Strikes and rising bills pose headache for Scottish independence campaign

Strikes and rising bills pose headache for Scottish independence campaign

Scotland correspondent

Nicola Sturgeon faces challenges as she aims to persuade voters that Scotland should go it alone

Waste workers clearing rubbish in Edinburgh on Monday

As the clean-up of the litter-strewn streets of Edinburgh began on Tuesday morning after the conclusion of a 12-day strike by refuse workers, one residence did not trouble those tasked with removing the piles of bursting bin bags.

Nicola Sturgeon’s official residence, Bute House, like other Scottish government buildings, was not affected by the waste backlog, which has been deemed a public health hazard across the city. Rubbish at Bute House is collected by a private waste removal firm, it emerged last weekend. The news added another unflattering optic to growing criticism of the first minister’s handling of escalating nationwide strike action.

Last Friday, opposition parties accused Sturgeon of being “asleep at the wheel” as she travelled to Copenhagen to officially open the Scottish government’s Nordic office. Meanwhile, crunch talks between unions and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla), the SNP-led umbrella group for Scotland’s 32 councils, were ongoing.

Sturgeon also made no fewer than five appearances at the Edinburgh festival, concluding her run on Monday evening with an interview with the Succession actor Brian Cox, who told the audience that she was doing an “incredible” job and promised to support next year’s Scottish independence campaign. The SNP leader hopes to hold a second referendum on 19 October 2023 and has asked the UK supreme court to rule on whether it is legally possible to do so without Westminster’s consent.

Constitution aside, her challenges are far more immediate: with more than 60% of Scottish local authorities affected by the bin strike, and withfurther action planned for next week when refuse workers will be joined by education staff, resulting in the closure of hundreds of schools and nurseries across the country, there seems no end in sight. Unions rejected an improved pay offer, saying it failed to benefit the lowest-paid staff, and Unison foretold a “winter of discontent”.

With Holyrood still in recess, much of the criticism is conducted by press release or via Twitter – with the likes of the Scottish Labour campaigner Jenny Marra posting photographs of overflowing bins in Dundee and urging Sturgeon: “If you’ve finished all your fringe shows, can you please get back to work.”

If these virtual blows don’t land, she can expect a vigorous session of first minister’s questions next Thursday – although whether the detail is reported depends on how many journalists have managed to arrange emergency childcare for the school strikes.

It’s likely that the blame game will persist. The deputy first minister, John Swinney, insisted last week he was “not the employer”, but while Cosla is taking part in the negotiations and represents council employers, opposition politicians and union officials say the Scottish government must take more responsibility for the impact of its real-terms cuts to council funding.

Sturgeon tweeted on Monday evening that while the new offer from Cosla was backed by an extra £200m of Scottish government funding, “if we could go further we would, but the Scottish government budget is finite”, returning responsibility to Westminster, which she has also called on to cancel the energy price cap increase.

Research released on Monday found that an unambiguous majority of Scots believe neither Westminster nor Holyrood have done enough to address the cost of living crisis. Polling for the David Hume Institute and the Diffley Partnership found that 89% and 73% respectively said the UK and Scottish governments had done too little to help.

The Scottish government responded that it was doing all it could “within our limited powers”, pointing to mitigations such as the Scottish child payment, but figures like this are a headache for an administration about to begin in earnest a fresh push for independence. It must persuade voters it has the capability and competence to go it alone, with papers addressing the meatier arguments around currency and borders anticipated in the coming months and a galvanising SNP conference planned for October.

Sturgeon is all too aware of the challenge in persuading moderate undecided voters at a time when continuing crises and uncertainties may leave many minded to cling to the status quo.