The Scottish National party has promised to provide all primary pupils with year-round free breakfasts and lunches if it remains in government after May elections, a move aimed at polishing its progressive credentials ahead of a renewed push for independence from the UK.
With polls suggesting Scottish voters would now back independence and the SNP could sweep elections for the Edinburgh parliament in May, first minister Nicola Sturgeon opened her party’s three-day virtual conference on Saturday by declaring the nation was “on the brink of making history”.
“Independence is in clear sight,” Ms Sturgeon said.
In the first major policy announcement of the conference, John Swinney, deputy first minster, said the devolved government would expand free lunches and breakfasts to all primary school pupils throughout the year.
The SNP said the policy was expected to cost an additional £230m a year from 2022. Scottish children from the first to third years of primary are already entitled to free lunch, with pupils from low income families eligible in their fourth to seventh years, and breakfast provision depending on council area.
The policy is likely to heighten resentment among some politicians in England over Scotland’s relatively high levels of public spending, but Mr Swinney portrayed it as protecting schoolchildren from the threat of renewed austerity at the hands of the Conservative UK government.
“We will not leave a child at the mercy of a Tory chancellor,” Mr Swinney said.
The school meal plans will sharpen the contrast in approaches between Edinburgh and the UK government, which this month announced expanded food support for the poorest children in England this winter after a high-profile campaign by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford.
There is broad political support for more generous school meals in Scotland, with Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross — who is also keen to emphasise his willingness to diverge from UK Tory policy — calling in September for universal free breakfasts and lunches for primary pupils.
“I am pleased John Swinney has signalled he will follow our lead on this, but there is no need to wait two more years,” Mr Ross said on Saturday. “We can deliver this now.”
Anti-poverty campaigners hailed the meals plan.
“There is a lot of evidence . . . which shows how much better children do in the classroom and school if they are not hungry,” Satwat Rehman, director of One Parent Families Scotland, told an online conference fringe meeting.
Free meals for primary pupils “will make sure that we are reaching more of the children and families that we need to . . . there won’t be the stigma there,” she said.
The SNP is riding high in opinion polls, more than a dozen of which have also in recent months suggested that a majority of voters in Scotland might back leaving the UK if there was a rerun of the 2014 independence referendum.
However tension has become increasingly visible within the party and wider pro-independence movement. Some members and activists say Ms Sturgeon is too cautious in pushing for another referendum and oppose Scottish government plans to make it easier for trans people to gain official recognition for their declared gender.
In a speech on Friday, Joanna Cherry, an SNP MP, said that if there is a renewed majority for independence in the Scottish parliament after May, the government should be ready to push ahead with a second referendum even if Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, refuses to approve one.
Ms Sturgeon has said the legal status of a referendum without UK approval is untested, and has made clear that she is deeply reluctant to consider organising a vote with Westminster’s agreement.