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THIS week the First Minister laid out her plans for the year. There are undoubtedly some good progressive ideas in the Programme for Government. Embedding the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law is long overdue, as is strengthening hate crime laws. But other bills which have had support from across the chamber, such as enshrining the right to food through a Good Food Nation Bill or easing the bureaucratic burden on trans people in reform of the Gender Recognition Act, have been shelved.
And although there were a few small steps toward green ideas in there, we are not seeing the kind of scale and urgency that we need.
This is a time for action. We are faced with a triple threat. There is a looming economic fallout from Covid-19 which is hitting our most vulnerable people hardest. The UK Government is using Brexit to undermine devolution and open our services up to a deregulated market. And, of course, there’s a climate and environmental emergency which is seeing global temperatures rise more quickly than was even feared, and a dramatic loss of wildlife.
In this context, it is not surprising that support keeps growing for Scotland to go a new way as an independent country. The Scottish Greens believe that independence is for a purpose, and that purpose is to break with the failed old ways that have driven inequality and damaged our planetary life support system.
That’s why some of the elements in the Programme for Government sound like the right approach. Green jobs, a youth guarantee, active travel and upping the ambition of reforesting Scotland are things the Scottish Greens have been pushing for years, so of course it is encouraging to hear the First Minister talk our language.
But once you look at the detail it’s clear there’s a big gap between what’s needed and what’s on offer. The youth guarantee, for example, is something we called for in our 2016 manifesto, but it now appears to include unpaid volunteer roles. Volunteering is great when it’s a genuinely free choice, but it’s no alternative to a proper, secure and well-paid job. There’s a real risk that young people end up being turned into an unpaid workforce.
A £100 million green jobs fund sounds eye-catching but in practice this will be £20m a year, paid out in business development grants. That is a drop in the ocean, far less than the government spends on roadbuilding for example, and it comes with no guarantee of pay and conditions.
Two manufacturing businesses of strategic importance to the zero-carbon transition – bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis and wind turbine manufacturer CS Wind – face redundancies right now. Support must be in place to help these businesses create jobs rather than shed them.
Those living near the aged gas plant at Mossmorran in Fife or the mothballed Hunterston nuclear power station in Ayrshire need urgent commitments about their future in the low carbon economy.
As we outlined in the Scottish Green New Deal, the public sector is key to steering our recovery and transition for the benefit of everyone. As the UK saw in the 1940s, it is state intervention and public ownership that drives dynamic changes to a country’s direction and creates a more equal and fair society. We need that level of ambition now. Our public sector has been shrunk by successive governments over decades, and it is time to rebuild.
Sadly, the Scottish Government’s plans still seem to be tied to the old assumption that a capitalist economy will lead the change. That’s simply not going to work.
The lethal fossil fuel industry is still pleading for government support. The rhetoric here has at least changed toward funding a transition toward green energy, but we are yet to hear anyone in the Scottish Government tell them that they must stop extracting ever more oil and gas. This is an industry that says it can drive reductions in our climate emissions through unproven technologies, while at the same time pursuing maximum extraction of fossil fuels. It has a track record of putting its profits ahead of all our lives, and it’s still doing it.
The Government’s transport agenda also requires some scrutiny. The current year’s budget includes £100m for active travel, the first time it has ever reached that level, and it was hard-won by the Scottish Greens as part of budget negotiations. So when they trumpet their commitment to £500m over five years, they really mean freezing the funding at its current level, not a transformative new investment.
Now, faced with the perfect storm of public health, Brexit and climate emergencies, urgency and action is needed more than ever if we are going to build a future for us all, as an independent European country.