SO NEXT week will see the start of the Holyrood election campaign battle. It feels like a long time since there was not an election in the offing and parties were in campaigning mode.
Elections – to Westminster, Holyrood, and the European Parliament – and the independence referendum have meant that for a long time now, the political environment has been viewed through the prism of the constitution. Promises of jam tomorrow have taken precedence over the difficult, and often risky, business of developing policies for the here and now.
The SNP, it seems clear, will win May’s Holyrood election regardless of how the party approaches it. We’d wager that nationalist MSPs would dominate the next session of the Scottish Parliament even if candidates declined to knock on a single door or offer the slenderest pledge.
The SNP and their opponents will all want to fight for their best possible results in May – but does Scotland really need another prolonged period campaigning? We don’t think so.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon leads a party with unshakeable power. She, more than any of her predecessors in office, has the opportunity to be truly bold.
The SNP has new powers – with more to come – and a majority that would see a radical policy agenda supported by the Scottish Parliament. In these circumstances, Sturgeon should worry less about May’s election and more about both the challenges facing Scotland and the opportunities presented to her by electoral dominance.
Too many SNP politicians campaign as if the party was still in opposition, complaining about Westminster and explaining that they are hamstrung by the constitutional settlement. This is a tired old story.
There are serious problems in our NHS and our education system. Waiting times for surgery remain too long, while an unacceptably high number of young people leave school without achieving basic standards in literacy and numeracy. Sturgeon can act in these areas now. The only limitations are her own imagination and courage.
The prospect of another four months of the nationalists explaining what they would do were Scotland independent rather than what they will do with the powers available to them is a dispiriting one, indeed. But responsibility for producing serious policies that can work under the new devolution deal does not lie solely with the SNP. Opposition parties, too, have a duty (particularly if they wish to survive in any meaningful sense) to propose credible programmes for government.
Let’s hear from Labour, the Conservatives, and yes, even the struggling Liberal Democrats what they would do with power. Let’s hear ideas that – regardless of their source – could make Scotland more successful.
Labour and the Tories are locked in a battle to become the second largest party after May. Talk of a Conservative resurgence may be premature but it is far from impossible that Ruth Davidson could nudge Labour’s Kezia Dugdale aside as leader of the main opposition party.
Naturally, both Davidson and Dugdale will want to pick holes in the SNP’s record – but in the current political climate, that will not be enough to win over voters. The wise opposition politician will offer policies which could be adopted right now.
The challenge to the SNP should not be over what it has not done but over what it could do. Opposition politicians are entitled to snipe and complain but if that’s all they do, they should not be surprised if voters decided not to give them a chance.
Political debate in Scotland has been rancorous for too long. We’d like to see more light and feel less heat in the months ahead.