This is a paper that I presented to the Study of Parliament Group in 2009. The next draft will see Professor David Arter and I extend the comparisons to Nordic countries.
Paul Cairney, University of Aberdeen firstname.lastname@example.org
Study of Parliament Group 22 April 2009
The Scottish National Party and Minority Government in Scotland
The formation of a minority SNP government produced the potential for a radically different form of politics in Scotland. This paper explores the difference that minority government makes. First, it examines the extent to which minority government moves Scottish politics even further from the Westminster traditions that the ‘architects of devolution’ sought to depart from. Second, it examines the extent to which it moves Scotland towards a governing style most likely to be found in the Scandinavian democracies[i]. It suggests that the first eight years of devolution were marked by a form of majoritarian government that would not seem out of place in the UK. This, combined with the inheritance of a partisan, government-versus-opposition, culture from Westminster suggests that ‘new Scottish Politics’ did not depart from ‘Old Westminster’ in the way that many expected. Therefore, the advent of minority government was accompanied by renewed calls for new politics in the spirit originally envisaged, and by renewed interest in comparisons with countries displaying a longer tradition of minority government. The early evidence suggests that the SNP was initially reluctant to enter minority government and has, as far as possible, disengaged from the Scottish Parliament. Most opposition parties have also failed to come to terms with their new role. Yet, the set-up has proved surprisingly stable and minority government has the potential to become the norm in Scottish politics.
New Party, New Politics?
The formation of a minority SNP government in 2007 produced the potential for a radically different form of politics in Scotland. Yet, this statement may seem ironic to the ‘architects of devolution’ because ‘new politics’ was supposed to begin in 1999! The use of (mixed member) proportional representation for Scottish Parliament elections suggests that no party will gain overall control. Yet, devolution initially produced the closest thing to majoritarian government: two four-year parliamentary sessions of coalition government formed by the largest party, Scottish Labour, and its junior partner, the Scottish Liberal Democrats. In 1999, Labour won 56 seats and the Liberal Democrats 17, producing a majority of 73 (57%) of 129 seats (minus one seat held by Liberal Democrat Presiding Officer David Steel). This was followed in 2003 by a reduced but still significant majority of 67 (52%) produced by Labour’s 50 and the Liberal Democrats’ 17 (the Presiding Officer role was taken on by the SNP’s George Reid). Crucially, the Scottish Executive[ii] coalition also commanded a majority in every Scottish Parliament committee. This control of the parliamentary arithmetic, combined with a strong and successful party whip (particularly within Labour), produced a form of majoritarian government that would not seem out of place in the UK.
In 2007 the potential for coalition was not as straightforward. The SNP won 47 seats (from 27 in 2003 and 35 in 1999) compared to Labour’s 46 but, given the nature of the overall result (the Conservatives won 17, Liberal Democrats 16, Green 2 and Margo MacDonald 1) it could not form a majority coalition with one other party. Although there was some scope for cooperation between the SNP and the Greens (based on the same attitude to Scottish independence and an SNP commitment to certain environmental issues), its potential links to the other parties were problematic. Formal coalition between the SNP and Liberal Democrats proved impossible when the latter insisted that the former drop its plans for an independence referendum as a condition of coalition. Further, a (formal) coalition with the Conservatives would be politically damaging in the short term (the Conservatives are still tainted by 18 years of unpopular government in Scotland from 1979-97; the SNP is to a large extent a left-wing social democratic party) and the long term (if the Conservatives win the UK general election in 2010, the SNP may campaign for independence by highlighting the re-emergence of a ‘democratic deficit’ in Scotland).
Therefore, the key point to note is that the SNP was initially reluctant, but effectively obliged, to go it alone and form a single party minority. This suggests that the renewed rhetoric on the scope for ‘new politics’ that minority government affords was only spoken loudly after the options for coalition had been exhausted and rejected. The SNP subsequently made a ‘virtue out of necessity’ (Mitchell, 2008: 79) but was uncertain about its ability to make legislative progress (or at least present an image of governing competence) and was not confident about its ability, or the ability of any minority government, to stay in office for the four-year period. This reflects two main factors.
First, it supports a strong ‘conventional view’ of minority government that ‘associates it with instability, inefficiency, incoherence and a lack of accountability’ (Mitchell, 2008: 73; in Scotland there is also the occasional charge, regarding the SNP’s independence agenda, that minority government is unrepresentative – McIver and Gay, 2008). This is particularly true in the UK with very limited, unhappy experience of minority Westminster government in the late 1970s. For Mitchell (2008: 74) this suggests that the perception is ‘historically bounded’ because minority government coincided with a traumatic period of Labour rule. Yet, there is also more recent and less traumatic experience of minority government in Wales in 2005 following the withdrawal of Labour’s Peter Law – for both health (Law was diagnosed with brain tumour) and political reasons (Law objected to all-women shortlists) – that reduced Labour’s number from 30 to 29 of 60 AMs (Seaton and Osmond, 2005: 8-9). This experience also accentuated the negative picture of minority government, producing a willingness in the opposition parties to ‘cooperate in wounding Labour’ by delaying the Assembly budget for months (Wyn Jones and Scully, 2006) and overturning Welsh Assembly Government policy on tuition fees (Cairney, 2009a) rather than to cooperate in a positive way. The picture of instability caused by inevitable partisanship continued following the election results in 2007 and a process of ‘disarray’ (Mulholland, 2007) before Labour chose to form a historic coalition majority with Plaid Cymru rather than go it alone (although it was sold in many quarters as a bold move to provide further policy distance from New Labour in London). The common factor in both cases is that minority government resulted from events outside of the government’s control and the main parties have striven to avoid the possibility ever since. No government in the UK or devolved territories has gone down this route through choice.[iii]
Second, there is a strong, longstanding culture or set of assumptions held by most parties in Scotland in favour of the value that a majority provides. Minority equates with instability not opportunity; potential opposition and disarray, not opportunities for new politics. Although the ideas associated with a new style of politics and policymaking (that would arguably make minority government desirable as well as possible) were in good currency before devolution, they were rejected in 1999 by a Labour party more likely to favour stability as a basis for its legislative programme, and accepted very reluctantly by a Scottish National Party with little room for manoeuvre. In this light, the two years of minority government have been marked not only by calls (eventually) for the return of new politics, but also by the remarkable turnaround of the image of minority government in Scotland with or without the new politics in evidence (for an ‘insider view’ on this development, see Harvie, 2008).
New Politics Revisited
‘New politics’ became a ‘rallying call for the architects of devolution’ and, as such, a lens through which most evaluations of Scottish political success have been measured ever since (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 14). It was promoted for two main reasons. First, it became linked to the unsuccessful referendum on Scottish devolution in 1979 followed by a long spell of Conservative government which increased attention to the ‘democratic deficit’ (in which Scotland voted for one party of government, Labour, but received another). The new campaign for devolution took shape following the set-up of the Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC) – a collection of political parties (primarily Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green), the Scottish Trade Union Congress, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organizations, religious leaders, local authorities and civic organizations – in 1989 (2008: 34). The SCC sought to reinvigorate elite, media and popular support for devolution by addressing the concerns associated with previous devolution proposals and articulating a new vision of Scottish politics based on narratives of its past. This rhetoric became inextricably linked to dissatisfaction with the democratic deficit and a feeling that devolution could have saved Scotland from the worst excesses of Thatcherism (McCrone and Lewis, 1999: 17). Indeed, the SCC vision was developed at the same time that many of its participants were acting as the unelected opposition to Conservative government rule. Thus, the remote, top-down and unitary UK state was contrasted with a vision of consensus for Scotland based on a narrative of Scotland’s political tradition and longstanding propensity for the diffusion of power, combined with popular and civic participation in politics (Cairney, Halpin and Jordan, 2009). The SCC (1990; 1995) articulated hopes for: ‘participatory democracy in which the Scottish population would seek to influence decisions made in Scotland directly rather than through a ballot box which seemed so remote; pluralist democracy, in which interest and social groups would seek to counter policies ‘unsuitable’ for Scotland at all levels of implementation; and deliberative democracy, in which a separate level of debate about the direction of UK policies implemented in Scotland could take place’ (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 244).
Second, it followed a perceived crisis of popular disenchantment with politics, producing the potential for a Scottish Parliament to be seen as yet-another layer of bureaucracy or source of yet-another pool of self-serving politicians with no meaningful link to, or care for, their populations. In both cases, the devolution agenda embodied hopes for a new style of politics far removed from ‘Old Westminster’ as the main source of discredited policymaking. While some attention was paid by the architects of devolution to the ‘consensus democracies’ (and Nordic politics in general), most was devoted to making sure that old politics was left behind.
New politics was therefore based on a range of perceived defects of the UK system, including, primarily, an electoral system that exaggerates government majorities, excludes small parties, concentrates power within government rather than Parliament and its committees, contributes to parliamentary ‘overload’ and encourages adversarialism between government and opposition (2008: 12-3). This concentration of power and ‘winner takes all’ attitude may also extend to the government’s top-down relationship with interest groups (more likely to compete rather than cooperate with each other) and its remoteness from the population that it is supposed to represent (at least according to the new politics rhetoric; see also Lijphart, 1999 and Cairney, 2008a). Thus, new politics referred in part to the selection of a proportional electoral system and all that this produces, including the strong likelihood of coalition, the need for parties to bargain and cooperate and, hopefully, a consequent reduction in partisanship and rise in consensual forms of politics.
To foster a sense of ‘power sharing’ between government, parliament and the public, the parliament was not only set up as a hub for popular participation (including a new public petitions process) but also vested with an unusual range of powers (when compared to other West European legislatures). In particular, while the Consultative Steering Group (a cross-party group with members drawn from the SCC, established by the UK Labour Government and charged with producing the standing orders of the Scottish Parliament) recognised the ‘need for the Executive to govern’, or produce most legislation and make most expenditure decisions, it also envisaged a much stronger parliamentary role (Scottish Office, 1998; McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 90). It recommended: the fusion of Westminster’s standing and select committee functions, to enable members scrutinising legislation to develop subject based expertise; the ability of select committees to call witnesses and oblige ministers and civil servants to attend; and, the ability to hold agenda-setting inquiries and to initiate legislation if dissatisfied with the government response. Crucially, the select committees were also charged with performing two new roles to ‘front-load’ the legislative process and make up for the fact that, in the absence of the House of Lords, there would be no revising chamber. First, they would have a formal pre-legislative role, charged with making sure that the government consults adequately with its population before presenting legislation to parliament (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 91; 104). Second, they would consider both the principles of legislation and specific amendments to bills before they were discussed in plenary.
A feature of the literature on Scottish devolution (see McGarvey and Cairney, 2008; 14-6) has been widespread criticism of the idea of new politics, at least as presented by its most vocal proponents (perhaps suggesting that new politics has become something of a caricature or strawman for these criticisms). It has been described variously as naively optimistic (often with contradictory aims), based on a caricature of UK politics and presenting a misleading rhetoric regarding terms such as ‘consensus’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘civil society’. This produces unrealistic expectations and therefore a skewed lens through which to view the success of new Scottish political practices (Jordan and Stevenson, 2000). The Scottish Parliament also maintained a series of Westminster features despite using it as a ‘negative template’. Critics note that much of the reason for consensual political practices in Scotland in the 1990s were lost when a Conservative government, representing the common enemy and driving force of most collective action, ceased to exist and the referendum on devolution was successful. The role of competitive parties returned to fill the void.
Coalition Government from 1999-2007
The first eight years of devolution proved that new powers and institutions were not effective on their own. Rather, the implementation of new politics also required a cultural change among MSPs and political parties (Cairney, 2006). To a large extent, we know this now because no profound cultural change took place. Rather, we witnessed a curious mix of institutions based in part on the consensual democracies operated by politicians in the Westminster tradition (note that 15 of 129 MSPs in 1999 had previously been MPs – Keating and Cairney, 2006: 52). Although the parties betrayed a limited degree of ideological polarisation, they reproduced a form of government-versus-opposition politics that Westminster parties would be proud of. In particular, the Labour-SNP relationship in the Scottish Parliament reflected a ‘reactionary mentality’ in which ‘some Labour MPs were so paranoid about the Nationalists that any idea emanating from the SNP was immediately rejected because of its source’ (Dennis Canavan MSP in Arter, 2004: 83).[iv] Similarly, the opposition parties were quick to exploit government weaknesses on issues such as ‘Lobbygate’ (when Labour ministers were linked to the ‘cash for access’ row), the cost of the Scottish Parliament building, and Scottish Executive coalition tensions regarding flagship policies such as free personal care and the abolition of student fees (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 40; 122; 205; 242).
The Scottish Parliament was primarily driven by parties rather than ‘independent-minded MSPs’ (Mitchell, 2008: 77). Most importantly, the coalition formed between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, while providing “superficial evidence of ‘new politics’” arguably ‘marked the end of the possibility’ of the more meaningful political style envisaged by its architects: ‘a minority single-party Labour cabinet obliged to work in the Scandinavian manner with the opposition parties to get legislation through, would have vested parliament with significant policy influence and constituted ‘new politics’ in a real sense’ (Arter, 2004: 83). Instead, the parties formed a governing majority. This gave Labour the sense of control that they feared would be lost if they were forced to cooperate on a regular basis with the SNP: ‘We have to have a settled programme rather than a programme where we could be ambushed every time’ (Maureen Macmillan, Labour MSP, in Arter, 2004: 83).
The effect of the strong party role was dramatic. The coalition controlled the voting process in both committees and plenary, with Labour demonstrating a particularly strong whip in both parliamentary sessions – caused in part because their MSPs were screened rigorously before their selection (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 85; Mitchell, 2008; 77) and because Labour ministers held regular meetings with Labour MSPs before any committee meeting in which a significant vote or decision was likely to take place (although this can occasionally be used to exert committee power – see Cairney, 2007a: 79). There were similalry few instances of Liberal Democrat dissent (and none which threatened the coalition’s Partnership Agreement overall). The parties were also able to dictate which of their members became convenors of committees (although the numbers of convenors are allocated proportionately) and even which MSPs sat on particular committees. As a result, the independent role of committees was undermined as MSPs were subject to committee appointment and then whipped, while committee turnover was too high too allow a meaningful level of MSP subject expertise (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 99; Scottish Council Foundation, 2002; Arter, 2003: 31–2). Further, the Scottish Executive presided over a punishing legislative schedule, producing 103 (of 128) bills over 8 years and contributing to a sense in which committees became part of a ‘legislative sausage machine’ rather than powerful bodies able to set the agenda through the inquiry process (Arter, 2002: 105). While there is some evidence of parliamentary influence during the scrutiny of government legislation (Shephard and Cairney, 2005; Cairney, 2006), the Scottish Executive produced and amended the majority of bills (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 106).
Overall, the Scottish Parliament and its committees enjoyed neither the resources with which to scrutinise government policy effectively nor the stability or independence necessary to assert their new powers. Further, although members and committees have the ability to initiate legislation, the same rules apply: members are constrained by party affiliation and limited resources, while committees rarely find the time or inclination to legislate. Therefore, after a honeymoon period in the first parliamentary session, the Scottish Parliament produced a level of non-executive legislation comparable in number and scope with Westminster (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 103). In short, ‘while the Scottish Parliament’s powers are extensive in comparison to most West European legislatures, it is much more difficult to demonstrate the effects of their powers in relation to the Government in the first two parliamentary sessions’ (2008: 108). The evidence of new politics and the effects of the new institutions were thin on the ground (at least in the context of initial expectations).
Minority Government Since 2007
Therefore, it is understandable that May 2007 was seen by many as a new beginning. However, while newly-elected Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson used his acceptance speech to call for the return of new politics (Scottish Parliament Official Report 14.5.07 col. 13), most commentators did not know what to expect. In broad terms, many of the omens did not look good: there is still a culture of government-versus-opposition and minority government was a necessity rather than a choice. In other words, Scottish politics lacks a factor key to minority government success: a feeling that it is a desirable way to engage in politics, or at least the norm. On the other hand, it is striking how quickly minority government has become the norm in Scotland in the sense that, while the SNP Government is challenged regularly on its governing record, its right to govern is not. There are similar contradictions throughout party politics. Although the SNP rarely voted against Labour policies when in opposition, it was generally critical of them (Mitchell, 2008: 76). Although the new and outgoing First Minsters, Alex Salmond and Jack McConnell, both made positive noises about their new relationship (SPOR 16.5.07 cols. 32-7), it is difficult to ignore the bruising tone of Labour’s election campaign followed by its shock and then apparent unwillingness to accept defeat (Cairney, 2009b).
There is also no accepted way for the parties to gauge the success or failure of the new arrangements. Most importantly, there was a widespread sense from 1999-2007 that too much legislation had been produced and that a new government should slow down (Mitchell, in correspondence; Cairney, 2007b: 83; 2007c: 24). In particular, a feature of the ‘legacy’ reports produced by committees in 2007 was that they were unable to perform their scrutiny and inquiry functions properly because there was too much legislation to consider (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 102). This combined with the need for cooperation with other parties before legislation can be passed – or the need to drop some policy plans because they will not be passed – suggested that significantly fewer bills would pass through the Scottish Parliament from 2007 (the SNP also modified its ‘1st 100 days’ commitments considerably). Yet, while this is a welcome development, there is also considerable feeling that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. Legislative diarrhoea has been replaced by constipation.
Some of this criticism can be explained away by party politics, particularly when voiced by members of the former Scottish Executive parties. For example, the SNP’s first legislative programme was dubbed by opposition parties as ‘legislation lite’ (Cairney, 2007b: 83), while Labour’s business manager, Michael McMahon, recently labelled Alex Salmond as a ‘work-shy First Minister leading a group of idle ministers’ because the Scottish Government had passed seven pieces of legislation in two years (Peterkin, 2009).[v] Such opposition criticism may also seem rich given that few committees have used their newly-granted time effectively, while others have merely exploited the chance to make party political points with short, headline grabbing, inquiries (Cairney, 2008b: 16 discusses Donald Trump; see also 2008c: 17-18; 2008d: 20-1). Yet, not all criticism can be dismissed so easily. In particular, if the strategy of the SNP Government has been to distance itself as far as possible from the Scottish Parliament and pursue its policy aims without recourse to legislation (Cairney, 2007b: 83) then MSPs may have more justification to be concerned.
The ability of the SNP to pursue policy distance from Parliament reflects the consistent imbalance of power regardless of the type of government and party balance. Most of the conditions associated with majority government still apply. Small committee size and MSP turnover still undermine the abilities of committees to scrutinize government policy and the huge gulf in resources remains (Cairney, 2008b: 17). Further, many policy aims (on intergovernmental relations, the civil service, capital finance projects, public service targets) can be pursued without using legislation, while others can be pursued using the legislation that exists. This fact alone may not be enough to provoke opposition parties to ‘go nuclear’ and cooperate to undermine the government. Rather, greater concern has been expressed that the government has deliberately sought to subvert the role of Parliament by ignoring its wishes when expressed through non-binding parliamentary motions (Davidson, 2008). The first such event followed the motion passed by the opposition parties in favour of continued funding for the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link and Edinburgh tram project. Both John Swinney and Alex Salmond were then accused on bending the will of Parliament, with Swinney citing irresolvable problems in EARL and Salmond quoting Donald Dewar to suggest that he was not bound by parliamentary motions (Cairney, 2007c; 22; Mitchell, 2008: 80).
However, SNP whips and business managers have also sought to avoid similar confrontations by negotiating the wording of motions with their counterparts in other parties (Cairney, 2008c: 18; 2009c: 35-6) and acting on many motions (Cairney, 2008b: 21), particularly when deciding to drop plans for a flagship bill introducing a local income tax.[vi] There is also some recent evidence from alcohol policy to suggest that the Scottish Parliament is able to oblige the SNP government to use parliamentary procedures when it would be inappropriate not to do so (Maddox, 2009a). The committees are also increasingly able to find areas of common interest (Cairney, 2008d: 21; 2009c: 37-8). Overall, the more recent experience suggests that many teething troubles have healed. While there is clearly still a culture of partisanship in parliament, this is often restricted to the theatre of First Minister’s Questions and often relates more to governing style rather than minority government per se (see Cairney, 2009c: 30 for the issue of ministers misleading MSPs).
The most significant test so far has been the annual budget bill process, which has perhaps shown the best and worst aspects of minority government. First, the process is more significant than under coalition government when it was rather routine. Yet, there are still similarities: only government ministers may amend the bill, while committees still tend to focus on limited aspects of the budget (reflecting a lack of information and resources with which to conduct effective scrutiny). Second, there have clearly been concessions, although their overall importance is debatable (they do not contradict SNP policy but do force it to make choices; they may represent less than 1% of the overall budget, but the SNP government also has minimal control of the budget beyond the margins). In the first budget, the Conservatives secured a greater commitment to funding new police officers and revisit drugs policy, Margo MacDonald secured special funding status for Edinburgh and the Greens secured a commitment to carbon assessments of spending plans (Cairney, 2008c: 16). In the second, the Conservatives secured a reduction in business rates, Labour secured funding for modern apprenticeships and the Liberal Democrats secured a vague commitment for the SNP to involve Parliament more in budget planning and engage with the Calman Commission on fiscal autonomy (the Greens lost a larger commitment to fund home insulation when their votes were no longer required). Third, most parties have yet to take a consistent negotiating positions. The Conservative party has been the only consistent actor, seeking concessions in exchange for support; the Greens surprised many by voting against the second bill despite securing concessions; and the Liberal Democrats have opposed the bill in both years, only to support the second bill when revised marginally. Labour has been the most confused, abstaining in year one for fear of causing the bill to fall (causing hilarity rather than relief on the SNP front benches), then opposing in year two (on the assumption that the SNP had secured Green support) and contributing unwittingly to the bill’s failure. A similar example of Labour and Liberal Democrat bafflement and miscalculation regarding the effects of its negative role can be found in the failure of the Creative Scotland Bill (Cairney, 2008d: 15).
Finally, the failure of the second budget bill did not deserve the incredible amount of Scottish and UK attention it attracted. Rather, the process eventually showed that the parties could work together very effectively when faced with an apparent crisis, and a new bill (almost identical to the defeated one) was passed the following week. The budget crisis showed that there is little appetite among the opposition parties for an impromptu election, particularly while Alex Salmond remains popular. It is also the most significant example of SNP-Labour cooperation (perhaps to be repeated with alcohol policy – Maddox, 2009b) which may prove crucial to the long term success of minority government (but see also Nelson’s 2009 alternative take on the implications of Scottish budget problems for Westminster).
Lessons From Elsewhere: A Preliminary Assessment
As Mitchell (2008: 81) suggests, there are lessons to be learned from the Danish case. Minority government was initially ineffective after an ‘earthquake’ election in 1973 which not only granted new representation to three parties and re-established two more, but also produced a fragmented and polarised party system (Green-Pedersen, 2001: 57-8). Attempts to form a majority coalition from the non-socialist parties failed, allowing the Danish Social Democrats the chance to form a minority government. This proved ineffective in the short-term because the Social Democrats were the big losers of the 1973 election and did not adapt well to the need for significant concessions required to make effective agreements with other parties. Minority government via the non-socialist bloc in 1980s also fared badly at times, in part because its economic policies were opposed by the Social Democrats and, effectively, there were no other parties to negotiate with (2001: 59). However, from 1994 (following a year of majority coalition government), the Social Democrats began a period of successful coalition minority government, because: (a) it had adjusted to its new role; and (b) it could now negotiate with three different parties to produce different policies, who (c) had more incentive to cooperate than bring the government down (because the alternative for left-wing parties was non-socialist minority government); and (d) could engage in cooperation without undermining their electoral profile (2001: 64-5). Most parties have recognised that minority government is the long-term norm and have adapted accordingly: the ruling minority by making concessions to many parties, and formerly extreme parties adapting to their new policy-influencing rather than oppositional roles.
While this adaptation took over twenty years to materialise in Denmark, there are several reasons to think it could happen quicker in Scotland. First, in contrast to the polarisation of parties in Denmark, the Scottish party system is better characterised, in Sartori’s terms, as a form of ‘moderate pluralism’ (Bennie and Clark, 2003). There are no far right parties, while the far-left Scottish Socialist Party has never enjoyed enough representation to sway a parliamentary vote. Second, there may be fewer fundamental issues to polarise party opinion. Although the issue of independence sets the SNP apart from the three other major parties, the sub-national Scottish Parliament is not responsible for the big economic questions (fiscal and monetary policy; redistribution and benefits), or many other big issues that could produce significant conflict (such as defence policy). Third, the biggest loser, Labour, has had time to prepare and adjust to its new position through eight years of coalition majority government. Although it has yet to find a clear role in opposition (in part because of its complex ties to a UK Labour government), it appears more open to the prospect of its own period of minority government (particularly if Labour loses the UK election in 2010). Finally, the Conservatives (with no real prospect of forming a government) and, to a lesser extent, the Liberal Democrats (keen to ‘rediscover themselves’) appear increasingly comfortable with the idea of influence in opposition. In short, minority government could quickly become the norm in Scottish politics and Scottish parties could adapt relatively easily.[vii]
New politics is in some senses a heavy chain around the neck of Scottish politics, producing unrealistic expectations and therefore skewed evaluations of the success of new political practices. In the absence of such expectations, this paper may have come to different conclusions about the first eight years of coalition government which provided some examples of new parliamentary influence, the ability of committees to be ‘businesslike’ and the ability of Scottish Executive ministers to negotiate and compromise rather than dominate Parliament. Similarly, we should be careful not to judge the early experience of minority government too harshly. Although ‘new politics’ as originally envisaged has not materialised (again), the arrangements have so far proved to be relatively stable, while the SNP has demonstrated an impressive degree of policy coherence and governing competence. Minority government is likely to last for at least the full parliamentary term, while there is a significant chance that it may become the norm.
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[i] This is a very first, short, draft. A larger revised paper (with Professor David Arter) will consider in more detail the extent of learning from the ‘consensual democracies’, the experience of coalition government in other countries and the various styles of minority government that the SNP and its opposition could adopt if they learned from other countries.
[ii] In 2007 the SNP chose the term ‘Scottish Government’ to describe its administration. From 1999-2007, and despite the best efforts of former First Minister Henry McLeish, it was the Scottish Executive. The Scotland Act 1998 refers to the ‘Scottish Administration’. The former UK Government department in Scotland was called the Scottish Office, while the current body which acts as an intermediary between the Scottish Government and UK Government is the Scotland Office.
[iii] Although note that the norm of coalition government, or power-sharing, in the Northern Ireland Assembly is not strictly comparable.
[iv] There is also some suspicion that Labour pursued PR in the Scottish Parliament to ensure that the SNP never achieved a majority.
[v] Including one of the two budget bills passed. Two bills – abolishing bridge tolls and the graduate endowment – came from the SNP manifesto, three were inherited – preparing for the commonwealth games, reforming the judiciary and courts, reforming public health law – and one, on asbestos-related compensation, arose unexpectedly following a House of Lords ruling. The Creative Scotland bill was rejected by the Scottish Parliament, perhaps by accident. There have also been two members’ bills (disabled parking, tartan) and one committee bill (parliamentary pensions).
[vi] Note that this policy, while popular, also met opposition from interest groups and UK government which refused to modify the rules on council tax benefit (amounting to £4-500m) to accommodate the new policy.
[vii] In these terms, the prospects look less clear in the UK. There is no history of effective minority government, no period of adjustment, a marginal role for third parties and a full range of policy issues with which to contest. The House of Lords relationship is an added complication.