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Alex, Whaur’s Yer Bills

Bills, bills, bills. They wanted bills; so they’ll get bills. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been castigating Alex Salmond for failing to deliver a legislative programme. For being feart in Holyrood and running scared of his minority status. “Come on Alex”, they cry, “Whaur’s yer bills”.

Well, this week,as parliament returns, the SNP government will propose a whole raft of bills on bridge tolls,rape, tuition fees, culture, climate change, firearms and possibly even the Commonwealth Games. And here’s the twist – the opposition parties will have to back most of them. Anyone looking for a series of spectacular defeats in the near future is likely to be disappointed.

The opposition parties’ presumption has been that the nationalists wanted to avoid putting any bills before Holyrood for fear of losing votes. Labour and the Liberal Democrats even planned to fill the legislative vacuum by setting up an “alternative executive” and tabling their own legislation on issues, like education, using private members bills and the legislative powers of parliamentary committees.

However, the premise was false. Certainly, this minority executive would find it impossible to push through divisive measures like a referendum on independence, but that doesn’t mean it can’t deliver legislation. Take the bill on rape. This is based on proposals from the solicitor general, Elish Angiolini, to deal with the low rate of convictions in rape trials. Are Labour wimmin going to oppose that? I think not. Margaret Curran, the shadow justice minister has already hailed it as a “welcome” improvement.

Labour has also signalled support for the abolition of bridge tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges. Nor, somehow, do I see them opposing a new culture bill, since it follows their own cultural commission. Or Glasgow’s bid for the Commonwealth Games if that requires a bill. The Libdems will have difficulty opposing the abolition of the graduate endowment or firearms legislation.

Yes. I know. Holyrood doesn’t actually have responsibility for firearms, and can’t ban airguns without Westminster approval. But this has been placed in the programme precisely to focus the current debate on extending the powers of the Scottish parliament. The opposition parties have said that they want to see more powers for Holyrood. Well, here’s a concrete example – do they want it or not?

Labour and the Liberal Democrats have repeated the miscalculation they made immediately following the May election. Then, Jack McConnell and co. belived the SNP minority administration would be impotent and would collapse within weeks, allowing Labour to sweep back into office. . It didn’t happen. Salmond simply pressed ahead using his executive powers to launch a blizzard of initiatives from abolishing nuclear power to handing more cash for the Edinburgh Festival.

Salmond has now responded to opposition complaints about the bills famine by stuffing legislation down their throats. But shouldn’t Labour have seen this coming? Did they really think the new government would leave parliament with nothing to do? Salmond has an entire civil service at his disposal full of ideas for legislation. It’s what they do.

There are complaints that the legislation is not very ambitious or controversial; that Salmond is playing safe. But didn’t they hear himsay in his acceptance speech in May that he would not impose measures on parliament, but intended to move by consensus, seeking cross-party agreement at every stage? This is exactly what he is now doing – seeking tabling only the kind of bills which are likely to get majority support. There’s nothing particularly radical about it

The SNP will use the same cross-party approach on issues like abolishing council tax – supported by the Libdems – and cutting business rates – supported by the Tories – to mobilise issue by issue majorities. Under their wily parliament minister, Bruce Crawford, the SNP have already been doing this very successfully ever since they took office – winning votes on Trident, skills academies and local income tax. Indeed out of thirty odd votes, they have only lost one of any significance and that was on the Edinburgh trams – of which more later.

Really, Labour and the Lib Dems have been showing all the wisdom of the Pentagon war planners in their post-election strategy for dealing with the SNP. Instead of whinging about legislative programmes, and making vainglorious pronouncments about alternative governments, they should’ve been trying to win back the hearts and minds of Scottish voters. Hopefully, exposure to the constituents over the summer will have concentrated Labour’s mind on the extraordinay popular response to Alex Salmond’s leadership. It’s been unlike anything I have seen in Scottish politics before.

So the first thing Labour has to do is accentuate the positive – be as confident and ambitious as the SNP. Just warning about the dangers of independence will not do this. Now, Wendy Alexander has made a good start, promising to enter the debate on the constitution, and taking up issues like affordable housing which have fallen beneath the nationalist radar. She might also consider appealing to Scotland’s latent social democratic instincts by challenging the SNP’s presumption that cutting the taxes of businessmen is going to promote social justice.

There is a very large group of Scots, from middle class and working class backgrounds, who can’t afford a decent house and note with dismay that plutocratic captains of industry are paying less tax than their cleaners. Many of our top companies are paying no corporation tax at all. Is this really the right climate in which to slash business taxes, as the SNP propose? Does the SNP still believe in social equity or is it now the party of Brian Souter?

The SNP has few ideological roots, being essentially a single issue movement, so it is peculiarly vulnerable to special pleading by private interests with money. Mind you, so was New Labour. But Tony Blair is history, and with the SNP reportedly offering privileged access to ministers to businessmen prepared to part with ten grand to sponsor an event at their conference, perhaps it’s time for a just a hint of good old class warfare. Wendy has a great tradition of Scottish socialism to draw on here – though she may have to curb her own infatuation with businessmen and their jargon.

Which brings us to the SNP budget bill. Labour can’t simply vote this down, as some have proposed, because to do so would plunge the finances of the nation into chaos and invite the wrath of the voters. Recall the fate of Newt Gingrich in 1996 when the Republicans tried this against Bill Clinton. However, the SNP is likely to have trouble balancing the books, and the cuts it chooses could offer Labour a chance to challenge the SNP’s prejudices.

It’s just a pity that the opposition gave Salmond a get-out-of-jail-free card by imposing the half billion pound Edinburgh trams scheme on him. When difficult choices are made, the SNP leader will be able to say that, had the opposition not forced his hand, there might have been enough in the kitty to pay for everything. The budget is another bill the opposition will have to support with gritted teeth.

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?


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