Nicola Sturgeon outlined her Programme for Government this week. We counted 12 bills that will be introduced between now and June 2017 so it’s going to be a bust ten months for the Scottish Parliament. Four of the bills will make use of the new powers of the Scottish Parliament, four will be on justice issues, then there’s a Child Poverty Bill, a Housing Bill, an Islands Bill and, obviously, the Budget Bill.
But it’s the language we wanted to take a look at. The SNP have been a largely centralising government. Eight regional police forces have become one, Police Scotland. Eight regional fire services became the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. The imposition of a Council Tax freeze removed a key political and social tool from councils and while research shows they’ve been overfunded because of the policy, the research also showed local government spending has lessened under the SNP.
Therefore it was encouraging to hear Sturgeon talk about empowering local communities. As a general rule we think that decisions are best taken at the closest, most practical level to the people they affect. Which is why it was good to see the inclusion of the Islands Bill in the Programme for Government.
Island proofing, empowering island communities, and a National Islands Plan are all central to the Bill. In the analysis of the consultation responses earlier this year a majority of 73% said that the “current powers of island councils were not sufficient to deliver positive outcomes for island communities”. An Islands Bill, with a significant devolution of powers, is then a logical conclusion to the calls at a local level. It’s also seemed to be an indication that the SNP grasped that the purpose of devolving powers from Westminster was not so that they could be stock-piled in Edinburgh.
But, in contrast to this, Sturgeon also announced a Railway Policing Bill which will see the British Transport Police in Scotland integrated into Police Scotland. Sturgeon acknowledge that they British Transport Police in Scotland have unique expertise but doesn’t see fit to let them carry on as an autonomous entity.
And herein lies the issue, we think. In the broadest sense, the SNP are a single issue party. Independence for Scotland is their reason for being. And when you’re a single issue party who enters government, the temptation to exert control over the machinery of national and local government in pursuit of your goal must be huge.
But where does it stop? Because for us, when a government centralises is loses so much from the people that it governs.