The manifesto guide to political horse trading

Considering the binary division that has dominated and defined Scottish politics since 2014, it is no surprise to see this year's election largely fought – and almost wholly reported - through a constitutional lens. However, this has been to overlook a huge swathe of devolved policy which will fall under the control of whoever occupies Bute House for the next five years.

The opposing movements to achieve or to block a second independence referendum remain symbiotic. At once, the prospect of indyref2 (irrespective of its actual probability or imminence) energises and appals in equal measure. One movement spurs on the other and in so doing, scrutiny of other policy areas - many of which have a real and immediate impact on business - is diminished.

For organisations seeking clarity on what the election result may mean for them in terms of non-constitutional opportunity and risk, party manifestos provide the best starting point to find a signal through the noise.

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Though woefully under-read, and of course never an exhaustive prospectus of what a party will actually do if returned to power, these publications offer at the very least an indicator of the direction of travel.

With polls indicating either a narrow overall SNP majority or a comfortable working majority with the support of the Scottish Greens, it appears all-but-assured that this election will again result in the numbers at Holyrood to back a second referendum. In this regard, the margin of SNP victory becomes one of perceived momentum, as opposed to a new key to unlock the constitutional door.

In devolved policy terms though, the differing implications of an overall majority versus a minority requiring third party support, are enormous. Put simply, if the SNP can secure 65 or more seats then, in theory at least, they achieve licence to pursue with parliamentary support the implementation of their entire manifesto. However, should they fail to reach this threshold, the support of others (the Greens being the only viable candidates) will come at a price.

Only one of devolution's five elections to date has returned an overall majority - a reflection of a very deliberately designed voting system. On every other occasion, the largest party has horse-traded manifesto policies with smaller partners to secure support for appointing a First Minister, passing annual budgets and key legislation.

In the absence of a crystal ball, businesses would therefore do well to supplement their study of Nicola Sturgeon's policy platform with a close look at the manifesto of the Scottish Greens. Should the electorate return the SNP as the largest party but without the majority needed to enjoy a fourth term in office unaided, then elements from this will form the starting point of negotiations over what price the Greens may attach to their support.

Here, there is no shortage of radical and challenging policy to be found - from a ban on issuing new licenses for oil and gas exploration and development, to the imposition of a large company windfall tax on profits "extracted" from the pandemic.

Andrew Henderson, Director of Public Policy at Pinsent Masons

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