Something extraordinary happened last week, though you wouldn’t have realised from the patchy coverage it received in the press. The minority nationalist government in Scotland got its first budget accepted, in principle, by parliament by a majority of two votes. Only nine months ago, the consensus was that the SNP would be lucky to survive this long as a government, let alone get its its high-spending policies onto the statute book more or less unscathed.
The arithmetic seemed insuperable. The SNP have only 47 seats in the Scottish parliament out of 129. Labour have 46, the Conservatives 17, the Liberal Democrats 16, the Greens 2 and the independents one. A measure of Alex Salmond’s vulnerability is that the independent MSP, Margo Macdonald - an ex-nationalist rebel by the way - only needed to cast her solitary vote against the SNP for the government’s majority to disappear. Perhaps this explains why she won a pot of money for her Capital Development Fund in Edinburgh.
But if the SNP are so weak, how did they manage to get their budget past the combined strength of the unionist parties? Well, first of all by winning the tactical support of the Scottish Conservatives. The Tories have been nowhere in Scottish politics in the last couple of decades and are desperate to show that they still matter. Their policy has been to support the SNP to the extent that they endorse specific parts of the Conservative’s own policy programme: cuts in business taxes, more police on the streets and a drugs rehabilitation programme.
As it happens, the Tories didn’t get very sound assurances on any of their demands. In the budget debate the financial secretary, John Swinney, promised to look at bringing forward a reduction in business rates for small companies and increasing police numbers, but he said he could not give any guarantees Still, it was enough for the Tories to get that much recognition, and they supported the nationalist government in the key vote.
Labour accused the Tories of being “the useful idiots of separatism”, but Labour are looking not a little stupid themselves. Real questions have to be asked as to why the main opposition party found it so difficult to impose its political personality on this budget given the SNP’s numerical weakness. Labour spokesmen complained about broken promises from the SNP on class sizes, grants to first time home buyers and student debt. But they were unsuccessful in winning support in committee for their own policies on more apprenticeships and social spending guarantees.
Labour’s lack of edge may be a result of the trauma it experienced when it lost office in May. The party has been in denial since the Scottish elections when it insisted that it had won a kind of moral victory. The nationalist experiment would be short-lived, they consoled themselves, and the crunch would come over the budget. But Labour has shown itself to be singularly ineffective in shorting in this government’s life. Shadow ministers are clearly suffering from the loss of civil servants to crunch numbers and develop policy. Labour MSPs are finding that it isn’t so easy to be an effective opposition, that it requires hard graft and difficult choices.
The SNP is used to thinking for itself, and doing without civil service briefs. The nationalists entered government with a panache and purposefulness which impressed and energised officials. Swinney struck a concordat with Scotland’s local authorities to end ring-fencing of spending, and in return won a freeze on council tax. This drove a wedge between Labour politicians in the Scottish Parliament and in Scotland’s council chambers, where Labour are prepared to work constructively with the government.
The SNP administration is still living dangerously, but it is also delivering on its key promises on reducing business rates, cutting prescription charges, restoring free school meals, cutting class sizesin primary schools, scrapping student fees, boosting renewable energy. After the election we all pointed to the wish list that was the SNP’s election manifesto, and scoffed at their ability to deliver. How would they pay for it all? Well, mostly they have. The only really serious concession won by the opposition was to keep Edinburgh’s costly tram scheme, which may turn out to be a millstone round the oppositions parties’ necks.
There are still questions about how this government is going to fund its programmes given that this is the tightest fiscal round since devolution. The Scottish budget will rise by little more than than half the rate of previous CSRs. The SNP still has to say exactly how it is going to save some £1.6 bn over the next three years by “more efficient government”.
And the budget bill has still to pass through its second stage where amendments can be made in committee. But the key vote on principle has been taken. The opposition parties will find it very difficult now to derail this budget without derailing the entire budget process and forcing a reversion to last year’s estimates. This was the most serious test of this minority government and to everyone’s surprise it has passed.