Somewhere over the Rainbow Coalition ...
From A History of the Scottish Republic, Edinburgh, 2015
THE Holyrood election of May 2007 - a mere 300 years after the Act of Union - was to prove the most dramatic in the early life of the revived Scottish Parliament. The once-hegemonic Labour Party was relegated to the back-benches for the first time. Power now passed to an Executive run in coalition by the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, with tacit Green support.
The likelihood of this mini Scottish revolution should have been apparent from the day the former Lib Dem leader, Jim Wallace, resigned, back in 2005.
Wallace had long eschewed any deal with the Nationalists. Partly, this was a personality thing - a Cambridge-educated QC, Wallace felt closer to the conservative Scottish lawyers' clique that included Donald Dewar (Labour’s first Holyrood leader) than to the mavericks of the SNP.
The SNP itself had made life difficult for Wallace by insisting that it would demand a referendum on independence as the price of entering a coalition. This referendum clause was a sop to the SNP's Sinn Fein wing, to convince them that participation in the devolved Scottish Parliament was not a disavowal of the holy cause of independence. But staunch federalists such as Wallace could hardly sign up for a referendum that might mean the break-up of Britain.
The curious thing about this state of affairs was that - independence aside - the Lib Dems and SNP had much in common. More indeed than each had with the Labour Party. Both supported a local income tax. Both were pro-European and wished to join the eurozone. Both opposed the war in Iraq. Both wanted a citizen's pension, paid as a matter of right. Both supported proportional representation using the STV method.
This embarrassingly close fit in programme was ignored in practice as SNP MSPs regularly disparaged Lib Dems for propping up the visionless Labour administration. Lib Dem backbenchers returned the favour by taking out on the SNP all their repressed resentment towards Labour that they could not show due to being coalition partners.
Then the 2005 Westminster general election broke the mould. First, it showed that the writing was on the wall for Labour as far as voters were concerned, with the Lib Dems the major beneficiaries. If the Lib Dems wanted to capitalise on these gains in Scotland, they could hardly be seen as Labour's permanent bidie-in.
Against this changing political background came the shock resignation of Jim Wallace and the enthronement of the young Nicol Stephen as Lib Dem leader. Sensing that the tectonic plates were shifting, Stephen announced that he would not rule out a coalition with the SNP.
Stephen's carefully-worded message was canny in the extreme. It signalled to his own members and MSPs that he was prepared to distance the party from Labour in order to win more seats in Scotland. It served notice on Labour that the Lib Dems could not be taken for granted. At worst, it meant the Lib Dems would get more ministerial posts in a renewed coalition with Labour. At best, the road was open for a genuinely radical Executive in 2007, in partnership with the SNP and the Greens.
However, it takes two to tango. The initial response of the SNP to Stephen’s overture was distinctly cool. An official spokesman noted that the SNP’s priority was to "win the Scottish election" outright in 2007, a fantasy which would require the Nationalists trebling their share of the poll in only 24 months.
In many ways, the SNP of the period remained hopelessly naive. As a devotee of proportional representation and European politics, it never drew the logical conclusion that - indubitably and inexorably - both implied coalition politics as their norm. Nor did the SNP grasp that the Scottish electorate, after two Holyrood elections, had grown particularly sophisticated at playing the PR roulette game.
Above all, the SNP of 2005 seemed not to grasp the truth that winning independence required far more than gaining an episodic, wafer-thin vote at an election and then declaring the game over. Building a sovereign Scottish nation willing to take its place in the world needed at least two-thirds of the people to permanently and irrevocably endorse independence.
Certainly, the polls taken during the 2005 general election showed that as much as 40 per cent of the Scottish electorate favoured independence - far more, in fact, than voted SNP. But getting that figure up to 60 per cent or more needed the Scottish nation to feel confident it could manage its own affairs. That meant booting Labour from power at Holyrood, and instituting a programme of government that regenerated Scottish institutions and reinvigorated the Scottish economy. And the only way to decapitate Labour was through coalition politics.
NEVERTHELESS, some in the SNP still saw the Lib Dems as their main competitors, given that the latter had surpassed the Nats in their share of the popular vote at the 2005 Westminster election. Yet there was a better way of looking at the election result. The combined Lib Dem and SNP vote (40.3 per cent) was higher than that for Scottish Labour (39.5).
The SNP leader, Alex Salmond, had made much of the fact that he would be First Minister after 2007. It was a call designed to put fire in the belly of demoralised SNP activists rather than a serious declaration. Fortunately, as the 2007 Holyrood election neared, Salmond adopted a more realistic tack.
He laid out a policy plan called Action 2007, designed to save Scotland from the economic recession that arrived in 2006. Action 2007 contained an agenda suspiciously similar to radical Lib Dem and Green policies, but not the Labour programme. Salmond said that Action 2007 would be the basis for any coalition talks should the SNP not win an outright majority. Cleverly, he also hinted that the SNP would alternate the post of First Minister with any major coalition partner - two years each.
As for the independence referendum, Salmond said he would put it on the table during any prospective coalition talks. He would even offer a multi-question referendum that included the favoured Lib Dem option of a federal Britain. But if there was no consensus for a referendum, it would have to wait. The alternative was letting Labour go on ruining the Scottish economy and throwing people out of work.
"Would Sir William Wallace or Robert the Bruce shrink from defending their country because they could not get agreement over a referendum?" asked Salmond rhetorically of his tiny band of critics inside the SNP. "This is not the final Battle of Bannockburn, but it is the Battle of Stirling Bridge."
The battle duly took place on 3 May, 2007. The earlier Westminster general election of 2005 had shown Scottish Labour was suddenly vulnerable in its urban heartland constituencies, even under a first-past-the-post system. In 2007, Labour won only 40 seats overall, compared with 33 for the SNP, 25 for the Lib Dems and ten for the Greens (who benefited from the implosion of the Trotskyist SSP). But this gave the Rainbow Coalition an effective overall majority at Holyrood.
Had the SNP decided to remain a coalition virgin forever it might have been Jack McConnell as First Minister that bright May morning in 2007. As it was, the Nationalists decided they were actually in the business of changing the world rather than just talking about it.
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