Scotland’s progressive agenda: a warning?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


Having been in government since 2007, the Scottish National Party (SNP) appeared until recently to be firmly in control of politics in Scotland. Even being on the wrong side of the 2014 independence referendum result did not diminish the sense that the SNP was on the right side of history. But, almost out of the blue, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon resigned, and her party’s aura of invincibility began to evaporate.

New leader Humza Yousaf has declared he’ll build on a ‘progressive agenda’ that ‘won election after election and brought so many to our cause’. Supporters point to free prescriptions, free bus travel for under 22s and free university tuition for Scottish students. Gender equality in education, Child Payments and the much cited ‘baby box’, along with progress in renewable energy and a Nature Restoration Fund, are celebrated – despite bemoaning powers reserved to Westminster that allegedly limited progress.

But amidst collapsing standards of schooling, stasis in infrastructure provision, lengthening hospital waiting lists, record-breaking drug-related deaths and even the reappearance of long-gone diseases such as rickets, many are demanding explanations for the state of Scotland today, especially in public-service provision. Whether higher taxes, a chaotically mishandled bottle-recycling scheme or replacement ferries, both business and public seem increasingly alienated.

Some say the SNP has been dragged down by the Scottish Greens. But perhaps the biggest questions revolve around democracy and freedom in a country that supposedly puts people in the driving seat. Critics say schools are more preoccupied with indoctrinating pupils on race and gender than helping them learn, while an administration in thrall to identity politics pushed through gender recognition reform – with support from Scottish Labour – despite popular opposition. Meanwhile ‘progressive Scotland’ is renowned for leading the way in sin taxes on food and drink and attacks on free speech that mean cultural venues, comedy clubs and even one’s own home are now judged fair game for the long arm of the law.

In or out of the UK, Scotland faces profound socio-economic problems. What are the prospects of a political and cultural shake-up capable of providing solutions? To what extent are problems related to too much – or not enough – devolution and sovereignty, or are problems with progressive politics more fundamental? And with the Labour Party singing from the same progressive hymn book and seemingly destined for power in Westminster, are there Scottish portents for the future of the UK?

Marion Calder
co-director, For Women Scotland

David Jamieson
Scottish socialist, journalist and editor

Leo Kearse
comedian; writer, Breaking The News, Mock The Week and The Mash Report; co-creator, Hate ‘n’ Live

Dr Stuart Waiton
senior lecturer, sociology and criminology, Abertay University; author, Scared of the Kids: curfews, crime and the regulation of young people; chair, Scottish Union for Education,

Dr Simon Knight
senior youth-work practitioner