Here is a piece that I wrote on the Scottish Parliament’s Budget bill for the Press and Journal in February 2009.
The fallout from the annual budget rounds in the Scottish Parliament
Much has been made about the unprecedented nature of the SNP’s budget defeat, the fact that we are entering uncharted waters and that this is a crisis of epic proportions. Yet, this is to give the proceedings a sense of drama that they do not yet deserve. Let us first consider the defeat itself. This certainly marks a departure from the first 8 years of devolution in which the Labour- Liberal Democrat coalition dominated the vote within the Scottish Parliament. It would be possible to count the number of serious Scottish Executive defeats on the fingers of one hand. This, combined with the fact that only Scottish ministers can suggest amendments to the budget bill, gave the overall annual impression of a rather mundane, technical and ceremonial process. The only coverage given to the budget regarded the odd clash of personalities between the Finance Committee and ministers or the committee’s perennial call for better statistics. Neither the Parliament nor its parties had the resources or power to make a profound difference. Now, things have changed. The SNP Government must take seriously the concerns of at least two other parties. However, this was not a particular problem last year. Although the SNP had to court support from the Greens and Conservatives, the concessions it made were complementary to its own aims. While the Greens perhaps act as the SNP’s environmental conscience (drawing attention last year to the problem of ship-to-ship oil transfers), the Conservative requests for more police officers and tax relief for small businesses were consistent with the SNP’s manifesto. The demands from other parties were also relatively small compared to the overall budget. Therefore, while there was a brief drama when the bill was defeated at stage 1 (a consideration of the broad principles of the bill), the SNP had enough votes when it came to stage 3 (the final vote). The decision by Labour to abstain, just in case its opposition was enough to defeat the bill and prompt Alex Salmond to resign, prompted laughter rather than relief among the SNP front bench.
As things stand, we have more of the same. Although this year the bill has been defeated at stage 3, the SNP still has over two weeks to pass its replacement in time for the new financial year. Further, it did not lose by much. In fact, the vote was tied at 64-64, prompting Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson to vote for the ‘status quo’ and effectively reject the bill. Although both Labour and the Liberal Democrats voted against (the former wanted more for modern apprenticeships, while the latter pushed for a 2p reduction in Scottish income tax), the Conservatives are already on board, in exchange for assurances on fairly uncontroversial policies to regenerate towns, tackle hospital acquired infections and provide outdoor adventure training courses for school pupils (Margo MacDonald is also on-board following assurances about spending in Edinburgh). This just leaves the support of the Greens, who originally called for a policy promising £100m per year (for 10 years) for a major free home insulation project, but seem willing to accept £33m. As I understand it, its main source of opposition regarded the status of the money (Is it ‘new’? Will it be ‘ring fenced’ rather than left to cash-strapped local authorities with other priorities?) and the inability of SNP ministers to assure Patrick Harvie and Robin Harper about the seriousness of their commitment. If such assurances are forthcoming, then the next vote will (hopefully) seem like an anti-climax. The changes involved will also be marginal compared to the overall budget (they would also be marginal if the SNP agreed to fund Labour’s modern apprenticeships).
Now, let us consider the likelihood of a fallen government and extraordinary election if Alex Salmond resigns. A similar need for a re-election seemed likely for a brief period in the aftermath of the 2007 elections. However, this time things are very different for three main reasons. First, in 2007 there was a widespread sense that, although the SNP did not gain a majority (which is unlikely under most proportional electoral systems) they had effectively won the election. Therefore, the Scottish Labour Party went through several common phases of grief: from a position of stunned disbelief to rejection (when complaining about particular election results, including the loss of former minister Allan Wilson) and, eventually, acceptance of its loss. It then seemed politic to allow the SNP the first opportunity to form a government. Then, when the Liberal Democrats rejected an alliance with the SNP, it did so on the assumption that it would also not try to form a coalition with Labour. The mood of the Liberal Democrats was towards a period of opposition and relative independence (to rediscover itself and question what it had given up as a condition of coalition). This left the door open for only two realistic options: an SNP coalition with the Conservatives (always unlikely given the need for the SNP to link an independence vote to an unwelcome Conservative UK Government) and minority government. Under these circumstances, most parties were effectively willing to accept the experiment of minority government by voting for their own leader when they could, or abstaining when they couldn’t (the Greens voted for Salmond in exchange for assurances on environmental policies). This time, there will be no assumption towards an SNP First Minister. Second, there is potential for the other parties to argue that if a new First Minister has to be found then this is the fault of the SNP. This could be used to justify their attempts to form a multi-party coalition or, given that it is unlikely that any attempt to do so will command a majority, support an alternative minority government (although this is also unlikely). Third, this year there is a general sense that the more serious economic context gives parties more of an incentive to cooperate (which all vowed to do following the defeat). If the SNP are seen to be willing to risk the stability of government for the sake of fairly marginal sums, then it will no longer have the moral majority that it enjoyed in 2007. There would therefore not be a public uproar if a new First Minister were elected by existing MSPs. This is the more interesting aspect of uncharted territory. The Scottish Government does not have the power to dissolve Parliament and call for a general election. Instead, the parliament has 28 days to elect a new First Minister. If Labour attempts to call Salmond’s bluff and gets behind a new candidate (who will not necessarily require the support of the majority of MSPs), then the SNP may have to support one of its own (presumably Salmond) to stop that candidate succeeding.