Eddie Barnes: After the Supreme Court row and FMQ furore, have the scales tipped too far in Alex Salmond's favour?

'WHAT are we going to do to improve the situation?" asked Iain Gray. The question was to do with worrying reports of poor care for elderly people in Scotland. Gray sat down, and Alex Salmond, in his first First Minister's Questions since the SNP's landslide victory in the Scottish election, began to answer.

There was a lack of integration in health and social care, he began. Attempts to get the NHS and care workers to co-ordinate had been left on a voluntary basis, he continued. "Why is that important?" Salmond then asked himself, in a novel twist on the Parliamentary Question session. Because it hadn't guaranteed that the co-ordination right across the country was good enough, he replied. Therefore it needed to be made compulsory. "In the spirit of not looking to score party-political points…" he continued, bed-blocking - or delayed discharges - had come down markedly since the mid part of the last decade. A few more points… therefore, he concluded, the country should take what is "good and proper" in the system.

It was as comprehensive an answer as they come. And as Gray's turn went, and his fellow opposition leaders had theirs, the lyrical waxing of the First Minister continued. As 12.30pm came, the end of the half-hour session, the newly appointed Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick ordered extra time to ensure another question could be fitted in, bringing it up to a grand total of six. There was a Tory question on the plight of the berry picking industry, and Salmond managed to turn his answer into a jibe at the Thatcherite instincts of the Conservatives.

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Salmond has never needed a second invitation to dominate a room. Last week, his, and the SNP's, dominance of parliamentary affairs was clear to see. Along with its unprecedented total of 69 MSPs, the governing party was handed nine of the parliament's 14 influential committee convenorships. Add to that the fact that Marwick, who has the job of watching over Salmond for the next five years, is also from the Nationalist camp, and the power of the SNP over both the executive and the legislature appears complete.

The impression of all-powerful executive flexing its muscles was then cemented in the row over the UK Supreme Court's decision to overturn the conviction of Nat Fraser, jailed for life by the Scottish courts for murdering his wife Arlene. Senior legal figures raised issues on both sides of the row, with questions continuing to be asked. But the debate was dominated by an extraordinary intervention from justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, who raised the prospect of withholding funding for the court if it continued to take on cases that "we as a country" did not approve of."I will not routinely fund ambulance-chasing lawyers," he said, of the UK's highest court, on which sit two of Scotland's most eminent judges. "He who pays the piper, as they say, calls the tune." The issue of non-payment appears to have been scrubbed for now. But Salmond said he fully backed his justice secretary in parliament last week. The message was that this government is not for turning.

This weekend, in the wake of the Supreme Court affair, Salmond's opponents have spotted an opportunity. Voters may have overwhelmingly backed the Nationalists last month at the polls, but they are unlikely to be impressed if the government is then portrayed as arrogant. Is the SNP's numerical strength going to turn out to be its weakness? Labour MSP Hugh Henry - fresh from failing to win the presiding officer job following a vote by MSPs - described the SNP majority administration as "an elected dictatorship". The new Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, already making a name for himself as Natbasher-in-chief, calls it a "bulldozer administration". The danger for the SNP is that Salmond ends up being painted as a callous chip leader, able - whenever he wants - to bully opponents out of the game. So has, as its opponents claim, the SNP already succumbed to hubris? Or is this just bleating from bad losers who can't accept that the SNP knocked them into a cocked hat?

THIS is not the first time such a devolved administration has run Scotland, of course. As SNP figures were keen to note last week, for eight years, a majority administration ran Scotland, with majority control over the parliament's committees, and a deadlock on the parliamentary arithmetic. The only difference was that the two Lib-Lab pacts, headed by Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell comprised two parties, not one. "Nobody was going on about all this stuff when they were in power," said one SNP MSP, irritated by the talk of hubris. The new SNP administration is not aiming to copy that previous majority government, the Nationalists say. Instead, and as an antidote to the accusations of over-reach, they say they will mimic pretty much exactly what they did for the past four years.

During that spell, when it only had 47 MSPs out of a total of 129, consensus-building was not an option if the SNP government was going to survive on a day-to-day basis. That, say ministers, built up a discipline in terms of dealing with their own backbenchers, their opponents and the parliament as a whole, which they do not want to ditch now just because the maths has changed. On arriving at Holyrood last month, SNP MSPs were told the party wanted to govern as if it was still in a minority. Meanwhile, Bruce Crawford, the SNP's chief whip, has warned colleagues the party cannot be seen to be triumphalist.There is a wider point to this: the public liked the way the SNP sought to bring other parties on board in the last parliament - so much so that many natural Tories, Labour and Lib Dem voters decided to vote for it last month. Hence, with an independence referendum in the offing, and a coalition of voters needing built, consensus building remains the name of the game.

Already last week, the government's main cabinet secretaries were holding meetings with their opposition counterparts to brief them on their plans for the next few weeks. Green co-convener Patrick Harvie says it is too early to judge whether Team Salmond 2.0 is a more arrogant version than its predecessor. But he adds: "Just this week, there was a meeting that John Swinney had with the other finance spokespeople to talk them through how the budget process would work. My colleague Alison Johnston also had meetings with the education secretary. So, so far, they seem to living up to the idea that they are going to be open with other parties."

As for the idea that the SNP cabinet toughies will expect slavish obeisance from the parliament, now that they run the show, SNP backbenchers insist otherwise. Stewart Maxwell, nominated as convener of the Education Committee, declares: "I find it rather insulting that SNP conveners would somehow be completely subservient in their role in the parliament." Maxwell says that the SNP MSPs, as with all others, know that the day job in parliament requires running the rule over legislation, and responding to issues as they arise.

The fact that the SNP now has an in-built majority may allow the party to loosen up a little, says Maxwell. "I think now people will be able to spend more time looking at legislation and being critical of it because it won't be a case of 'Oh God, the government is in crisis.'" Other SNP sources say the same, noting how - last time round - concerns by SNP MSPs tended to be dealt with in private with ministers to avoid blood-letting on the floor of the parliament. This time, with the collapse of the government now off the radar, such differences may be aired more publicly. That's not to say that the SNP's discipline of the past four years is going to be allowed to dissipate. To cope with the extra numbers, the number of whips has been increased from four to five. "There's one on each floor of the MSPs' block," notes one SNP source.

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As Harvie says, a verdict is too early to provide. Where the SNP government has undoubtedly hardened up its approach, however, is in its political attitude to Westminster. In an interview with Holyrood magazine last month, Nicola Sturgeon brushed aside any suggestion that SNP demands for powers over things like excise duty could be knocked back. "Westminster has to realise that the days of just brushing off these reasonable suggestions from the Scottish Government have gone," she asserted.This week, Salmond will take that message direct to David Cameron, with the pair meeting in London for the first time since the election. The point will be blunt: as far as we're concerned, Scots voted for this. Now deliver.

As for the new government's approach to public affairs across Scotland, groups which crossed the SNP in its first term are now worried about "revenge" attacks, fearing that the SNP administration will use its new majority to settle the scores it failed to push through last time round. Numerous interest groups and public sector organisations have attested to how Salmond used his executive power in the most "muscular" fashion over the past four years. Now they are concerned that, with parliament also under his wing, and with the SNP's mandate increased, that can only intensify. At present, still digesting the SNP's extraordinary victory, many public bodies are simply sitting on their hands. The lack of any great complaint about the direction of the new government, says one senior figure, is "because no-one wants to be the first one to get shot down" when budget cuts are in the offing.

Salmond's opponents find themselves in an odd position; by railing against the powers of the SNP administration, they sail dangerously close to criticising the verdict of the thousands of voters who decided to put it there. On the other hand, voters will be quick to turn if they sense that their trust is being taken advantage of by a cavalier government. The jury is out for now. But the task will be to ensure that, in this occasion, absolute power does not corrupt at all.