Scottish Election 2011 – SPICe Briefing

Here is something I wrote for the Scottish Parliament Information Centre’s 2011 election briefing. It has been edited a bit by SPICe so, if you have a lot of time on your hands, feel free to try to spot the differences:

The Scottish Election of 2011 has to go down as the most exciting in its short history (and probably for decades to come). The size of the SNP win was staggering for at least three reasons. First, it achieved a majority of seats (69, 53% of 129) under a system designed to make it unlikely that one party achieves a majority without a majority of the vote (it secured 45.4% of the constituency and 44% of the regional vote). Second, it was built on a reversal-of-fortunes, with the SNP now dominating the constituency vote at the expense of Labour when, in the past, it received most of its seats from the regional lists. Third, it won in key Labour strongholds such as Glasgow.
But what are the wider or longer term consequences? Are they, or will they be, as dramatic?
Public Policy. The most immediate and significant effect is that there is now a clear mandate for SNP policies. It will almost certainly introduce a bill to hold a referendum on independence and pursue policies for which it had insufficient parliamentary support in 2007 – including a minimum price on a unit of alcohol and a replacement for the council tax (it has already promised to maintain a freeze on council tax). However, there are three main qualifications to consider. First, its ability to pursue policy innovation is limited by the financial climate and many of its decisions will relate to which aims to prioritise or drop, rather than which new policies to fund. Second, the SNP Government has built a reputation for governing competence, which is often about the management of people and existing resources rather than constant innovation. Third, its plans for the delivery of policies is perhaps less certain. In particular, a key part of its governing strategy in 2007 was to devolve more responsibility to local government. While it agreed ‘single outcome agreements’ with (and set some national priorities for) local authorities, the emphasis was on reducing ‘ring fenced’ budgets and giving local authorities the space to make their own decisions. This caused a degree of tension at a national level, with many organisations (including the Scottish Parliament) often expressing frustration at their ability to be involved in policy at only one stage of the process, and the Scottish Government under a degree of pressure to deliver on its commitments. We may detect a partial shift back to national direction from 2011. For example, the high profile issue of class sizes will return, with the Scottish Government still only recommending a limit of 18 in P1-3 but now willing to set a legal maximum of 25.
The MSPs. The proportion of new MSPs has risen to 37% (48) from 33% in 2007 and 20% in 2003. Despite some concerns about the departure of key Labour women, and a huge reduction in the parliamentary Labour party (traditionally the source of more than half of the Scottish Parliament’s female members), the gender balance improved slightly at 65% men and 35% women because very similar numbers of women and men left and returned (it is now only the second-worst gender imbalance since Scottish devolution!). The Parliament is now not exclusively white (note that Bashir Ahmad served from 2007 until his death in 2009), with two new Scottish–Asian MSPs representing 1.6% of MSPs (black and ethnic minorities represent 2% of the Scottish population). Yet, more work is required to tell if the occupational background of MSPs has changed. Political parties in many countries have an increasing reputation for recruiting candidates from ‘politics facilitating’ occupations (such as party, interest group and think tank workers) and the Scottish Parliament is no exception.
From Coalition to Minority to Majority Government. The first eight years of devolution showed us that the Scottish Parliament was not the powerful body that it was cracked up to be. The Scottish Executive coalition held a majority of MSPs in plenary and all committees, allowing it to introduce the vast majority of legislation and ensure control over its amendment during parliamentary scrutiny. Four years of minority government showed that, while the Scottish Government passed fewer bills in four years (42, compared to 50 from 2003 and 53 from 1999) and required the support of other parties to pass annual budgets, the balance of power did not change dramatically. The Scottish Parliament’s role is limited largely to departmental and legislative scrutiny. It does not have the resources to present an alternative legislative agenda. For example, committee bills are generally limited to parliamentary reform and standards. Members’ bills either take a long time to produce (the fox hunting ban took two years) or relate to issues in which non-complex legislation can be used (in areas such as dog fouling and the ability of shops to open at Christmas). The committees’ ability to undertake agenda-setting inquires is limited. The election of a majority party may further tip the balance of power to government, with a single party now able to command a majority in plenary and committees.
The Scottish Government and UK Government relationship. From 1999-2007 the Scottish-UK government relationship was low key; discussions were conducted informally and almost entirely through political parties, ministers and civil servants. Formal mechanisms for negotiation and dispute were used rarely and the Scottish Executive played a minimal role in EU policy making. These relationships did not change remarkably following the election of the SNP in 2007 and the coalition government in the UK and 2010. Although there were more instances of high profile disagreements from 2007, there was a still tendency for this charged atmosphere to give way to a more humdrum, day-to-day relationship as different civil servants worked through the details. David Cameron also seemed determined to ‘govern Scots with respect’ from 2010. This process may continue, because both governments recognise the value of a smooth working relationship, or it may not – partly because their relationship will form the backdrop to the agenda on independence from 2013. A UK Conservative government in office during a period of economic retrenchment probably provides the best chance for the SNP Government to demonstrate that it would be better making all of its own decisions, and it would be a surprise if it did not exploit that opportunity.
The Parties. Scottish Labour will elect a new leader in the Autumn, following a ‘root and branch’ review initiated by Iain Gray before his departure. The Liberal Democrats will surely have to do more work to distance themselves from their electorally-toxic UK counterparts (although it is already a federal party and the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to be in government from 2015). The Conservatives may look back on their position in 2007 with a degree of nostalgia since they may return to the peripheral role in the Scottish Parliament that they enjoyed from 1999-2007. From 2007-11 they often propped up the SNP, securing small policy concessions for support on key votes (most notably on the budget, but note that they voted in agreement with the SNP over 70% of the time). Now, Annabelle Goldie is reduced to ‘keeping an eye’ on Alex Salmond rather than holding his hand. Perhaps the immediate future of the SNP will become the most interesting. Minority government, combined with opposition party opposition to an independence referendum, may have produced a strong them-and-us mentality and the coherence of the SNP within both Government and Parliament was remarkable. However, if we remove both constraints (and add the notion that majorities sometimes produce divisions within parties) we may find that the party becomes more difficult to manage.

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