As winter looms, SNP feeling the heat

Oddly, yesterday’s UK High Court ruling essentially forcing Prime Minister Theresa May to seek the consent of MPs before triggering Article 50 seems to have restored a sense of normality to Scottish politics.  So used have we become to hearing about the various Brexit machinations between Edinburgh and London, the Court’s ruling and requisite political turmoil brought a welcome sense of the familiar after a week in which honest-to-goodness policy debates threatened to be the dominant theme.

Indeed, an unfamiliar picture began to emerge this week: that of the SNP under a level of pressure not seen in recent memory.  Starkest among these examples was a vote on Wednesday to approve a non-binding motion calling for the repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act.  The legislation, ushered through Holyrood on the back of an SNP majority in 2011, was designed to curb sectarian and violent behaviour at football matches.  It has proven controversial since it was passed, with Scottish Labour taking to the issue with particular zeal.

“This is nothing to do with trying to improve the legislation and has everything to do with trying to defeat the government” boomed SNP MSP James Dornan during the debate (a statement that would have no doubt elicited wry smiles from Conservatives thinking about SNP moves to block changes to fox hunting and Sunday trading legislation last year in the Commons).  Despite these protestations, its amendment is now likely.

Council Tax reform has been another thorn in the side of the SNP, who have been criticised for putting forward reform proposals decidedly less radical than the straight abolition of the tax previously championed by the party.  Moves to increase the rates for the top four bands were passed on Thursday, but, in the face of stern opposition, the government was forced to support a Green amendment acknowledging criticisms of the reform, effectively taking their own policy to task.

Elsewhere, overhang from Audit Scotland’s highly critical report of the state of the NHS in Scotland continued into this week.  Health Secretary Shona Robison made a statement to the chamber on Wednesday in which she outlined the government’s commitment to take on-board all of the report’s recommendations.  However, her plans for a “transformational change delivery plan” received no favour from opposition parties eager to pin the difficulties in the health service on SNP mismanagement.

Also this week, Education Secretary John Swinney came in for scrutiny from Education Committee members over exhaustive new Curriculum for Excellence guidance, while his vision for regional education boards continues to be met with scepticism.  Also lurking in the background are looming financial difficulties at colleges, with more than three quarters recently saying that they will end this financial year with a deficit.

One area where the SNP have traction and a modicum of goodwill from the opposition is in social security.  A government consultation on the devolution of welfare powers closed last weekend and was followed by questioning of UK Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green MP by members of the Social Security Committee.

In the end though, the week has come down once again to Brexit.  Recent events at Holyrood show, however, that a future where policy is front and centre is indeed still possible.

This article originally appeared on PubAffairs.