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The Scottish opposition parties could govern after May – but do they want to?

There’s only one question at the start of this crucial election year: have they got the bottle? Do the Scottish opposition parties really want to be in government after the Holyrood elections in May?

I’m afraid that the short answer is: no they don’t. Which is very unfortunate because a change of government is precisely what the Scottish Parliament needs. In fact, it might do the Scottish Labour Party good to spend a little time in opposition to discover what it really wants to do with devolution.

That Labour could be defeated in May is beyond doubt. All the evidence from opinion polls, local elections, by-elections like Dunfermline and Moray confirms that there is a strong “anyone-but-Labour” mood among Scottish voters. Party workers have deserted in droves.

Indeed, to hear some insiders speak you almost wonder if there is a Scottish Labour Party worth the name. If you stripped out elected members and their retinues, what would be left? Not a lot, perhaps. Labour doesn’t even have a lot of cash left for fighting the Scottish parliamentary election, following the cash for peerages scandal, which has frightened a lot of business donors away.

Jack McConnell can do very little about all this, since most of Labour’s troubles originate Westminster. The Scottish Executive has been performing pretty well of late, as the list of 280 achievements published by Labour last week confirmed. A lot of things are going right with the economy. But the voters are in an ugly mood and seem unprepared to give Labour any credit.

However, the likelihood is that Jack McConnell will lose the election but still remain in office government. This is because the opposition parties in Scotland – as I see them right now – are not in a mood for a change of government. That may seem absurd – what are political parties there for if not to win power? But that is to misunderstand the dynamics of opposition, and the challenges posed by coalition politics.

Let’s take a hypothetical outcome: Labour loses seven seats and is reduced to 43, the SNP get 36 (up 9); the Liberal Democrats 21 (up 3); the Greens get 10 (up 3) and the Tories get 17. Many would regard this as a serious rebuff to Labour, but it would still be the largest party and could continue governing with the support of the Liberal Democrats on a minority basis – perhaps with the support of independents like Margo Mac Donald who has fallen out badly with the SNP – provided the other parties didn’t get their act together. The Greens and the SNP would need need the support of the Scottish Conservatives to get near power, which isn’t going to happen.

Of course, if the Liberal Democrats went in with the SNP and the Greens, then a secure government majority could be formed of 67 seats. But that assumes that the Liberal Democrats want to be part of an SNP administration, and that isn’t at all clear.

Which would Nicol Stephen prefer? life under Jack McConnell, whom he knows he can do business with, or life under Alex Salmond, who is an unknown quantity and mistrusted by many LibDem MSPs? Look what the LibDems have got from Jack McConnell over the years: free personal care, tuition fees, electoral reform from local government etc.. They have been doing nicely under Labour.

Now, arguably, they should do even more nicely under the SNP because they share most of the nationalists’ policies: extending the powers of the parliament over tax, immigration , broadcasting and the like. Both parties oppose Trident and nuclear power, and both the SNP and the Liberal Democrats are unhappy with the authoritarian approach to crime and civil liberties. But there is one big issue between them that obscures all their agreements: independence.

The SNP are committed to a referendum on dissolving the union which must be held before the end of their first term of office. The Liberal Democrats, under their former leader, Jim Wallace, would not countenance any referendum on independence. They were opposed to any co-operation with the SNP so long as the nationalist sought to break up the UK. Wallace. This might seem like a bit of a contradiction for the Liberal Democrats, who have been happy in the past to support constitutional referendums. Why shouldn’t the Scottish voters have their say? But on this they are adamant: no deal.

So, the SNP would have to make some kind of move on the referendum issue if there were to be any prospect of an alternative coalition. Perhaps offering to delay the referendum until after the next-but-one Scottish elections in 2011. This would ensure that independence was not an issue in the first parliament of the Lib-SNP coalition. The Greens by the way already support independence, so no problems there.

This historic compromise would make a new coalition theoretically possible – but I see no indication of it being proposed. Neither party is giving any indication that they are even thinking in terms of a change of government in 2007. The SNP leader Alex Salmond might even face an internal revolt if he fiddled again with the referendum timing and appeared to be betraying independence. Many would be happier for the SNP just to maintain its purity in opposition and not have to bother about the compromise of office.

This is regrettable, if only because it represents a kind of betrayal of democracy. What is the point of people voting for a new government, if the new governors don’t want to govern? If both the Liberal Democrats and the SNP would, for their own narrow party reasons, prefer to stick with Labour what’s the point of their being there? This failure to explore the implications of the popular vote by the opposition will only fuel disillusion and cynicism about politics.

The voters of Scotland want a lead. They are dissatisfied with the lacklustre and under-confident administration of Labour, which has had too much of the air of the council chamber about it. Voters want a more dynamic and spirited political leadership, one which is not looking over its shoulders at London all the time. There are signs that the voters are overcoming their fear of independence also, and are prepared to explore further powers for the parliament, to make up for its deficiencies.

All it needs is for the opposition parties to give some kind of sign that an alternative is possible. Of course they can’t negotiate coalition before the election, but they do need to offer hope. The voters will do the rest.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


3 thoughts on “The Scottish opposition parties could govern after May – but do they want to?

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    Posted by Anonymous | September 8, 2006, 10:30 pm
  2. Iain, the problem here is clearly that the Liberals are setting their stall out before the election campaign has even begun.This is a rather dangerous way to play things, given that the electorate doesn’t take kindly to being told who the government will be.I rather suspect that, unfortunately, there will be more posturing to come from Nicol Stephen and his cohorts.It would be far more sensible not to say anything at all, but then we all know that sometimes Nicol can’t help himself.

    Posted by Mark McDonald | October 4, 2006, 9:53 am
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