27 May 2007
Alex Salmond is in office, but not in power. The Scottish National Party administration is a weak and feeble creature, unable to get its way in parliament, insecure and liable to be snuffed out at any moment by the combined might of the opposition parties.
Right? Wrong. Absolute tosh and garbage. This supposedly impotent administration has confounded the consensus of the commentariat, myself included, that it wouldn’t be able to do very much. If this is inactivity, heaven help us if the SNP ever get a working majority.
Salmond and co have simply brushed aside the pessimists and driven forward a programme of government which is bold and imaginative. Confidence trick it may be, but it’s a pretty good one. Hardly a day goes by without a new and eye-catching initiative making the headlines. Clean coal technology and reopening the Scottish pits; writing nuclear power out of the energy equation, carbon capture at Peterhead, scrapping the Edinburgh air link, reviewing free personal care, new measures on sex crime, freezing council tax, a Scottish television channel.
Yes, you heard it - a Scottish digital television channel. SNP people have been urging BBC executives to use the forthcoming analogue switch off as an opportunity to set one up. I can assure you that there is a lot of interest in this in Queen Margaret Drive from the top down, where the idea has been under discussion for some time.
Of course, like many initiatives the SBC may never see the light of day. Nor does the Scottish government actually possess the power, for example, to freeze council tax, according to authorities like Prof. Arthur Midwinter. But many SNP initiatives will materialise. There WILL be more police on the streets; local hospital emergency facilities, like Monklands, will stay open; free school meals will be restored; and prescription charges abolished. Postgraduate student fees will be scrapped and bridge tolls axed. The challenge will be to the opposition parties to stop Salmond dominating the public agenda.
For example, all the Scottish parties support free personal care and want to see it properly funded - which right now it isn’t. Frankly, I can’t see any of them siding with the Department of Work and Pensions on the issue of attendance allowances, when Salmond demands the #23 million back. Ditto public sector reform. Following the publication of the Howat report - which the previous administration had shamefully kept secret - Salmond is promising to make the Scottish state more efficient and transparent and to cut a way through the bureaucratic jungle. He means it, and so do the Tories who will back him. Good-bye Scottish Enterprise - at least as we know it.
And it’s not all populism either. The SNP showed that they are capable of seeing beyond the next headline by not sacking Labour’s capable Elish Angiolini, as Lord Advocate, and by removing the post from cabinet. In doing this they took a real risk. In future, on issues like Shirley McKie, the Human Rights Act etc, the SNP will not have political influence over the Crown Office, and could lose control of events. But, as Tony Blair used to say, it was the right thing to do.
The opposition parties - with the exception of the Scottish Tories who have seized the new opportunities with both hands - haven’t got the measure of this new administration at all. Like the political commentators, they are still thinking that Salmond is a hog-tied minority leader with a big mouth and no power. The Liberal Democrat leader-in-waiting Tavish Scott last week accused the Nationalists of “hitting the ground prevaricating”, as if they weren’t doing very much. He should try looking around.
The Nationalists have entered government with the same sense of determination and purpose Labour showed when it took office in Westminster in 1997. Of course, Tony Blair’s government had a 169 seat majority, whereas Salmond has a 20 seat deficit, and no visible means of support. It is being held aloft by will power alone, but the will certainly is there. This administration will have to be brought down by combined action off the opposition parties, and they are going to have to time this action very carefully indeed.
First of all, they need a casus belli - a justification for going to war with Salmond. It’s not that easy to think of one presenting itself, unless the First Minister does something deeply unpopular like releasing half the Scottish prison population. Not entirely fanciful, since the SNP is committed to replacing jail by community sentences.
However, Salmond will be careful to avoid doing anything so controversial that it could raise a confidence issue in the parliament. Instead, he is going to tighten up on the monitoring of sex criminals, and is even contemplating reopening the issue of Catholic adoption agencies right to refuse gay couples. The Left shouldn’t assume that this administration will be particularly liberal.
Which leaves the opposition parties with the option of forcing Salmond out by cutting off his financial lifeline - refusing to support the budget to pay for all Salmond’s initiatives. This is the surest way of forcing another election, and they would have the active assistance of the UK Treasury in choking off Salmond’s cash. However, the opposition parties might find that they have fashioned a noose for their own necks if they do this.
Salmond would go to the country on the strength of the agenda outlined in his first hundred days, the most ambitious prospectus put before the electorate since 1999. He would force Labour to argue the case for hospital closures, more bureaucrats, keeping council tax, prescription charges etc.. Following its disastrous outing at the last election, Labour is in no shape to fight an election. Its leader, Jack McConnell, has been kicked around the press by his own MSPs, by Labour MPs and by the UK campaign team, who have no confidence in him. Yet, as we saw last week, the only credible challenger Wendy Alexander, the hungry caterpillar, is simply not ready to take over yet, if at all.
Nor will the Scottish Press be so eager to support Labour as they were last time. They have been shown to be dangerously out of touch with their own readers. So, there is every possibility that an early election could be equally damaging to Labour, and that the SNP could be returned with a substantially increased majority. This is what happened in 1966 and in 1974 when minority Labour administrations in Westminster sought re-election after finding that they couldn’t continue. The people gave them a mandate to show what they could really do.
So, Labour may well decide that it would be fatal to strike early, even if it could line up the support of the Liberal Democrats and the Tories. Which means we may all have been wrong again in believing that this government will be short-lived. Salmond is going to be given space to show what he can do. He has called our bluff, and he intends to go on calling it.