MSPs are returning to work at Holyrood after the festive break, with their inboxes full to bursting with issues to tackle in the coming year. So what does 2018 have in store for Scottish politics?
The early part of the year at Holyrood will be dominated by scrutiny of Finance Secretary Derek Mackay’s draft budget.
Mr Mackay will face a grilling from the finance committee on his revenue plans on Wednesday, then his spending plans next week, before committees publish their reports by the end of the month.
We can also expect the first chamber vote on the proposals by the end of January – this is the point by which Mr Mackay will need to have found an opposition party willing to at least not actively oppose the minority government.
The most likely partner is the Greens – co-convener Patrick Harvie declared himself “delighted” with the direction of travel on tax – although there will be a price for any deal, most likely in the form of extra money for local authorities.
Mr Mackay will talk to other parties too, with the Lib Dems another possible partner. Don’t expect any backing from the Scottish Conservatives, though, who will instead take every opportunity to attack Mr Mackay’s planned overhaul of income tax.
The final vote is likely to be in mid-February, with the provisions – including those tax changes – coming into force from the start of the new financial year in April.
The Scottish and UK governments remain locked in dispute over Brexit, with Nicola Sturgeon agitating for single market membership and the two governments at loggerheads over how powers coming back from Brussels are divvied up.
It may not be helpful that a key figure in the long series of power talks last year, Damian Green, has since exited Theresa May’s government in disgrace.
The main card Scottish ministers have to play on this front is legislative consent, with two Westminster Brexit bills already in Holyrood limbo with the government refusing to put them forward for consent votes.
This couldn’t actually derail the legislation – ultimately it could just go ahead without applying to Scotland, leaving MSPs with the job of filling the gap in the law.
Scottish Brexit minister Mike Russell has said the government is already considering its own stop-gap bills – but doing so for every bit of UK Brexit legislation would be a stiff ask. Holyrood is already braced for a mounting workload just scrutinising the Westminster bills.
With the EU Withdrawal Bill entering the later phases of consideration at Westminster, this is an issue which could come to a head soon.
Beyond the nitty-gritty, what of the big picture on Brexit? Ms Sturgeon has underlined her commitment to single market and customs union membership as the “least damaging” outcome to the ongoing talks, although all things considered she would rather just stay in the EU. She will set out fresh analysis backing this in the weeks to come.
While at present it isn’t SNP policy or something the party is campaigning for, the first minister has said that a referendum on the final Brexit deal – something chiefly advocated by the Lib Dems at the moment – may become “irresistible”.
The other constitutional elephant in the room is Scottish independence, something Ms Sturgeon seems to have grown slightly less shy of talking about recently.
There was a long period in the aftermath of the SNP’s loss of 21 seats in last June’s general election where the party almost ostentatiously avoided bringing up independence – in public at least – but Ms Sturgeon has of late started volunteering references again, both in Holyrood exchanges and on her Twitter account.
The fate of indyref2 will be tied up closely with that of Brexit.
While she “reset” her timetable following the bruising general election, Ms Sturgeon has not changed her view that Scots are entitled to a vote on independence once the terms of Brexit become clear. She says she will come to a judgement about this later in the year.
Theoretically, the terms of Brexit should be clear later in 2018 – take nothing for granted when it comes to Brexit – but it does remain a tricky issue for the SNP. One million Scots voted to leave the EU, including a decent number of SNP supporters, so the party may hesitate to hitch their core constitutional issue solely to the European one.
What we will see more of in the first instance is fresh work on other aspects of the case for independence, such as the economic argument.
Ms Sturgeon has said the “growth commission” the party set up on the economics of independence is currently undergoing “peer review” and should be ready to publish sometime soon.
We have been promised movement on this front before – there was talk of an interim report this time last year, which evaporated in light of the general election – but with the pro-independence base fired up by events in Catalonia, Ms Sturgeon will want to have something to show by the time of the SNP’s spring conference.
Aside from the constitutional rammies and big-ticket items like the budget, MSPs have plenty of legislative work to be getting on with.
The Social Security (Scotland) Bill, which paves the way for the devolution of a whole range of welfare powers to Holyrood, is heading for committee stage ahead of a final vote in the chamber – MSPs backed it unanimously at stage one in December.
Also coasting towards the statute book with at least some cross-party support are bills cracking down on domestic abuse and improving gender representation on public boards. Legislation on Scotland’s planning system, land management practices and island communities are all also under consideration.
What about new bills?
- In her programme for government speech, Ms Sturgeon promised an education bill to deliver “the biggest and most radical change to how our schools are run that we have seen in the lifetime of devolution”.
- There will also be a climate change bill to set “even more ambitious targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions“, legislation to establish a “soft” opt-out organ donation system.
- And a transport bill to set up smart ticketing for the public transport network and tackle “obstructive and inconsiderate” parking.
There is also some opposition-led legislation in the pipeline.
- The government has pledged to ensure Green MSP John Finnie’s bill to ban smacking passes.
- But ministers will fight hard against James Kelly’s bid to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. The latter has backing from all opposition parties, however, which may ultimately force a compromise – or a showdown.
One piece of legislation that has rather stalled is the bill seeking to bring the government’s named person scheme into operation. MSPs on the education committee have refused to let it proceed until they have a draft code of practice to scrutinise, and with Education Secretary John Swinney indicating that this might take until September, this is likely to be an issue that drags on for much of the year.
Back to the ballot box?
As it stands, there are no elections scheduled in Scotland in the coming year – something we haven’t been able to say since 2013.
Even then, that was a year fairly dominated by build-up to the 2014 independence referendum. So the last time Scots truly went a year without a campaign of some kind on the go was actually 2008.
However, if we’ve learned anything from that decade of political rammies (and the last two years in particular), it’s to expect the unexpected.
Beyond possible referendum reruns in indyref2 and Brexityref2 (er, name pending), could the nation’s schools and village halls really go a whole year without being turned into polling places?
With Theresa May’s government still propped up only by the DUP and her party beset by divisions over Brexit, the possibility of collapse is never that far away. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour are certainly champing at the bit for any excuse to force another general election.
Ms Sturgeon’s government is also a minority, but is in a more comfortable position than Mrs May’s – an unlikely crisis over the budget aside, a snap Scottish election is not a realistic prospect.
That said, we live in an age where President Donald Trump is using Twitter to defend his mental stability, where negotiations over Brexit hang in the balance while government ministers tumble from office because of pornography on their office computers.
At this point, nothing would be a surprise.