Independence, tax freezes and free dentist appointments: what SNP manifesto means for Scots

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Dan Sanderson
·6 min read
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Nicola Sturgeon launches the SNP's Election Manifesto in Glasgow - AFP
Nicola Sturgeon launches the SNP's Election Manifesto in Glasgow - AFP

Nicola Sturgeon unveiled her party's manifesto for the Holyrood election on Thursday.

The First Minister hailed it as a "transformational" document and tried to sell herself as the experienced and hard-working leader needed to lead Scotland's recovery from coronavirus.

However, opposition parties pointed to a litany of promises made by the SNP over the years, some from as long ago as 2007, that had not been delivered.

Here is what the SNP manifesto – which if opinion polls are to be believed will be the one implemented after May 6 – says about the key issues.

Independence

The SNP manifesto states that an independence referendum should be held once the “immediate Covid crisis” has passed. However, how the "crisis" is defined – and how to judge when it is over – is not explicitly spelled out.

The party’s intention is for a referendum to be held within the first half of the next parliament, meaning by late 2023. Although the process of negotiating the terms of independence would likely take years, the SNP claims that its preferred timeframe would “equip our parliament with the full powers it needs to drive out long-term recovery from Covid and build a better, fairer nation”.

It is stated that a majority of pro-independence MSPs – meaning votes of Scottish Greens or Alex Salmond’s Alba Party would count – would be enough to secure a mandate for another vote. This means Nicola Sturgeon will push ahead with her separation plans even if the SNP does not gain an outright majority on its own.

The manifesto states any referendum must be “legitimate and constitutional”, and an SNP Scottish Government would open talks with the UK Government over the transfer of powers to allow it to take place.

However, it also raises the prospect of the SNP passing its own referendum bill at Holyrood, which the UK Government could challenge in the courts, should Boris Johnson stick to his guns and continue to refuse to allow any new referendum to be held.

The SNP says that should the constitutional battle over a new referendum end up in the courts, it would fight the case “vigorously”. However, it does not say what it would do if – as many constitutional experts predict – the Scottish Government lost the case.

Tax

Despite outlining a series of expensive policies, the SNP said it plans to maintain income tax rates for the duration of the parliament, with any rises to bands not exceeding inflation.

However, it also states that “it is important for any government to have flexibility to respond to a change in circumstances”, potentially leaving the door ajar for the pledge to be ditched. The SNP broke its promise in its 2016 manifesto not to raise levies on basic rate taxpayers.

It also promises to freeze rates and bands for Land and Building Transactions Tax – the Scottish equivalent to Stamp Duty – for the duration of the parliament. However, business rates will increase for larger firms.

There is a vague commitment to reforming council tax “to make it fairer”.

Education

The SNP has promised a system of ‘wraparound childcare’, meaning children would be looked after before and after school, and to expand free early years education to some one and two-year-olds.

Every school pupil would be entitled to a free digital device and there would be an expansion of free school meals. A school clothing grant for low income families would be increased to at least £120 per primary pupil and £150 for secondary pupils.

The findings of an OECD review of the curriculum – the preliminary findings of which the SNP has refused to publish – will be “taken forward”, the manifesto states.

An investment of £1 billion on closing the attainment gap between rich and poor is promised, while 3,500 extra teachers and classroom assistants would be hired. There is a brief commitment to devolving more power to teachers but little to suggest there are plans for a major reorganisation of the schools system.

A Scottish version of the Erasmus student exchange programme, no longer available due to Brexit, will be developed.

Health

The SNP has said it will increase health spending by at least 20 per cent over five years and set up a new National Care Service. This will not mean all care homes are nationalised but the new organisation will “oversee the delivery of care, improve standards, ensure enhanced pay and conditions for workers and provide better support for unpaid carers", the manifesto said.

In a major pledge, the SNP has said it will abolish all NHS charges in dentists over the course of the next parliament. As the poorest already receive free treatment, the policy will mainly help the better off.

A quarter of a billion pounds is promised over five years to tackle Scotland’s drugs death crisis.

Rural Affairs

A new land reform law will be introduced, which would see community groups given first refusal to purchase large areas of land that are being sold.

Superfast broadband will be extended in the north of Scotland, the manifesto pledges, although work there will not be completed for another five years. It is hoped that full 5G services will be available to eight Scottish islands.

In an attempt to stem depopulation, 100 bonds of up to £50,000 each will be offered to young people or families to allow them to stay in or move to islands. Councils will be handed new powers to discourage second homes.

There will be a new push for low carbon farming, and a drive to encourage more cultivation of planet-based proteins rather than animals.

Legislation will be passed to “ensure the equal rights of succession for women in agriculture”. Law changes are also promised to close “loopholes” in fox hunting rules and the SNP “remains committed” to a licensing regime for grouse shooting.

Transport/Environment

Over five years, the SNP plans to spend £1.6billion decarbonising heating for homes and other buildings. New tougher rules would be drawn up for builders to meet. Plans for a publicly-owned energy company will be revived.

By 2026, at least 10 per cent of transport infrastructure budgets will be spent on walking and cycling, the manifesto states. Free bikes will be offered to children from low income families.

Free bus travel will be extended to under 22s, while a target will be introduced to reduce the use of cars by 20 per cent by the end of the decade.

The manifesto describes oil and gas as an “important part” of the energy mix but adds “we must transition to new, cleaner fuels”.

Scotrail will be taken into public ownership from next year and Scotland’s railways will be decarbonised by 2035, under the SNP plan.