Constitution set to dominate Scottish political battlefield in 2021

Scotland is gearing up for another political rollercoaster in 2021.

The battle for the country's constitutional future, the fall-out of Holyrood's Alex Salmond inquiry and the prospect of a US presidential visit should ensure no let-up in the volatility of the past decade.

The political ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic will also be critical amid hopes for some kind of return to normality later in the year as vaccine roll-out ramps up.

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The Holyrood election will see the constitutional issue come to the fore

The Scottish Parliament election on May 6 is likely to be the focal point of the political year.

The constitutional future of Scotland is poised to dominate the campaign, with Nicola Sturgeon insisting it will be a defacto vote on the country's right to stage another referendum on leaving the UK.

A Nationalist majority would be the catalyst for a repeat of the 2014 referendum on Scotland's right to leave the UK, according to pro-independence campaigners.

Ms Sturgeon has been demanding another referendum since the Brexit vote, which saw almost two-thirds of Scots vote to remain in the EU, but the weight of votes south of the Border swung the outcome in favour of Leave.

Currently polling makes sweet reading for the SNP, which are sitting on about 55 per cent and on course to win not just a majority of seats, but also an unprecedented majority of the popular vote.

Constitutional issues are reserved to the UK Government under the devolution set-up and Boris Johnson has ruled out any prospect of a transfer of power that would allow such a vote to take place.

The pressure would grow on him if the SNP secures a Holyrood majority.

Ms Sturgeon would also come under pressure under such a stand-off from many on her own side to press ahead with a referendum under the auspices of the Scottish Parliament and allow the courts to decide the matter.

The election will also be the first major test of new Tory leader Douglas Ross.

He will seek to shift the focus onto the SNP's handling of domestic issues, particularly the Covid-19 pandemic amid questions over testing, vaccine roll-out and the situation in care homes.

But polling evidence so far suggests the main opposition party in Scotland are falling behind their 2016 result, a high point for the Tories during devolution.

It is also likely to be a make-or-break moment for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, who was able to see off demands from a group of his MSPs to resign earlier in the year amid plunging poll ratings for the party.

One issue that could prove damaging for the SNP is the fall-out of a Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish Government's handling of complaints against Mr Salmond.

The Scottish Government was forced to pay out more than £500,000 in legal fees to the former first minister after be brought a legal challenge and won his case against against the government he formerly led, which was found to have acted illegally.

The inquiry has been blighted by claims from the committee of MSPs staging it about a lack of co-operation from the government.

Both Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond will give evidence in January. A separate criminal trial saw Mr Salmond cleared last March of a string of sex abuse charges he was facing. The committee is expected to issue a report before election.

Ms Sturgeon will, of course, be fully occupied with her response to the Covid-19 pandemic north of the Border.

It is hoped that more vaccines will be approved, which could ramp up inoculation levels and hasten a return to normality, but the situation remains fluid.

Scotland could also have a visit from the new US president Joe Biden, who is due to be inaugurated in January.

Mr Biden has been invited to the COP26 climate change summit, which will bring global leaders to Glasgow in October in a bid to agree global action to tackle the looming climate crisis.

The summit had been scheduled for last November, but was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Biden is keen to reverse the sceptical approach to the climate change issue adopted by the US under Donald Trump.

The incoming president has already pledged to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, which his predecessor pulled the US out of. Mr Biden may see a trip to the Glasgow summit as the the ideal platform to parade his climate credentials.

Controversial new measures aimed at cracking down on hate crime in Scotland are also likely to provoke further controversy when they come before MSPs to be passed in law.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf has already pledged to amend measures in the Hate Crime Bill following an outcry over proposals to create a new offence of "stirring-up hatred", which critics fear will stifle freedom of expression. But critics say concerns remain he hasn't gone far enough.

A proposed crackdown on domestic abuse in Scotland is also expected to passed at Holyrood next year.

The Domestic Abuse (Protection) Bill would allow a court to place a Domestic Abuse Protection Order on a named individual for up to a maximum of three months. Such an order would stop the person from entering the prescribed domestic setting.

A showdown is also looming between major estates in Scotland and the government at Holyrood over plans which will come before MSPs to introduce a strict licencing regime for grouse moors.

Legislation will be introduced after self-regulation by the industry had failed, along with the government’s previous attempts, to suppress persecution of birds of prey.

A second Holyrood bid to cap excessive rent hikes for private tenants will also come before MSPs next year.

Labour MSP Pauline McNeill's Fair Rents (Scotland) Bill has already been rejected by MSPs, but was resurrected following pressure from the Govan Law Centre and housing activists, amid concerns the Covid pandemic has further hit housing affordability.

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