The Nationalists are well ahead in the polls, but there is still an argument for checks on power, writes Scott Macnab
A surprising moment at an election hustings this week offered a fleeting hint of wider unease with Nicola Sturgeon’s current dominance of Scottish politics. Greens leader Patrick Harvie won the heartiest applause of the night at the leaders’ debate in front of an audience of students – a cornerstone of SNP support – as he raised the prospect of reining in the unalloyed control which the First Minister looks poised to regain after the election next month.
“It does sound to me as though a period of minority government might be good for you,” Mr Harvie said, initially to laughter, then a widespread ovation from the youngsters present.
The Greens leader perhaps cut the figure of a man on the shore trying to hold back the tide with one hand, according to the latest polling evidence. It shows little sign of any let up in the SNP’s sweeping popularity among voters. But while people clearly want to see Ms Sturgeon returned as First Minister, there are serious questions about how a second SNP majority administration will be kept in check.
Alex Salmond famously claimed that minority government was the best thing that happened to the SNP after the party clinched its historic first Scottish election victory in 2007 to seize power at Holyrood. It meant his team of ministers and party managers were forced to develop their political antennae and work with other parties to get legislation through on an issue-by-issue basis. For all the battles with Westminster during that period, it did seek more of a consensual approach at the Scottish Parliament – apart from with Labour, which spent most of this period sulking over its defeat and adopting an approach of blanket “oppositionism” to the new Nationalist administration. Fast- forward four years and Salmond pulled off a Lazarus-like recovery in the polls to bring about another political earthquake and claim a second election victory – with an unprecedented Holyrood majority.
Almost overnight, the approach towards opposition parties changed. An independence referendum became the dominant issue of political discourse, while at Holyrood the party did as it pleased. The Scottish Parliament’s once powerful committees suddenly lost their bite. Dominated by SNP majorities, there were widespread concerns that criticism of ministers or the government was watered down. It sunk to a new low in 2014 when the public audit committee published two versions of a report on the proposed national police force – one backed by the SNP majority on the committee while the second “minority” report criticised the change. This took on a real significance as Police Scotland became embroiled in a series of major controversies in its first year of operation which led to the eventual resignation of its first Chief Constable Sir Stephen House. There was a lack of accountability in the way the force was behaving, claimed critics. The huge public furore over the emergence of armed police on streets encapsulated the loss of public trust in the way the force was conducting its business. Former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill claimed it was an “operational matter” as trained firearms officers were put out on normal beat patrol. This fell on deaf ears among the wider opinion of Scots who felt that a fundamental change in public life had been imposed on them without any kind of consultation.
When Rangers and Celtic contested a bad tempered match at Parkhead, which resulted in the then managers Ally McCoist and Neil Lennon clashing at the end, the Scottish Government decided it was time to act. New laws were quickly drawn up to outlaw sectarian singing at football despite opposition warnings that the legislation was being rushed through. It didn’t help that ministers were not able to tell fans exactly which songs were illegal and the legislation has been mired in controversy. One sheriff slammed the laws as being “horribly badly drafted” and some supporters have complained that their “freedom of speech” is being restricted. Labour has vowed to repeal the controversial laws.
The last SNP government was branded a “steamroller” by opponents, but the danger of ignoring dissent is all too clear. The situation at Holyrood in recent years does not compare well with Westminster, where committees have acquired a fearsome reputation. Bosses at Starbucks, Amazon and Google have been left reeling after grillings by MPs over tax, BBC chiefs were hammered over executive pay, and even Rupert Murdoch was ordered to account for himself over the phone hacking scandal.
The founding fathers of devolution simply had not allowed for the prospect of one party winning a majority under the Parliament’s hybrid voting system. They certainly didn’t countenance such a prospect twice in a row. The now departed Holyrood Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick, herself a nationalist, recognised the problem and set out proposals for committee chairs being elected by blind ballots to ensure their independence and less control for party whips in selecting members. This was rejected by MSPs on Holyrood’s standards committee, under the convenorship of – wait for it – former SNP minister Stewart Stevenson.
So will Nicola Sturgeon adopt a more collegiate approach at Holyrood when she becomes First Minister with the mandate of Scots at the ballot box, as seems inevitable, next month? The stakes are high. Ms Sturgeon’s flagship plans are to overhaul Scotland’s childcare system to provide effective full-time care and get a generation of mothers back into the workplace.
Driving down the schooling gap between rich and poor areas is the other major priority. These are transformational changes which will span generations, certainly beyond the lifetime of governments. Surely for the sake of getting these right and ensuring future administrations see them through, Ms Sturgeon should be reaching out for the widest possible backing at Holyrood – and leave the steamroller in the garage.