Last September the SNP government unveiled a legislative programme for the year ahead that was widely hailed as the most radical policy platform for Scotland since the start of the devolution era.
It was a clear signal of intent that, after more than a decade in office, we are pushing further ahead with the reforming agenda that we have pursued at Holyrood since 2007 – and that we place no limit on our ambitions for Scotland.
That is why Libby Brooks’s article earlier this week, arguing that there is a lack of fresh ideas offered to government, was somewhat at odds with reality. It was an interesting and important piece, and I accept the intended constructive criticism. But I’d like to lay out some of the actions the Scottish government is taking to improve the lives of everyone in Scotland, and our plans to ensure the country remains at the forefront of global efforts on equality, the environment and sustainable growth.
The point was made that there are few thinktanks operating in Scotland that provide the kind of policy oversight and analysis that happens across the UK as a whole. That is a reasonable observation – but as thinktanks are independent bodies it is not something that should fall to the SNP or the Scottish government to address; it is more an issue for civic Scotland.
Regarding the more general points made in the article, the reality is that there is a wealth of innovative policymaking under way in Scotland, with a domestic policy agenda more imaginative than in any other part of UK, much of it leading the international field.
At the heart of any ambitious, progressive programme for government there has to be a focus on education and ensuring young people have the opportunity to realise their potential and go on to make a positive contribution to the country.
That is why I am reforming the education system, giving more power – and money – directly to headteachers, and giving individual schools and parents more input as we aim to close the attainment gap between pupils from better-off and less well-off backgrounds. Our education policy is founded on the Getting It Right for Every Child principle, which aims to ensure no children see their potential written off.
We are transforming early-years education with record levels of investment, while widening access to further education. And of course we remain committed to a policy of free higher education, at a time when the burden of tuition fees is pushing thousands of the UK’s young people heavily into debt before they even begin their working lives.
Meanwhile, the Baby Box initiative, modelled on a long-standing Finnish policy, has been warmly welcomed as helping to equip parents and newborns with some of the essentials for the first few weeks of life. But just as importantly, this is a physical demonstration of the equality of opportunity that we are determined to afford to every child in Scotland, regardless of background or circumstance.
In healthcare, we have led the way in integrating health and social care as we aim to equip the system for the demands of an ageing population, something the rest of the UK and other countries are only now turning their attention to. We are also looking to move to a so-called soft opt-out system for organ donation to increase the number of donors.
Our patient safety programme, designed to minimise the risks to patients, is internationally lauded. And we are leading the world in public health, including our plans for minimum unit pricing for alcohol – a global first, now deemed legal after a lengthy court challenge by the drinks industry, and something other countries have quickly looked to copy.
On law and order, we are taking progressive moves to extend the existing presumption against short-term jail sentences, while also expanding alternatives to custody. And we have also indicated our support for an end to smacking children.
Regarding the economy, while most of the macroeconomic levers remain reserved for Westminster, we are restructuring the income tax system with a new starter rate, establishing a new national investment bank – something suggested by SNP members, the campaign group Women for Independence, the Scottish government’s own council of economic advisers and the Common Weal thinktank –as well as a new manufacturing institute, and reforming skills and enterprise support.
Westminster similarly retains the bulk of control over welfare. But with the limited powers we now have in that area, we are setting up a new social security agency and mitigating the excesses of Conservative welfare cuts where possible, including making changes to universal credit.
Our equalities agenda includes legislating for gender balance on public boards, a new law on domestic abuse to include psychological abuse and moves for universal sanitary provision in schools and other locations to tackle period poverty.
On the environment, Scotland’s climate change targets and achievements continue to be world-leading, while we are leading the UK with our deposit return scheme and in phasing out new petrol and diesel vehicles. We have also acted to ban fracking in Scotland.
The SNP continues to set the pace with a radical policy agenda, which people across the country recognise and approve of. Indeed, the latest polling shows our party has a 17-point lead – a truly remarkable endorsement after more than 10 years in government.
• John Swinney, a Scottish National party MSP, is Scotland’s deputy first minister