Scottish Election 2011 – Holyrood Magazine

Here is something I wrote for Holyrood Magazine on the 2011 Election:

I once met a fellow academic at a conference, who told me that he did not care about the study of public policy at all. It was something along the lines of, ‘as soon as the election is over, I lose interest’. I tend to say the opposite – ‘elections don’t matter; it is what happens between them that matters’ – and don’t get excited at all about elections. Yet, even I was blown away by the nature of the SNP victory in 2011. The SNP managed to do achieve three things that few us (perhaps with the exception of John Curtice and some very optimistic SNP supporters) thought possible. First, they achieved a majority of seats in a system designed to stop that happening (although, perhaps ironically given the rejection of AV, STV might be a better bet to achieve that aim). Second, they did it on the back of a major reversal of fortunes in the constituency vote, winning 53 (73%) of the constituency seats – the figure that Labour reached in 1999 when the SNP won 7 (10%). Third, they won the majority of constituency seats in key Labour strongholds such as Glasgow. They also helped reduce the Liberal Democrats to the status of a small party, keep the Greens down to two, and perhaps only Margo MacDonald’s victory spoiled the perfect night for them.
The effect on the parties may be dramatic. The Conservatives may go back to the peripheral role they enjoyed from 1999-2007. The Liberal Democrats may seek ways to disassociate themselves from their UK counterparts, albeit without Tavish Scott, who resigned as their leader. Labour will also elect a new leader, in the Autumn, following a review of the party initiated by Iain Gray before his departure.
But will the election effect be as dramatic on the Scottish Parliament itself? In a word, ‘no’. The Parliament has been a peripheral part of the Scottish policy process for the majority of its 12 year existence and majority government will only accelerate its declining importance. In the first eight years, the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition performed the role of a majority government, controlling the vote in plenary and committees and passing so much legislation that most committees devoted most of their activities to scrutiny (instead of agenda setting inquiries). There was little evidence of ‘power sharing’ or ‘new politics’ and much more evidence of a concentration of power in the government combined with an adversarial atmosphere that we associated so much with ‘old Westminster’. We might have expected a big difference in the latter four years, with the Scottish Government finally having to negotiate with opposition parties in the Parliament to secure its policy aims. Yet, with the exception of some high profile government retreats (on the independence referendum, local taxation reform and minimum alcohol pricing – all of which are set to return), there was a muted parliamentary effect. The Scottish Government produced and amended the vast majority of the legislation and found that they could pursue many of their their aims without recourse to Parliament – through public spending, the use of legislation already on the statute books and, most importantly, its new relationship with local government. Committees were no more effective. Indeed, at times, they seemed less effective either because the main opposition parties seemed disinterested in committee business, party politics got in the way of business-like cooperation (a development summed up in the attempts by Labour to make Alex Salmond pay for his association with Donald Trump), or simply because they did not have the resources to find out how local (and health) authorities were spending public money.
Iain Gray has promised to initiate a ‘root and branch’ review of Scottish Labour. Perhaps it is time to take the same long and hard look at the Scottish Parliament. It is time to forget about ‘new politics’ for two main reasons. First, what we have, and have had for some time, is good old fashioned government and opposition. Second, the term breeds complacency. It makes it look like Scotland cracked electoral and intuitional design before 1999 and that it is superior to its London counterpart. Yet, in a promising new development, the Conveners Group of the Scottish Parliament has recently had the courage to suggest that Westminster often does it better. It suggests that committees can be more assertive because they present an alternative career path for MPs (something that Holyrood has failed to provide). It also suggests that Westminster has not stood still, introducing reforms to reduce the influence of parties when committee chairs are selected. Such reforms may not shift the balance of power, but they at least show a willingness to change. I doubt there is much of an appetite for this sort of discussion in Scotland, because the reviews by opposition parties will focus more on how to win votes next time. Perhaps there is more hope for the SNP despite the fact that it needs the Parliament less than it ever has. The SNP Government has shown that it can govern well. Now it is time to show that an independent Scotland can have a Parliament worthy of its proposed (independent or further devolved) status.

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