For reasons too boring to explain, the Scottish Parliament has its state opening on the day it goes into the summer recess. This year, for the third time, the Queen spoke to MSPs about how in 1999 the parliament had generated “what might now with hindsight seem unrealistic expectations”. Well, I don’t know about unrealistic, but the expectations have gone through the roof.
It is only six weeks since the Alex Salmond became First Minister of Scotland’s first minority SNP government, but he seems to have achieved more in that time than his three predecessors did in eight years. The initiatives and announcements have come so thick and fast that the intensely sceptical Scottish media has been largely blown away.
When Salmond was elected First Minister, by the narrowest of margins in May, it was widely expected that his administration would be short lived and ineffectual. With only 47 out of 129 MSPs, the odds against effective government looked overwhelming. But the Nationalists simply carried on regardless, using executive powers to implement large parts of their election manifesto, almost before the other opposition parties had gathered their wits.
The SNP have abolished the graduate endowment (postgraduate fees), bridge tolls and nuclear power. They have extended free personal care, promised a massive house-building programme, frozen council tax, abolished business rates for small companies, cut prescription charges, halted private sector involvement in the NHS, saved local hospitals. They have also introduced one of the world’s most ambitious targets for C02 reductions – 80% by 2050 – in their Climate Change Bill; begun the process of cutting primary class sizes to 18; and reviewed major infrastructure projects in Scotland, like Edinburgh’s light railway and the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link (EARL).
In 24 divisions in the Scottish Parliament since May, the Nationalists have only lost one vote of any significance – that was on their attempt to axe Edinburgh’s £650 million tram system. In the closing week of the session, the opposition parties finally got their act together and insisted that the SNP Finance Secretary, John Swinney, give the go-ahead to the project, which has already cost over a hundred million before a single rail has been laid.
The SNP gave in gracefully, accepted the will of parliament, and somehow turned defeat into a kind of victory for the “new politics” of consensus and co-operation that Alex Salmond promised to pursue in office. It was making a virtue of a necessity, but in practice, the Nationalists have discovered that consensus can work to their advantage – especially when the opposition parties are unable to agree on how to take them on.
So, this is an administration with no visible means of support, which has managed to suspend disbelief and govern as if it were a majority party. It has been an extraordinary achievement, and is largely down to the personality and leadership of Alex Salmond, who has dominated the Holyrood chamber in the past weeks in a way none of his predecessors have. Even one of his most prominent opposition critics told me that Salmond has “played a blinder”.
First Minister’s Question Time used to be a dull and inconsequential event, dubbed “hamster wars” by the press, who regarded it as an embarrassing waste of time. Not any more. The gallery is packed for Salmond’s weekly performance and he has provided excellent copy. The Scottish press isn’t easily impressed, but journalists and commentators of all political persuasion and none have agreed that Salmond has made the Scottish parliament come alive. Even many opposition MSPs I speak to agree. The quality of debates has increased, questions are sharper and better informed, and ministerial statements are coherent and .
It can’t go on of course, and the reckoning will come in the autumn when the SNP has to find ways to finance its ambitious spending programmes. Axing projects like the Edinburgh trams was intended to release funds for other uses, but will not. However, John Swinney, announced on the closing day of the parliamentary session that cumulative End Year Flexibilities – that’s the cash the previous administration had been unable to spend by the end of the financial year – has risen to £1.5bn – a tidy sum. Reducing the size of the Scottish Executive should also release cash.
But will Gordon Brown bring the party to an end? The new Prime Minister has been under pressure from the Conservatives and the London media over the alleged unfairness of Scotland abolishing university tuition fees when English students are paying variable top up fees. Brown has argued, correctly, that Nationalist policies have to be paid within a finite budget, and any new spending has to be balanced by cuts in other areas. But that has only intensified the anger of those who believe Scotland receives too much public spending for her own good.
There are suggestions that Brown might seek to reform Barnett but the crunch may com ebefore that – over the SNP’s plans to abolish council tax and replace it with a local income tax. At present, Scotland receives £380m in council tax benefit, and the new Chancellor, Alistair Darling, is believed to be unwilling to keep paying this. No council tax; no benefit, is the line from the Treasury. The Scottish Executive is also demanding back payments of attendance allowances of £23 million a year (in 2000 prices) which was withheld when Holyrood introduced free personal care for the elderly. The cost of this programme has increased from £140 million to over £200 million a year.
Certainly, there will be some hard talking in the autumn, as the next comprehensive spending review is put together. But the Treasury will have to be careful. Salmond is on record as saying that he believes the Barnett Formula should be scrapped and Scottish MPs denied full voting rights in parliament. If Westminster takes a tough line on spending, it might find the Scottish Executive demanding a review of oil revenues and the repatriation of taxation powers to Holyrood.