP’s manifesto leaving it looking like a shopping list from various interests.
Low tax and high spend neither add up in fiscal terms nor create coherence. British parties – and the SNP is as British as any party in this respect – do not have policy forums worthy of the name and the Scottish think tank world is undernourished and thin on the ground. The vacuum created by the hollowing out of internal SNP policy forums has been filled by groups avid to insert themselves into the process. The lack of transparency and role of lobbyists is far from being an exclusively Westminster phenomenon.
Manifesto commitments apart, there are always unanticipated opportunities and challenges alongside deeply rooted wicked problems to contend with. Whether it is climate change, the educational attainment gap, weak economic performance or any of the other matters that the Scottish Government has struggled to address, there will be no shortage of challenges over the next five years. It should not be difficult to tick off many manifesto commitments but none of this will transform Scotland.
So where is the rationale? Looking for a coherent public policy rationale is to mistake the purpose of the SNP manifesto. The SNP has a north star and these policy commitments serve that mission. The SNP is a vote winning machine and a very impressive one. And its trump card is that it can always argue that any failure to deliver is because Holyrood lacks powers, its London’s fault.
If the 2021 Holyrood election is remembered as a turning point it will be because it was the catalyst for a referendum. The manifesto and style of politics adopted by the SNP do not suggest that Scotland is about to be transformed in any way comparable to critical elections of the past in terms of public policy. Unforeseen events aside, the 2021 Holyrood election will prove historic if it leads to another referendum. For the moment, the referendum is the Upas Tree of Scottish politics, dominating and overshadowing all else.