Sunday, 28 December 2008

A Year in the Life of the Scottish Parliament

This is the original, English draft of an article published in the May 2008 edition of Barn magazine. The aim was to "set the scene" for readers, introduce them to the players in the Scottish Parliament and summarise the twelve months following the May 2007 elections.

It's been almost a year since the last elections to the Scottish Parliament, which delivered a one-seat lead for the Scottish National Party over Labour, the election of Alex Salmond as Scotland's fourth First Minister, and the formation of the SNP minority Government. However, the fact that it did not have a majority, and the fact that, as critics said, the SNP had “never run anything bigger than Falkirk Council”meant that discussions in Scotland concerned the lack of stability that would be a factor in politics. It was felt that the Government could not last a full four years, that it would be only a matter of time before it fell.

One year later, no one asks questions about the stability or survival of the Scottish Government. Debate now focuses on whether or not the SNP will be able to implement its programme: even so, the SNP have generally done well. Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon's first move in the job was to abandon plans to close Accident & Emergency Units in Lanarkshire and Ayr. Proposals to end tolls on the Forth and Tay Road Bridges received almost universal support. Plans to freeze levels of Council Tax at their 2007 levels gained acclaim from all of Scotland's local Councils and the SNP's first Budget in office passed with support from the Conservatives and the Independent Member of the Scottish Parliament.

In fact, only one piece of legislation proposed by the Government has been rejected by Parliament: a piece of secondary legislation on temporary alternatives to prison sentences while Scotland's jails are overcrowded. And even that fell by accident: the measure had Liberal Democrat support, but four Liberal Democrat MSPs voted against it by mistake and two more missed the vote entirely! However, the opposition parties do frequently pass motions criticising the Government, but none of them are binding, and it's increasingly rare for the Scottish press to report on them now. While the SNP needs the support of at least one other party for its proposals, it usually gets it.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have surprised everyone. As there was a majority Coalition until May 2007, and the Tories were not the main Opposition party, they were seen as irrelevant in Scottish politics. However, the party's 16 MSPs (and their votes) are now important: for example, without their support the SNP's Budget would not have cleared its first parliamentary hurdle. As a result, they've managed to gain major concessions from the Government, particularly on issues such as crime, policing and drugs policy. They are needed, and they know it.

Labour, however, has a difficult twelve months. It took three months for Jack McConnell to resign as Labour Leader, and the trigger was probably the offer by Gordon Brown to make him the next High Commissioner to Malawi, rather than the continual attacks on his Leadership from unnamed party sources. Wendy Alexander was returned unopposed as his successor. Nevertheless, she prepared to fight a Leadership campaign and began raising funds for it. Unfortunately for her, it was discovered that one of the donors lived on Jersey, and was not registered to vote in the UK, so his donation was illegal. In the event, the Electoral Commission decided not to prosecute either her or Charlie Gordon, the Labour MSP who arranged the donation, but the 'Wendygate' scandal dominated the first months of Alexander's leadership.

But that hasn't been the only problem: her performances in the Chamber have been weak, Labour Councillors have been working more constructively with the SNP Government than they did with the previous Labour/LibDem administration, and her initiatives to out-manoeuvre the SNP on constitutional issues keep getting hijacked by the UK Government, which is opposed to seeing the Scottish Parliament gain additional powers. And the most humiliating moment came when the party spent three months attacking the SNP's Budget proposals, only for the party's MSPs to abstain on the vote to pass them into law.

The Liberal Democrats started badly as well: until recently, the party continued to vote with the Labour group and people thought the coalition between the two parties was still ongoing. However, the Party's Leader, Nicol Stephen, looks more secure than he did last Summer, and he is beginning to get used to occasions like First Minister's Questions. The party has also begun to distance itself from Labour and re-establish its own identity.

And so, as we approach the first anniversary of the formation of the SNP Government, it's SNP activists who are the most satisfied. It's little wonder that the most obvious feeling at the Nationalists' recent Conference was contentment.

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