With Scotland’s vaccine roll-out powering ahead, and lockdown measures gradually easing, attention is turning to the economic recovery from Covid-19 and the question of what sort of country we should be after the pandemic.
This week I set out the SNP’s five-point plan to kickstart a strong, fair and green recovery – underlining our priorities ahead of the UK Budget on March 3.
Above all, it is essential that the Chancellor learns the lessons of the pandemic, rules out a return to Tory austerity cuts, and delivers a major fiscal stimulus of at least £98 billion, the equivalent of five per cent of GDP, to lay the foundations of an investment-led recovery.
The UK economy suffered a record slump of 9.9% in 2020. Millions of families have seen their incomes slashed, UK unemployment has risen to 5.1% per cent, redundancies are at a record high, and there are 726,000 fewer people in work than this time last year.
If we are to avoid a protracted downturn, the UK Government must follow the example of our friends in the United States and Europe and invest – instead of imposing more damaging Tory cuts.
We know there is still some way to go before Covid restrictions will be fully lifted, so the first priority for investment must be delivering the immediate support that people, businesses and public services need to get to the other side of this crisis.
Extend furlough scheme
This renewed package must fully extend the furlough scheme and plug the serious gaps in support – including help for the three million people who have been shamefully excluded.
Many self-employed, freelance workers and seasonal workers have received little to no help from Westminster over the past year. That must finally change.
The highlands and islands have been particularly hard hit by the impact of the pandemic on tourism and hospitality. That’s why it’s essential that furlough is extended for as long as it is needed by our communities, and why the reduced 5% rate of VAT for hospitality and tourism must continue in the months ahead instead of ending prematurely on March 31.
There must also be more fundamental changes for our society too. The coronavirus crisis has utterly exposed the deep inequalities that exist under the broken Westminster system.
A decade of Tory austerity cuts has pushed millions of people into poverty, hindered economic growth, and taken money away from our public services.
While the pandemic has been hard on all of us, it has thrown into sharp relief the disparities between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in our society, and the weaknesses in a welfare safety net that has been decimated by the Tories.
Many families are struggling to get by and will be left with mounting debts racked up to cover the essentials like rent, food and bills. In my own constituency, foodbank use has soared as family budgets are squeezed.
This damage has been compounded by Boris Johnson’s extreme Brexit, which has already cost Scotland’s economy an estimated £3.94 billion and is projected to cost every person the equivalent of £1,600 as Scottish businesses, communities and our seafood industry are hit by added costs, red tape and barriers to trade with our European neighbours.
The Tories have failed to learn anything from this pandemic. They want to cement inequality by returning to business as usual. While millions of children languish in poverty, Rishi Sunak has been demanding cuts to Universal Credit.
While frontline workers have got us through the last year, the Chancellor wants to impose a public sector pay freeze as their reward.
Who do we trust most?
It is increasingly clear that Scotland faces a choice of two futures. Another decade of Tory cuts and the long-term damage of Brexit at Westminster or the opportunity to protect our place in Europe and build a fairer and more prosperous society as an independent country.
If we want to introduce meaningful changes then we need the full powers that other independent countries are already using. The power to invest in our economy and create jobs across our communities, to introduce a real Living Wage and raise sick pay, to protect the welfare safety net and enhance it.
The question at the heart of the Scottish election in May will be this: who has the right to decide what sort of country we should be after the pandemic – people in Scotland or Boris Johnson? Who do we trust most to deliver a fair recovery for Scotland – ourselves or Westminster?
With both votes SNP, we can deliver a strong, fair and green recovery and put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands – not Boris Johnson’s.
Ian Blackford is Member of Parliament for Ross, Skye and Lochaber and the SNP’s Westminster leader.