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What’s the emergency now, First Minister?

3rd September 2019

We live in unprecedented political times.

That’s usually the standard opening line for a political blog written in the last few years.  I’ll leave you to decide just how unprecedented they are.

In years past, the announcement of the Scottish Programme for Government would usually dominate political headlines, but today it barely registers on the political radar.

Brexit, and the fallout from Boris Johnson’s coronation as Prime Minister, continue to sweep away all comers and will probably do so for some time.  With news channels fixed on the House of Commons, the First Minister would have truly had to say something remarkable to seize the headlines.  She did not, but that’s not to say that this year’s Programme for Government was a damp squib.

While getting a few jabs into the new Prime Minister, a red-faced Jackson Carlaw, and her other political opponents, the First Minister attempted to deliver a new narrative and to set a new and greener direction for her Government. This was a Programme for Government which sought to shift the focus from a political emergency to a climate one.

Understandably, focus on climate politics has taken a back seat to large scale constitutional debate in Scotland. However the First Minister, the leader of a Government which had previously shown a strong commitment to tackle climate change, sought to shine a new spotlight on the issue.

This will include using the 2020-21 Budget and upcoming Capital Spending Review as vehicles to kick-start investment and build the momentum required significantly impact emissions, and more importantly to reach the target of net-zero by 2045. Another important tool in the armoury will be the Scottish National Investment Bank, which from 2020 will begin investing long-term patient capital into projects which move Scotland closer to meeting that target.

Transport infrastructure and policy will play an important part in these new carbon reduction measures and the First Minister announced a plan to decarbonise Scotland’s railways by 2035. A laudable goal, however I suspect Scotland’s commuters would probably settle for a punctual and reliable rail service rather than a decarbonised one at this stage.

While Nicola Sturgeon outlined her government’s new green agenda, there was a sense her statement was delivered with one eye on Westminster. Brexit aside, with each new climate change measure delivered one, two, or five years ahead of Westminster – the First Minister continues to measure success by using Westminster as a yardstick.  However with a paralysed House of Commons, it’s uncertain how long the First Minister will get away with deploying such a tactic.

Moving on from climate change, residents in Edinburgh will have paid special attention to the announcement that powers would be delivered to allow local authorities to introduce a tourist tax. News which will likely be greeted with cheers in Edinburgh’s City Chambers alongside the announcement of a new national tourism strategy.

On health, there was tacit recognition of workforce challenges with the commitment to launch a national recruitment campaign to recruit nurses, midwives, allied health professionals, and health scientists as well as the perennial need to increase numbers of those working in social work and social care.

Mental health also featured prominently with new crisis support for children, young people and their families on the horizon.

All in all, in the context of a political emergency, the First Minister sought to paint the picture of a Scotland taking a world-leading approach to tackling climate change. Only time will tell whether the Government can live up to the lofty rhetoric.