Looks aren’t everything. In politics, as in life, confidence can be only skin deep. This last week of the parliamentary term at Holyrood has emphasized that view as far as the Scottish political landscape is concerned. Each of the major players at Holyrood has reached the half-term recess with much to think about, despite the outward self-confidence which they seek to portray on a daily basis.
For the First Minister, there is much to reflect upon, and not all of it universally positive. With poll ratings locked in the high 40s, her party dominant in Holyrood and Westminster, certainly as far as Scotland is concerned, you would think that the recess would be a time to reflect on the continuing positives. Yet, in Bute House there will be growing concern on a number of fronts.
Stakes are high
As far as the prospects of another independence referendum are concerned, the FM is now being increasingly boxed into repeating the plebiscite held in 2014. Another chance to achieve the promised land of independence, against a backdrop of the UK heading towards an exit from the EU on terms that Bute House and others find completely unacceptable. Despite that, the SNP leadership are rightly cautious about an early repeat of the referendum on independence, not least of all because it will represent the last chance of success.
One thing is clear, there will not be an indyref3, so the stakes are high for a governing party glued together by the prospect of achieving independence from the rest of the UK. And despite a better poll this week, the numbers are a long way away from the target backdrop of another referendum, where Yes is polling consistently in the high 50s.
Education: on the back-foot
Domestically, this week confirmed the theme of many recent weeks, where the Scottish Government has been on the back-foot on education policy. The appointment of the highly imaginative and capable John Swinney to lead the charge to reverse the decline in academic achievement will take time to deliver results, and in the meantime, the SNP will continue to be on the defensive on attainment and lose out against international comparators.
Battles for the budget
Amongst Bute House strategists, there will be plaudits for Derek Mackay who looks to have successfully navigated the bear trap of delivering a budget in a parliament of minorities. Little fuss and the deal seems to have been done. The battle for the Greens will be in winning the argument over those who suggest they have sold out too cheaply, and didn’t deliver an extra penny for the environment. The battle for the SNP will be in rebuffing the growing perception that they are prone to deals that deliver higher taxes, and that could be a damaging message for Scotland plc.
Observing from the right, Ruth Davidson will be reflecting on an effective start to the year, where some of her new MSPs have started to make their presence known. It looks to have been highly significant that the budget debate was replied to by the quietly capable Douglas Ross, identifying him as one of three or four significant figures to emerge after the election last May.
Observing from the left, Kezia Dugdale has had a better start to this year than the end of last. Few ripples were created when she led her numerically diminished troops to oppose the invoking of Article 50, against the express wish of her estranged UK leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The fact that created as little of a storm as it did will be seen as progress by Scottish Labour, who simply have to plough their own furrow at Holyrood to have a chance of reversing what has become an existential decline north of the border.
Brexit game on
And what then of Article 50. After all the legal challenges, and the enforced parliamentary scrutiny, absolutely nothing has changed. The PM will trigger Article 50 in the next six weeks or so and our nation’s course will have been set. 37 hours of debating time in Holyrood will have changed nothing. Every part of the chamber in Holyrood will be disappointed by that outcome, albeit for very different reasons. Over the past term, much heat has been generated on the subject, but very little light. For all of Scotland’s political leaders, that our Parliament has been such an impotent observer on the biggest political issue of the day will give plenty to reflect upon over the school holiday break.
Meantime, whether you see our country heading into the international wilderness or towards the bright light of national self-confidence, one thing is clear. As far as brexit is concerned, to coin a phrase, it’s “game on!”