The Scottish Parliament will come back from its summer recess next week for a short 5-week session taking it up to half-term and the Party Conference season but what issues will we see dominate the political discourse after a typically frenetic summer.
Although looming over everything in the UK at the moment, the issue of Brexit is unlikely to be at the forefront of a lot of MSPs mind when they come back to work. Instead a few issues already widely trailed are likely to dominate and all of them in the policy areas of most concern to the public.
Prime amongst those will be transport with a battle for the political narrative already under way. On railways, the Scottish Government is attempting to keep the focus on the future of the railways, with the announcement that public sector companies will be able to bid for the ScotRail franchise in 2025. At the same time September is likely to see the role out of refurbished High Speed Trains (HSTs) on key city routes across the country. Although not delivered by the Scottish Government expect Transport Minister, Michael Matheson to be prominent in the pictures and interviews. One topic Mr. Matheson and his colleagues will not wish to discuss in those interviews will be the seeming U-turn regarding the merger of British Transport Police (BTP) with Police Scotland. These proposals has been controversial in the past couple of years and opponents will point to the policy change as evidence of government more concerned with centralisation and symbolism that delivery meaningful change.
Second, education reforms are likely to rear their head with the parents of children just beginning their school lives realising that Primary 1 children will face tests (sorry “assessments” as the Scottish Government prefer) during their first year. Education Minister, John Swinney, has already been taking to the airwaves, press and social media to emphasise the informal nature of the exercise. But teachers representatives have expressed their concerns concerning the effective of these measures and there appears to be confusion amongst parents as to their rights, or not, to remove their children.
With other policy issues such as business rate reform, consumer protection, NHS waiting times, future supply of energy, health & social care financing likely to have their place in the sun, albeit for less time, it is hard to imagine a more challenging set of policy debates, particularly for the Scottish Government, in the run-up to the conference season.
For the SNP, the only party in Scotland to hold its main conference in the autumn, there will be other more deeply political issues to content with. For the First Minister, this will primarily be focussed around the vexed issue of a second independence referendum. Noises are growing within the rank and file for Nicola Sturgeon to at least develop a timetable or possible scenarios for a second vote, particularly as the uncertainty and potential risks of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit are being spelled out by the UK Government. In addition, she must face the deeply personal issue of allegations of sexual abuse against her friend and mentor, former First Minister Alex Salmond. Thus far, the First Minister has navigated both issues with her usual skill but, on the referendum in particular, it feels as though some more definitive path or direction may have to be set over the autumn.