When Alex Salmond found himself twice hauled before MSPs to explain away the behaviour of his government during his first spell in office, the parliament of the day was delivering a stark warning. The first minister was only running a minority government. He wasn’t in charge. Parliament was sovereign – and ready to knock the cocksure SNP leader into line whenever he was deemed to have overstepped the mark.
Financial rows over the 2009 Clan Gathering and Salmond’s courtship of his former “fave tycoon” Donald Trump saw the SNP leader’s wings clipped with a grilling from Holyrood committees. As Scotland prepares for a second period of minority rule under Nicola Sturgeon, Parliament now has a chance to re-assert some lost authority over the executive after five years of majority rule. But the febrile Scottish political climate of recent years does present a danger that “transformational” changes earmarked for the coming years may end up being sandbagged by opposition browbeating.
The SNP regime of 2007-11 was something of a “fasten-your-seatbelts” bare knuckle ride in the Holyrood village. Budgets were rejected, ministers were sacked, legislation was often thwarted and keynote manifesto pledges, like a local income tax, simply dropped. Consensual is not the word that springs to mind. At the same time, one of the first acts of that regime was to drop its long held opposition to the Edinburgh trams project in a nod to the will of parliament after losing a vote on the issue. This helped set a certain collegiate tone.
By and large, party managers were forced to bang their heads together and get things done. The decade-long council tax freeze was among the measures introduced in this period, along with the small business bonus and 1,000 extra police officers, which remain to this day.
That approach quickly disappeared in the last parliament as the SNP won an unprecedented 69 seats, returning Alex Salmond with a majority. This wasn’t supposed to happen at Holyrood, with the complex electoral system deliberately designed to prevent one party gaining such an advantage. It effectively meant untrammelled control over the levers of power in Scotland. The SNP seized the Presiding Officer’s chair and effective control of all the committees.
Measures were pushed through which met with a backlash such as the creation of a single national police force and the widely criticised Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, which fans have claimed is needlessly repressive.
It prompted widespread concerns about the robustness of Scotland’s democratic institutions. There was a feeling that it was all too easy for majority administrations to ride roughshod over wider concerns and push through policies with no obvious checks and balances.
Was this a factor in last week’s election result? The referendum certainly cast a long shadow over Scottish politics with many Yes voters sticking with the SNP, leaving the opposition to scrap it out over the No voters. But Tory strategists in particular say there were other dynamics at play. A growing disaffection with a perceived dictatorial approach of the SNP at Holyrood, along with a central belt bias, certainly featured. The Tory revival was most pronounced where they didn’t win seats but enjoyed a sweeping return of their vote in traditional strongholds like Perthshire, the North-east and Moray. This was more than a protest over the constitution, but something more fundamental at play over the way Scotland is governed.
All the opposition parties are now determined to find a solution to this constitutional conundrum, with reform of the committee system at Holyrood being firmly targeted. It looks likely this will be the first major issue where Nicola Sturgeon can expect a bloody nose from her newly strengthened rivals after the SNP-dominated procedures committee in the last parliament ruled out proposals for change which could have seen committee convenors elected by blind ballot, while opposition majorities on committees have even been touted.
The legislation to crack down on sectarian behaviour at football could be another to falter, with all the other parties at Holyrood having some reservations over the legislation. Flagship plans to cut Air Passenger Duty by half are also likely to fall, with the measure opposed by everyone but the SNP.
The divisive nature of the political debate in Scotland, with referendum wounds still raw, is far more pronounced than in 2007 when we had the last minority government. It makes you wonder how manageable such a set-up will be this time around. Parties must be ready to speak to each other, to do deals, even forge alliances on certain issues, to get things done. But this is against a backdrop of a Liberal Democrat party which faced near annihilation over its coalition agreement with the Tories at Westminster. As he celebrated the party’s election triumph in Edinburgh Western last Friday, Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie had the words “no coalition” on a continuous loop. If he said it once, he must have said it a dozen times.
Labour has undergone a catastrophic decline in Scotland since the referendum, with its involvement in the Better Together campaign and standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the Tories to blame, according to Nationalists. Kezia Dugdale’s party, like the Lib Dems and Greens, is so far away from the SNP on tax, it’s hard to see how the SNP could ever get a budget agreed.
The Tories themselves have faced criticism for “propping up” the last SNP minority government – and Ruth Davidson won her mandate from Scots this time around with a pledge to provide “strong opposition” to the SNP. She cannot be seen to be getting too cosy to the SNP in any way.
With “transformational” proposals to provide free universal childcare and end the gap in schooling standards between rich and poor areas at the heart of the new government programme for the next five years, Scots must hope their politicians can cease hostilities and adopt a mature, collegiate approach which minority government needs to work.