Holyrood’s coming “Assembly of Acclamation” may not be good for Scotland, suggests Bill Jamieson
OPINION polls are the wayward currency of politics. But in the latest Survation poll on voting intentions for Holyrood next year, there is no mistaking either the massive strength of the SNP or the general direction of political travel.
Opponents of the SNP may come to feel that they have no voice
Scotland is on course, less for a parliament with a greater overall SNP majority, than an Assembly of Acclamation. The poll shows the SNP with a 36 per cent lead over Labour in the constituency vote and a 26 per cent lead in the regional list – a record rating for the party in this poll survey.
The one crumb of comfort for the Unionist parties is that the same polls indicate that a majority of Scots remain opposed to independence. But the margin of difference is narrowing. And while voters remain opposed to a second referendum in the near future, another vote within the next ten years is supported by 60 per cent, with No at 40 per cent.
A notable feature of the poll is that the number of Green MSPs – broadly aligned with the SNP on independence and support for higher taxation – would soar from two to 12. Together with an SNP presence raised from 69 MSPs to 71, joint representation for the independence/Left ticket (not including Labour) in a Holyrood of 128 MSPs would stand at 83. This would crush any prospect of effective opposition.
Even with all the normal caveats that apply to poll readings, such a result would render original efforts to avoid any one party securing an overall majority laughable.
More worryingly, it could fundamentally alter the behaviour and character of Holyrood. It risks a real loss of plurality in Scottish life and the many intangible gains that flow from independent discussion and analysis. How would minority rights and concerns be protected? And what access would independent groups and institutions have to a Scottish parliament that was supposed to unite and serve as a focal point for the nation as a whole?
As for the parliamentary process itself, what would be the point of taking debates to a vote, with an outcome so massively predetermined? How would the committee system provide independent, critical scrutiny of the fine detail of legislation when even some “opposition” MSPs would be on-side?
With overwhelming majorities of this sort, it becomes all too easy for critics to resort to satire and depict the chamber as a Soviet-style Hall of the People. The chamber would be reconfigured for an extended platform for government ministers. A giant SNP logo would flutter behind them.
Parliamentary correspondents would report less on the outcome of debates than the strength of assembly acclaim: an eight-minute ovation for John Swinney – matching a previous personal best and beating his draft budget by 48 seconds, but notably short of the 12 minutes 35 seconds of acclaim accorded to Roseanna Cunningham. As for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the standing ovations may require intervals for the relief of bunions and the application of handcream.
Satire aside, Scotland’s parliament in such an outcome would be markedly different in character from that of the UK. Many, of course, would welcome such distinction. Why should the Scottish chamber not have a distinctive style and atmosphere?
The Westminster parliament is riddled with timewasting flummery, ceremony and tradition, while the idea of a second chamber is anathema to Scottish sensibility.
Yet a unicameral Holyrood so dominated by one party, and even more so when an enlarged Green representation is taken into account, is one with which Scots may come to feel uncomfortable. And it is one that would be viewed differently by the outside world. Would it still be seen as a parliament giving considered reflection to legislation? Or simply an automatic rubber-stamp for an SNP/Green wishlist? For those new to politics and not persuaded of SNP policy, would it be worth standing for parliament at all?
And searching questions are begged by the prospect of such one-party domination: how realistic would its populist policies and its wishlist prove? And will that disciplined dominance continue when those extra tax-raising powers are devolved to Holyrood and when MSPs have to take responsibility for raising the money it has so freely spent?
The SNP hegemony owes much to populist measures such as the freezing of council tax, the scrapping of prescription charges, protection of free personal care, maintaining the concessionary travel scheme, increasing Scotland’s health budget to more than £12 billion for the first time and increasing childcare entitlement to 16 hours per week.
All these measures have a common feature: they have involved higher public spending. But once the Scotland Bill takes effect, Holyrood will be required to approve budget measures that will impact on Scottish levels of tax.
The administration has indicated sympathy with a higher level of taxation for those earning £150,000 and over. But this would not in itself plug the fiscal gap the government would face, and it would almost certainly have to introduce higher taxes on broader groups. The oft-mooted tolerance of Scots to higher tax threshholds and rates would then be tested – and there is plenty of poll evidence to suggest that there is not much difference between attitudes to tax north and south of the Border.
Holyrood has already acted to raise the tax take on property transactions at the premium end of the market, hitting many family homes in urban areas. Now the administration is working on a Land Reform Bill that will have a wider reach and consequence than many realise.
It establishes a Land Commission whose remit is to deliver an ambitious land reform agenda, with the ultimate goal of redistribution of land and property across Scotland. As estate agent Savills has pointed out, its provisions apply to all types of Scottish land and property, both urban and rural, applying equally to brownfield land in inner cities and remote heather hillsides.
This, together with higher taxes, may come to pose deeply uncomfortable questions for those not “on board” with a party given the most extensive power over Scottish life and an effective carte blanche at Holyrood. They may come to feel that this is a Scotland where they have no place and no voice. Who would blame them if on such an outcome they should come to feel that the only vote that protected them in an effectively one-party Scotland was a vote with their feet?