15 June 2007
Alex Salmond's government might be 'in office, not in power'. But that is not holding the Scottish National Party back from launching a radical public sector shake-up. Iain Macwhirter reports from the front line
When Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond was elected first minister last month – the first Nationalist to hold the post – he opened a new and fascinating chapter in Scottish history. And not just because he wants Scotland to become an independent country. In his speech of acceptance, he promised 'a new and fundamentally more reflective model of democracy' and said he would reduce the size of the state bureaucracy.
This will include shrinking the Scottish Executive, igniting a bonfire of quangos, axing a range of major infrastructure projects, replacing the Private Finance Initiative with bond issues, slashing business taxes and scrapping the council tax. If all this happened, it would amount to a kind of public sector revolution – and that's before Salmond has even started to unpick relations with Westminster and legislate for a referendum on independence.
But the rotund Salmond makes an unlikely Che Guevara, and his powers are limited. He has only 47 seats in a chamber of 129 and no visible means of legislative support. This administration lacks a formal coalition partner (although the Greens have offered limited support) and could be snuffed out at any moment by a 'no confidence' vote. When Salmond said in his acceptance speech that 'this government will rely on the strength of its argument in Parliament and not on the argument of parliamentary strength', he wasn't just turning an elegant phrase.
No-one said it would be easy – and it hasn't been. Much has been made of the failure of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to make the customary phone call to the newly elected Scottish leader. Meanwhile, relations have been further inflamed by the very public spat between Westminster and Holyrood over Libya and the Lockerbie bomber. And, although the civil service has accepted the new regime, the Labour Party is behaving as if it were still in office, while the Scottish Liberal Democrats have refused to co-operate with the SNP altogether.
Minority government works well in many parts of the world, such as Denmark and Canada. However, in general, successful minority administrations, like Helen Clark's in New Zealand, have relied on coalition partners to ensure that the administration can at least secure its budget and a minimal legislative programme. But the SNP administration is almost completely alone, since the LibDems have refused even to sit down and discuss a coalition (despite agreeing with most of the SNP manifesto). The SNP has appointed its ministers and hired its special advisers but has not provided a programme for government – an orchestra without a tune.
The opposition say that Salmond is in office but not in power. However, this hasn't prevented the first minister from behaving as if he is in charge. Already, the SNP has moved to slim Scottish government by cutting the number of departments from nine to six. The new directorates general – for education, economy, environment, health, justice and communities – are supposed to work holistically and answer to a strategic board under permanent secretary Sir John Elvidge. These will reabsorb the functions that have been performed by the proliferation of executive agencies, such as Communities Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and Scottish Enterprise.
Salmond is determined to get better value from the £30bn Scottish budget. As a sign of intent, the SNP published, in its first ten days in office, the report on the efficiency of Executive spending by Bill Howat, former chief executive of the Western Isles Council. This had been commissioned by the previous administration but withheld from publication for almost a year.
This embarrassingly frank document exposed a spendthrift culture in which ministers under the Labour-led administrations had been spending public money essentially for the sake of it. 'Programme management is too much about spending the available budget rather than defining clearly what needs to be provided,' said Howat. The report also criticised the 'costly and complex web of public bodies and agencies' through which Scotland is administered and called for this 'crowded landscape' to be reviewed as soon as possible.
The Howat Report suggested that the Scottish Executive could save up to £1.2bn a year, which was just what the SNP wanted to hear. However, there is a long way to go before the party can be sure that it will achieve the efficiency savings of £2.7bn over three years promised in its manifesto. For a start, it has pledged that there will be no significant job losses as a result of its efficiency drive.
Nor will the new finance and sustainable growth minister, John Swinney, agree to make the specific cuts identified in the Howat Report. For example, he has rejected the proposal to save £180m by turning Scottish Water into a mutual company and has refused to authorise cuts in health spending and roads maintenance worth another £100m.
Scottish Enterprise is to be slimmed down, but not its £500m budget. With the SNP's promise on job losses, it doesn't appear that the bureaucrats have cause to be shaking at their desks. So far, the only identifiable saving from the efficiency drive is £500,000 from the reduction in Cabinet salaries.
The Nationalists are finding that it is morally uplifting to talk about efficiency and savings but much more agreeable to spend. So far, they have abolished toll charges on the Forth and Tay road bridges and reversed the closure of accident and emergency departments at Monklands and Ayr hospitals. This latter move was roundly criticised by the respected oncologist, Professor David Kerr, responsible for the 2005 Kerr Report on hospital reorganisation. He said that keeping open full A&E services at these hospitals was 'sentimental, emotional, irrational' and would not make the best use of resources. The SNP said it was simply responding to public opinion.
And hospitals are only the start. The SNP is also committed to abolishing prescription charges, reintroducing free school meals, abolishing the graduate endowment (a kind of graduate tax), giving lump sum financial help to first-time home buyers, reducing business rates, cutting class sizes, hiring a thousand new police and freezing and ultimately abolishing council tax.
A lot of this is supposed to be paid for by efficiency savings in government of 1.5% a year – and much of the rest by abolishing costly infrastructure projects such as the Edinburgh tram system, which costs upwards of £600m. The SNP says that this project is out of control – £100m has been spent on the tram project already, and not a single rail has been laid. Nor is there conspicuous support for the system from the people of Edinburgh, who baulk at the prospect of years of disruption as the city's roads are dug up. However, the tramway has the support of the opposition parties in Parliament and even from some Nationalist MSPs, including the rail enthusiast Professor Chris Harvie.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have twice ambushed the new government on the tram issue in the chamber, putting down motions in successive weeks calling on the government to make clear where it stands. So far, the government has seen them off, with the help of the Conservatives, who agree that the finances of the project should be re-examined and are waiting to see the books opened. Swinney has asked the head of Audit Scotland, Bob Black, to assess the financial health of the scheme before the end of the parliamentary session. This leaves only about a fortnight for the auditors to complete their work, but the SNP is confident that the report will furnish the figures to justify axing the project.
The government also plans to downsize the ambitious Edinburgh Airport Rail Link plans, which include building a station under the airport at a cost of around £1bn.
If the SNP tries to kill the rail link and the trams, the Parliament faces a choice. There is no doubt that the opposition parties combined could effectively bring down this government over the issue. All that is necessary is a motion of no confidence in Salmond, if he defies the collective will of Parliament. If the SNP leader loses the vote, he has to stand down while the opposition parties attempt to unite behind an alternative first minister. If they can't agree, and no new first minister is elected by Parliament within 28 days, there has to be another election. If the opposition parties wanted to prolong the agony, they could wait until the autumn and refuse to endorse the SNP's budget, which would of course be predicated on the abolition of the Edinburgh projects.
However, the opposition parties are increasingly aware that forcing an election is very much the nuclear option. The danger, if they bring down the Salmond government too early in the administration, is that the SNP could gain at their expense in the subsequent election. The Scottish voters are in no mood to go back to the polling booths after the chaotic parliamentary election in May, when there were 140,000 spoiled ballot papers. In many constituencies, the number of spoiled papers exceeded the size of the winning candidate's majority, and the episode has undermined confidence in the democratic process in Scotland. It will take time for this to be restored.
Moreover, the historical precedents are not encouraging for the opposition parties. In 1966 and October 1974, in Westminster, when minority Labour governments went to the country to seek a mandate after failing to survive, they were returned with substantially increased majorities. The voters wanted to see what these administrations were capable of if they were given the means to govern. The same might well happen with the SNP, who have a highly effective leader and have had a surprisingly good press since the election. Salmond might only have been in office for a matter of weeks, but he has already made his mark. His acceptance speeches were highly praised for their wit and wisdom, and he has been credited with introducing an element of real statesmanship into the role. Since he took office, he has not only reformed the structure of the Scottish Executive but also moved to reform relations with Westminster.
The machinery of joint ministerial subcommittees, envisaged in the Scotland Act as a means of resolving issues between Holyrood and London, had fallen into disuse under Labour. Salmond has revived them, and has made a bid to lead fishing talks in Europe. He has also called for the reconvening of the powerful joint plenary ministerial committee set up in 1999 by the UK government to resolve disputes between the devolved administrations and Westminster. The committee, nicknamed the Council of the Nations, was chaired by the prime minister and included the first ministers and other senior ministers from the devolved administrations. But it has not sat since 2002. When Salmond meets Ian Paisley, Northern Ireland's first minister, in Belfast this month, this will be high on the agenda.
So, Salmond intends to make full use of the prestige prerogatives of office, even if he has no formal majority in Parliament. But he has the authority of the victorious. The SNP won a stunning election victory in May, gaining 20 seats on a 6% swing from Labour, and against a very hostile Scottish press.
The results in local government are even more striking. Labour has been reduced to having outright control in only two out of the 32 Scottish local authorities, down from 13. The SNP has doubled its councillors to 386 and now shares power in ten councils, including Aberdeen and Edinburgh. This is the political seed corn of the future.
After 50 years of Labour hegemony, the political map of Scotland has changed irrevocably. So, maybe Salmond is a revolutionary after all.
Iain Macwhirter is political commentator on the Sunday Herald