Monday, 10 May 2010

The Scottish dimension

One of the most remarkable aspects of this election has been the fact that no seats changed hands in Scotland. The West Lothian question - almost as intractable as the Schleswig-Holstein question - is also back on the political agenda. But have we done enough to learn from Scottish and Welsh experience of coalitions/minority governments?

Here are some interesting comments from leading Scottish politics expert Dr Paul Cairney of Aberdeen University:

The UK general election result has, for the first time in over three decades, produced a hung or balanced parliament. Since the UK has limited post-war experience of this outcome it is natural that commentators have begun to look elsewhere for lessons on the practicalities of minority and coalition government. Yet, there has been a notable absence of lesson-drawing from the Scottish Parliament (and the Welsh Assembly). This seems odd given that the Liberal Democrats have eight years’ experience of coalition government and the Conservatives have three year’s experience of supporting a minority government (suggesting that the parties involved might look to learn from their Scottish counterparts).

It is understandable that lessons should be sought from the most relevant political systems but no-one has established a definitive list that excludes Scotland (the Constitution Unit and Institute for Government’s Making Minority Government Work includes Canada, New Zealand and Scotland). I outline two points of comparison based on the two most prized qualities of government highlighted by David Cameron and Gordon Brown: strength and stability. From 1999-2007 the Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition government provided both. Its command of parliamentary seats (57% of the 129 seats in 1999 and 52% in 2003) was reflected not only in plenary but also in its majority of all committees (see Cairney .

This provided particular strength for the government which, to all intents and purposes, acted as a majoritarian government in the UK mould, passing an extensive programme of legislation (including annual budget bills) with virtually no effective opposition. Its impressive party whip and the high degree of voting cooperation within the coalition also ensured stability (if anything, Labour party dissent and in-fighting was more worrying than disagreements between the parties). Overall, the experience was heartening for a Scottish Labour party that prized above all else a ‘settled programme’ and feared the prospect of political embarrassment from political ambushes led by the SNP that they loathed so much.

This was followed from 2007 by an SNP minority government (36% of seats) which, although less stable, has still been able to last well beyond the international average (14 months compared to 18 for coalitions and 30 for single party majorities) and should complete a full 4-year term. Its minority status has also made it relatively ‘weak’ although there have been surprisingly few instances of real problems. It loses many non-binding motions, has had to forego some legislation that it does not have parliamentary support for (including the referendum on independence bill and a bill to introduce local income tax), came under sustained pressure on the Lockerbie issue and had an annual budget bill voted down (a new, but virtually the same, bill was passed soon after), but no event has affected its status.

Overall, the approach taken by the other parties is that the SNP may often be doing the wrong thing but it has the right to try. Of course there are qualifications to each tale which make direct comparisons difficult – e.g. the Scottish Parliament already uses PR and there is an assumption that coalition or minority will always occur, the Liberal Democrats are closer ideologically to Labour, The Scottish Liberal Democrats appeared less constrained by their membership (and the ‘triple lock’ in particular), the SNP is popular and no-one wants another election, the rules on dissolving governments are different – but such reservations apply to all comparisons of two things that are not identical.

The Scottish case is also important because there is a tendency to assume that its politicians still operate in the ‘Westminster mould’ despite their access to new institutions and the symbolism of their non-adversarial chamber. As such, perhaps the most telling lesson comes from the unwillingness of politicians or parties in Scotland to ‘rock the boat’ for fear of being blamed for an extra election during a time of economic crisis. Ironically, economic instability may provide the platform for a significant period of political stability".

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