Scottish Election 2021: New government already has an in-tray bulging with pressing issues – Scotsman comment

In less than a week’s time, Scotland will have a new government.

Of course, given the SNP’s commanding lead in the polls, it is likely to be rather similar to the current government, although there could be some significant changes in the Cabinet, particularly if a formal coalition with the Scottish Greens is formed.

An SNP majority – something the Scottish Parliament was designed to avoid for any party in the hope of fostering a more collaborative approach to politics – or a pro-independence majority of MSPs will clearly lead to fresh conflict with Westminster over a second independence referendum.

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However, the recent decline in support for leaving the UK in opinion polls may well see that slide down the priority list with instead something of a phony war breaking out over whether Scotland has the "right to hold a referendum” or not – unless Boris Johnson decides to follow some Conservative strategists’ advice and “call the nationalists’ bluff”.

All this could occupy a considerable amount of ministerial time, but it’s clear there will also be plenty of other pressing matters to attend to in the new government’s in-tray.

Nicola Sturgeon’s admission that her government took its “eye off the ball” over the high number of drug deaths in Scotland was a frank but shocking one and her choice of words sparked much comment from opposition politicians who feel independence remains an abiding distraction from the more everyday politics that can have a very real impact on people’s lives.

A new poll by Savanta ComRes has identified four policy areas – education, crime, housing and managing Brexit – that more people think are being handled “badly” than “well”.

Some 39 per cent thought education was being handled badly, compared to 34 per cent who thought it was being handled well, producing a net rating of minus five. Crime came in at minus four, Brexit minus three and housing minus one.

If reappointed as Education Secretary, John Swinney will need to make real improvements to what polls suggest is the SNP's weakest area (Picture: Getty Images)

These are small differences but they stand out because the SNP government remains relatively popular. On issues ranging from advancing the cause of independence (+17), health (+12), the environment (+9) and transport (+6), the SNP scored well, especially given they have been in power for 14 years.

But education and housing, in particular, have become touchstone subjects for many people.

The future well-being of their children is an obvious concern for parents, so the slide down international league tables is only going to become a more serious political issue for the SNP if it continues.

And the inability of many people to afford their own home is long-term problem that has already built considerable resentment, particularly among a younger generation who are not enjoying the same kind of living standards as their parents.

The trouble for an SNP-led government is that switching focus from independence to domestic issues – even if it is the politically astute thing to do – will attract flak from their own supporters and could boost support for the Scottish Greens or Alex Salmond’s Alba Party.

If the pro-Union opposition can successfully argue that, amid the sound and fury echoing back and forth between Westminster and Holyrood, the SNP are again taking their eyes of the ball, this time over education and housing, the next few years may become distinctly uncomfortable for the government.

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